Recycling climate history: Advice for COP26

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"NASA Study: First Direct Proof of Ozone Hole Recovery Due to Chemicals Ban." Image: NASA/Flickr

During the first 12 days in November, world leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the November COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference as they try to work together to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

By looking backwards upon previous successes on global efforts to reduce emissions, global leaders have an opportunity to move forward and achieve their goals. 

In 1976, atmospheric research revealed that industrial chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) -- used in aerosol sprays, refrigeration and air conditioners -- were harming the ozone; the atmospheric layer that absorbs ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Without it, life on the surface of the planet is threatened, the ability of plants and trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere is degraded, and, cancer risks increase.

In 1985, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey published a study in the journal Nature detailing the depletion of the ozone in the southern hemisphere. Two years later, 197 nations signed the Montreal Protocol, establishing a framework for international co-operation which proved successful. In August of this year, Nature concluded the ban on CFCs avoided a scorched Earth scenario in which the ozone layer would have broken down by the late 2040s. Instead, it's regenerating.

An achievement worth re-visiting.

In 2015, 196 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement, promising to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. That's 29 years from now. It's not possible to predict the future, but the numbers don't inspire confidence.

In it's 2020 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, the World Meteorological Organization reported that the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere -- the main cause of climate change -- reached a new record high of 410.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2019, compared to 400 ppm in 2015.

Currently, the planet's temperature is 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- consisting of climate experts from around the world -- predicts a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

As the Earth warms, scientists at NASA predict extreme weather events such as droughts and heatwaves that put human life in jeopardy. In June, British Columbia experienced a heatwave proving this point. For four days, many parts of the province experienced sustained daytime temperatures close to or over 40C. The B.C. Coroners Service reported at least 777 people died from the heat between June 25 and July 1. The yearly average is 198.

The situation is bleak but not hopeless.

Using computer models scientists and researchers have extrapolated current greenhouse emission data and the cost of new technologies. They created virtual worlds that were then forced to limit their fossil fuel use. Some models showed that people responded by changing their lifestyle, moving to energy-efficient housing and giving up cars in favour of public transit. Other worlds showed that energy consumption was still high, but emissions were improved using clean energy sources such as solar or wind farms. Plants that burned wood or other biofuels were outfitted to capture and store the CO2 released. The end results all came to the same conclusion. According to the International Institute for Applied Systems in Austria, multiple paths to carbon neutral were found that were innovative, cost effective and met the Paris target by 2050.

It wasn't easy in the 1980s and 90s for industry and businesses to eliminate the use of CFCs and repair the ozone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated the cost of eliminating CFCs in the U.S. to be $45 billion, but this was more than offset by the $32 trillion saved in not treating skin cancers or damage to crops.

Paul Young, the lead scientist and author of the 2021 Nature journal findings told CNN that while the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November will present more complex issues than banning CFCs, the quick response to that problem in the 1980s was a good example of how effective international climate agreements can be. That's encouraging, because Canadians are worried.

In July, Abacus Data conducted a survey for the Canadian Institute of Climate Choices. They found that 52 per cent of Canadians were concerned about climate change. These results were consistent with an Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of Global News between August 20-23 in which a majority of respondents considered climate change one of the top five current election issues. Three-quarters (74 per cent) of those surveyed agreed that Canada has a global obligation to lead on climate change. Voters with allegiance to all major political parties (Liberal, Conservative, Green, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois) indicated that whoever is elected the next prime minister must be able to work internationally and co-operatively on the climate change file.

The virtual models scientists used to predict a carbon neutral world didn't factor in political obstruction or human preference; instead, they made it clear that international co-operation was essential -- with rich countries helping poorer ones cut their emissions. The issue is complex, but could the solution be as simple as history and science record?

Jennifer Cole is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, B.C. with a history degree from Simon Fraser University.

Image: NASA/Flickr

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