When all the snow has melted, we’ll go to look for the old path, The one with brambles growing over it,
Behind the monastery wall; everything will be the way it used to be.
– Primo Levi
Here is a statistic to intrigue every worried climatologist among us: while Britain’s coal emissions have fallen to 24 million tons a year, China’s coal emissions have surged to eight billion tons a year.
Reflect on that for a moment. While Britain’s coal emissions are now at levels not seen since the late 18th century, China has moved in the opposite direction. “One year’s rise in China will outscore the whole of Britain’s emissions for a year,” says former prime minister Tony Blair.
Although Indonesia is the biggest coal exporter to China, South African exports to Beijing have shot up from virtually zero to 560 000 tons a quarter in the space of a single year. South Africa’s contribution to global warming is not only what its own coal-fired power stations are putting out, but also its exported coal burning elsewhere. Eskom burns 90 million tons of coal annually, dramatically outpacing all European countries: Germany, the highest coal user, burns 26 million tons.
While the developed world’s emissions are going down, the developing world’s are going up as it seeks to draw level, economically speaking. And the paradox is that China, while burning all this coal, is simultaneously building more electric cars and solar panels than anyone else. Eventually, China will give up coal and rely on renewable energy like the rich countries, but the global zero emissions goal of 2050 agreed at recent climate conferences is probably too optimistic a target at this stage.
As a result, we’ll have to rethink our approach to global warming, now that it’s official: all global average heat records were broken this year. In the northern hemisphere, July was the hottest since records began in 1940.
But we ordinary mortals don’t need reams of statistics to convince us the planet is warming up at an alarming speed, the cause of which all the experts point to as being greenhouse gas emissions. A cursory glance at headlines this past month or so underlines the depths of the crisis. Ice is melting at both poles and on high mountain ranges like the Andes and the Himalayas. Apocalyptic fires raging across the world have forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and holiday centres.
Extreme weather events such as rain, giant hail storms (which caused unprecedented havoc in Germany and Italy last month) and lethal heatwaves in particular have killed thousands – last year, some 62 000 people died in the EU alone from heat-related issues, and this year’s figures have yet to emerge, but are expected to be higher. And the knock-on effects in nature are equally dramatic, with extensive coral bleaching being reported for the first time in parts of the ocean hitherto unaffected; all kinds of sea creatures normally resident in warmer seas have begun to show up in European waters, especially around the coast of Britain.
The warmer weather, incidentally, has led to an over-production of British wines. The far-sighted vineyard investments by big French champagne producers in the garden county of Kent have paid off handsomely, it seems. This year alone, there has been a 74% increase in vineyard plantings in Wales and England, and the trend will likely continue.
Insurance companies have also hiked up their premiums in dramatic fashion to anticipate claims caused by the unusual weather, ranging from flooding to fires and subsidence – a quarter of London homes are now said to be “at risk” from foundations drying out too rapidly. We can expect to see many more such straws in the wind, as 2023 segues towards 2024.
Ringing the alarm bells
A popular invention in the 18th and 19th centuries was a “safety” coffin fitted with a mechanism – usually a bell with a cord attached to a hand of the corpse – to allow the occupant to signal that they had accidentally been interred while still alive. Being buried alive haunted the popular imagination. Edgar Allan Poe’s great novel, The pit and the pendulum, drew heavily on such nightmarish tropes.
Today, we are all metaphorically still afraid of being buried alive, only this time under an invisible cloud of carbon dioxide strangling our planet. The equivalent to our coffin bells are planetary temperature readings that go back to 1940, and they are ringing furiously. We are alive, but buried. Get us out of here, we cry! But is it too late to do anything about it?
There are many who think so: “Stop Oil” activists gluing themselves to roads, causing traffic chaos, is the latest sign of public disquiet, even panic. Radio, TV and the press have also contributed to a feeling of doom, headlining beach evacuations of tourists against a backdrop of flame.
But our awareness of man’s assault on the natural world is actually nothing new – we were warned of the danger as far back as 1962, when Rachel Carson’s prophetic book, Silent spring, documented the environmental harm caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. This book was our original coffin bell – it swayed public opinion and not only led to a nationwide ban on, for example, DDT for agricultural purposes, but triggered an environmental movement that led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. They began to investigate a wide range of threats to the natural environment of the planet, sparking similar initiatives by other governments, as well as international organisations like the UN.
It hasn’t all been smooth going, but thanks to Silent spring and even far-sighted environmentalists like King Charles – whose youthful eccentric habit of talking to plants doesn’t seem so potty now – 40 years later, the world has by and large taken notice. When it comes to greenhouse gas, mankind is more alert to the need to tackle the reduction of harmful emissions into our atmosphere. The most dramatically successful example of this has been the worldwide containment of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) in refrigeration plants and home fridges, which were destroying the ozone layer.
Where are we today? The positive news
We are actually a long way down the road when it comes to reducing our carbon outputs. There is already a solid history half a century in the making. Although it often doesn’t seem as if anything much is happening, when we are confronted with the latest lurid TV clips of runaway fires in our boiling world, there are nonetheless grounds for cautious optimism that, as in the case of HCFCs, we may yet succeed in reducing CO2 output in the medium term, and so cap world temperature rises.
In the round, it is clear that a large range of explicit steps have long been taken by industry, eg, building, architecture, city planning, motoring, banking, agriculture and the heating and domestic housing sectors, to reduce carbon emissions. In most cases, these steps revolve around the attainment of best practice low carbon standards in the industry in question, which can be measured metrically and certified for the public to see.
Banks, for example, these days generally evaluate the environmental risks associated with their loans and investments. They increasingly choose projects that align with eco-friendly technologies, renewable energy and sustainable practices. By incorporating environmental factors into their risk assessments, banks can make “due diligence” decisions that reflect future consequences of their investment.
The motor car industry also has standards that promote transparency and accountability. They are expected to disclose where they source their raw materials, eg, for electric car batteries. The very fact that many governments in the industrialised world are legislating for an end, within the next decade, to the production of new internal combustion engines, with electric zero carbon emission replacements, is a sign that things are happening. A revolution in transport is at hand. The shipping industry is also sitting up and taking notice, as are the airlines. It is likely that cheap flights will disappear under pressure to limit flying until jet engines are “clean” – the first all-electric planes have already had test flights.
Hand in glove with industry’s focus on reducing carbon output is the application of new technology to enable so-called “carbon capture” – and to liquefy and store the captured carbon in depleted oil reserves deep underground.
Hand in glove with industry’s focus on reducing carbon output is the application of new technology to enable so-called “carbon capture” – and to liquefy and store the captured carbon in depleted oil reserves deep underground. “It’s hard to imagine a future where we actually solve climate change without carbon capture,” says John Thompson, markets and technology director at the Clean Air Task Force, which supports carbon capture and tracks project announcements. Modelling indicates that carbon capture will, realistically, be absolutely essential if we are to reach net zero one day. Backers of the technology say it’s an imperative for steel, cement and chemical plants, where there’s no good substitute for fossil fuels, which they’ll have to continue using.
Enormous government subsidies are already resulting in a major expansion of carbon capture units – especially in the United States, where the technology was developed. Inevitably, carbon capture will soon become commonplace across the world, and this will in turn trigger a boom in retrofitting older factories with carbon capture technology, providing useful employment opportunities.
Global agriculture also plays a critical role in addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As demand for food has increased, the agriculture sector has been implementing various positive measures to mitigate its environmental impact. Many farmers are adopting sustainable agriculture techniques such as conservation tillage, crop rotation and agroforestry. These practices enhance soil health, increase carbon sequestration and reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers, thereby minimising greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural operations.
Although the giant agro-companies – which increasingly dominate world food production, supplying everything from fertiliser and seed to harvesting, often owning the land as well – frequently come under fire for monopoly practices, they may in fact be the key to efficient carbon reduction, precisely because they are so large and therefore well placed to implement environmental standards at a scale big enough to make a difference. Monoculture is what they are concerned with: sugar, wheat, corn, vegetables, fruit, grapes, soy, beef, cotton, palm oil and fisheries, among many examples. They have been heavily influenced by – and indeed, as members, support the work of – the so-called “round tables” that have developed sustainable standards for the industry and crop in question. So, for example, the sugar round table, “Bonsucro”, requires its members to comply with metrically measurable farming and factory practices aimed at achieving a reduction in greenhouse gas, improved biodiversity and strict adherence to workers’ rights, often as defined by UN bodies.
This is typical of all other main crops as well. The certification that follows standards compliance then allows for consumer brand recognition of a green product. The process goes all the way down the supply line to the supermarket – transport of goods, storage, etc – everything comes under catalogued sustainability scrutiny.
Farming goes space-age
Farm production practices have changed dramatically over the past 30 years to adapt to the changing sustainability needs. For example, the implementation of precision farming technologies, such as GPS-guided machinery and remote sensing, allows farmers to optimise resource use, such as with water and fertilisers, leading to more efficient and eco-friendly practices.
Livestock farming is also a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. To address this, farmers are adopting improved feed formulations, better waste management systems, and methane digesters, which capture methane emissions and convert them into usable energy.
Likewise, agricultural facilities are increasingly incorporating renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines into power farm operations. By reducing reliance on fossil fuels, these farms lower their carbon footprint and contribute to a cleaner energy future.
Carbon farming involves practices that increase the soil’s capacity to absorb and retain carbon dioxide. These techniques can include cover cropping, no-till farming, and reforestation.
Then, there is the emergence of an ancient practice with a modern result: carbon farming. Carbon farming involves practices that increase the soil’s capacity to absorb and retain carbon dioxide. These techniques can include cover cropping, no-till farming, and reforestation – all practices which sequester carbon, enhance soil fertility and add soil resilience.
There is also no shortage of money involved in the search for agricultural ways of reducing carbon. Research stations are to be found in every country, and their work includes developing climate-resilient crop varieties, advanced breeding techniques and more efficient agricultural machinery. Agricultural supply chains are also being restructured to reduce emissions at various stages of production, processing and distribution. Sustainable transportation, reduced food waste and energy-efficient storage facilities all contribute to lowering the sector’s overall carbon footprint.
It has the small-scale farmer in mind as well
Farmers’ markets are popping up everywhere these days, reconnecting towns and cities to the countryside. Unlike with a lot of supermarket food, farmers’ markets promote local food producers’ wares: the local egg lady, the guy who makes his own bread with enough left over to sell, the allotment holder selling strawberries picked that morning. Olives and olive oil pressed locally, cheeses from the nearest farm – local government has not been slow off the mark when it comes to promoting the trend.
As a result, governments worldwide are adopting climate-smart agricultural policies that incentivise sustainable practices and promote low-carbon farming methods. These measures create a conducive environment for farmers to adopt emissions-reducing practices in order to win organic produce labels. You will often find, hand in glove with the new approach to growing things, evidence of good water management, optimising the use of water for irrigation purposes, reducing energy consumption in water pumping, and relying on practices developed by former generations of farmers.
Consumer awareness is increasing
Increasing awareness among consumers about the environmental impact of their food choices is also prompting a demand for sustainably produced goods. There is a trend by European shoppers, for example, to refuse to buy avocados or beans, and the like, which have been flown in from distant countries by air. They want local produce as their preference.
By and large, then, the global agriculture sector is actively taking positive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Through the adoption of sustainable practices, renewable energy integration, research and innovation, and climate-smart policies, agriculture is becoming a vital player in the fight against climate change. These efforts not only help mitigate global warming, but also ensure food security and a more resilient agricultural system for the future.
The future looks greener
And that is mainly down to global warming. The planet is greener than it was 40 years ago, especially at the desert margins, where drought resistance is critical; this more abundant vegetation has been confirmed by recent satellite images. The remarkable planetary greening is the result of a little over a 30% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrial levels in the late 18th century.
And despite the argument that green energy is a pious luxury for the rich West while the developing world spews out carbon, and notwithstanding the current enormous consumption of coal in, for example, China, greenhouse emissions in much of the world are believed to have peaked. Latin America is leading the way, while China has an enormous expansion of wind and solar power underway in the deserts of Mongolia. Observers believe that Chinese carbon emissions will begin a precipitous descent within the next few years, by which time most Chinese will be driving electric cars. In both the West and East, given the technological switch to electric transport, liquid fuel imports will plummet and energy prices reduce by some 20%, giving a boost to economic activity.
This year’s fires have been a big wake-up call to local authorities everywhere. It is now common cause that the Canadian and American fires last year were the result of neglected forestry management, where brushwood was allowed to pile up and firebreaks be grown over. The same fault seems to be at the root cause of the fires in Portugal, Greece, Italy, France and elsewhere. Forest management will have to be better funded, because it’s going to get even warmer in the years ahead.
Current speculation in the European press is that cooler countries like the UK, Sweden and others in the northern zones will benefit from global warming agriculturally and touristically. There have been predictions that with the ice melt in Antarctica and warmer weather generally, an entire new zone of the world will open up for economic development.
Things rarely turn out as bad as one expects, and mankind can certainly cope with global warming. Bottom line: temperatures will continue to break records, but the apogee of carbon use is in sight.
Things rarely turn out as bad as one expects, and mankind can certainly cope with global warming. Bottom line: temperatures will continue to break records, but the apogee of carbon use is in sight. There is close international cooperation and agreement on what to do, from farming to industry sectors, and they are already doing it. Some countries will do worse than others, depending on the extent to which climate change is politicised; migration will increase as some areas become too hot to live in. Overall, the planet will be greener and there’ll be more rain, but storms will be fiercer, flooding will be frequent and communities will have to adapt with different weather-proofed housing.
I’m actually feeling fairly reassured that the future our grandchildren face will not be as bleak as is often painted. Viva planet Earth!
 With acknowledgement to Caroline Moorehead, A house in the mountains, Vintage.
 Daily Telegraph, 13 August
 The Guardian, 13 August.
The author is a regular contributor to LitNet. He has an interest in, inter alia, environmental matters. He was the first recipient of the Bonsucro Sustainability Award in 2011 and is a former Chair of Council of the UN International Sugar Organization.