2021 is turning out to be another year of climate disasters. Just two weeks on from an unprecedented heatwave that brought record high temperatures to US cities like Portland and Seattle, and caused a fire that burnt down the Canadian small town of Lytton, the intensity of extreme weather events around the world hasn’t let up.
This week, catastrophic flooding in western Germany and Belgium following extreme rainfall has resulted in entire localities being washed away by dramatically swollen rivers. Over a 100 people have been killed by the floods and more than 1,200 people remain unaccounted for. With more rains predicted in the region, the scale of the disaster may well rise.
What has caused alarm among climate scientists is that the flooding carries the tell-tale sign of climate disaster: that it’s unprecedented and abnormal for the region. Dieter Garten, a climatologist at the Potsdam Institute told the Guardian, “I am surprised by how far it is above the previous record…This week’s event is totally untypical for that region. It lasted a long time and affected a wide area.” Johannes Quaas, a meteorologist at Leipzig University told DW, “This is the new normal. Climate change is also changing the definition of normal weather. We are slowly approaching a new normal that includes different rainfall patterns.”
Meanwhile, a heatwave hit Russia with Moscow experiencing near record high temperatures not seen in decades. Around the same time, fulfilling a warning issued by scientists two years ago when the Amazon rainforest caught fire, a new report has now confirmed that the forest is no longer functioning as a carbon sink. The Amazon is now emitting more CO2 (a billion tonnes every year) than it is absorbing. That's about the same as the annual emissions of Japan.
All this bad news serves to underline the fact that the effects of the climate crisis are already here and the world’s governments are playing catch-up in trying to effectively reduce planet heating emissions. The recent G7 summit of the world’s wealthiest nations in June failed to deliver anything substantial by way of climate policies, beyond the usual platitudes about carbon neutrality. Although individual countries like the US have upped their climate ambition, research has shown that it remains nowhere near enough. The UK has an ambitious net zero policy, but the Boris Johnson government has been criticized for not walking the talk by slashing foreign aid. With just over three months to go for the crucial UN climate summit at Glasgow in the UK in November, the hope is that signs of climate emergency at the doorstep of rich nations will force them to act.
In 2020, the European Union (EU) had pledged to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 55% by 2030, as against 1990 levels. A few days ago, the bloc announced new proposals that it hopes will make it carbon neutral by 2050. These include plans to tax aviation fuel and also phase out sales of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2035. While the proposals will need to be agreed upon by all member countries as well as by industries, it’s at least a concrete step. Meanwhile, reeling from the heatwaves, Russia President Vladimir Putin, who has long been a climate change denier, has reportedly told the US that climate change is a problem, and that he’d be willing to work with the US to stop it.
As characters in Game Of Thrones are fond of saying, “words are wind”, so it remains to be seen if western countries will address crucial climate related policies like honouring their climate finance targets and laying out a clear roadmap for ending fresh emissions at the November climate summit.