From the Editorial Board of the Financial Times – 26.6.20
Siberia is one of the coldest inhabited places in the world. But a few days ago, the small Russian town of Verkhoyansk recorded a temperature of 38°C. It was a record high temperature locally and, probably also, for the Arctic Circle. What made the heatwave all the more alarming, however, is that we have been warned that, if the Siberian permafrost were to melt, huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane would be released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.
This year, much of Siberia has been experiencing unusual heat. In May, surface temperatures in parts of the vast Russian region were up to 10°C above average. The immediate consequences have been the melting of ice and snow, outbreaks of large wildfires and a thawing permafrost. The high temperatures, together with above-average heat elsewhere, ensured that May 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest May on record.
Map showing the large area of permafrost in Siberia (dark blue)
Map showing the area of the 2020 Siberian heat wave
The central aim of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate is to keep global warming well below 2°C. Combating climate change is a global effort but the evidence that any concerted action is being taken is slim. There are concerns that the world’s two largest polluters, China and the US, will both fail to curb their emissions. In the US, President Donald Trump’s administration is preparing to withdraw formally from the Paris accord in November. China is already showing signs that the need to stimulate its economy after the coronavirus pandemic is proving greater than a desire to use more low-carbon energy sources. The country is approving plans for new coal power plant capacity at the fastest rate since 2015.
Europe is proving the exception. Here, the European Commission has put climate programmes at the heart of its €1.85tn economic recovery effort. The problem is that a “green” Europe alone will not be enough to combat climate change. Just over 9 per cent of world emissions come from Europe, compared with China’s share of more than 24 per cent. Given what is at stake, the size of the challenge should not be a deterrent for action. There is some scope for optimism. The scale of the energy transition taking place among the oil majors — BP being the latest example — is testament to the progress being made at the sharp end of the climate debate.
There is also evidence that investing in climate change does not have to come at the expense of sustainable economic growth. A recent analysis conducted by the International Energy Agency, together with the IMF, outlined a broad shift to clean power and new investments in areas such as electric vehicles. The plan, which would cost $1tn annually, would create 9m jobs a year and help to cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 4.5bn tonnes once implemented. Policymakers should not ignore the warnings, or the opportunity. Decisions made today will determine not just the future of Siberia but that of the rest of the planet.