Investing in clean energy technologies now to save the planet and achieve equality and peace: reflections on the eve of COP27

The 27th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP 27) will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, from 6 – 18 November 2022. The conference brings together leaders from all countries to agree on intensifying global action to solve the climate crisis

Addressing climate change is the biggest challenge of the 21st century. The recently concluded October has been the warmest ever in Europe, with temperatures 8-10 degrees Celsius above average. The catastrophic effects of global warming such as droughts, the melting of glaciers, and the rising of sea levels have been proved by scientific evidence and hit mainly vulnerable people in developing countries. The Conference of the Parties (COP27), which formally gathers the 198 parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), aims to implement concrete outcomes to address the emergency, particularly the target to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

Inspired by its mission of global cooperation for the Common Good, the Strategic Alliance of Catholic Research Universities (SACRU) has collected insights from its experts on the topic from a multidisciplinary perspective. SACRU is a network composed of eight Catholic Universities from four different continents. The contributions represent the personal views of individual academics and are not intended as the official positions of SACRU and its partner Universities.

Contributions by experts – SACRU Universities

Boston College (United States of America)

Written by Philip J. Landrigan, Professor of Biology and Director of the Program in Global Public Health

The UN Climate Change Conference of 2022

Climate change is the existential challenge of our age. It threatens the health and well-being of all people and the sustainability of modern societies.  It is rooted in injustice and inimical to the common good. The main driver of climate change is sharp increase in levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. The principal source of this CO2 is combustion of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas. CO2 in the atmosphere is a heat insulator, a ‘blanket’ around the earth. It traps the sun’s heat and heat produced by human activity. Increasing CO2 levels have caused the earth’s surface temperature to warm by 1.0 degree centigrade since 1880. The rate of increase has accelerated since 1970.

Warming of the earth’s surface drives climate change. It causes the seas to warm and glaciers to melt. It increases the frequency and intensity of heat waves and hurricanes. It increases the frequency and severity of droughts, floods and wildfires. Climate change and its consequences harm human health.  Heat waves cause deaths from heat shock and dehydration.  Rising sea levels, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires kill people and destroy communities. Droughts cause crop failure, malnutrition, migration and even war. Climate change is deeply inequitable. It disproportionately harms the poor and the vulnerable, the elderly and young children. People in small island nations are especially at risk. Climate scientists warn that we must limit increase in the earth’s temperature to below 2.0, or preferably 1.5 degrees Centigrade to avoid catastrophe. To achieve this goal, 196 nations adopted the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, on 12 December 2015. Under the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to pre-industrial levels by 2050 and to build resilience to adapt to the impacts of rising temperatures.

Implementation of the Paris Agreement will require wide-scale economic and social transformation. Rapid transition to renewable energy – wind and solar – and ending dependence on fossil fuels are key elements of this transformation. To track progress on climate action and mobilize the world’s leaders to fulfil national commitments on CO2 reduction, the United Nations convenes an annual Conference of the Parties, the nations that signed the Paris Agreement. COP 27 will be held this November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Its goal is to achieve full implementation of the Paris Agreement. The world’s future depends on its success.

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Italy)

Written by Roberto Zoboli, Full Professor of Economic Policy, and Simone Tagliapietra, Researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences

Europe’s grand energy reshuffle

In energy annuals, 2022 will be remembered as the year of Europe’s great energy crisis. This year, Europe has experienced an energy situation every bit as concerning as the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, which profoundly impacted the global energy and political order. Over the course of the year, three shocks have rapidly converged, pushing the continent into an energy crisis and upending Europe’s energy market: the effects of Covid-19; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and related sanctions on oil and gas; and a series of unlucky coincidences.

Public policy has discouraged upstream fossil fuel investment, but has not accelerated sufficiently the deployment of alternative clean energy sources or reductions in fossil fuel demand. This has resulted in a profound energy supply-demand imbalance in the context of the bounce back of global energy demand after the peak COVID-19 crisis. Next came Russia’s weaponization of energy and its invasion of Ukraine. Russia has been manipulating European natural gas markets since summer 2021 by substantially reducing exports and failing to refill Gazprom-owned storage sites in the EU ahead of last winter. This move, initially considered to be part of Russia’s strategy to push Germany towards a quick certification and entry into operation of the newly built Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saw another potential explanation when war began.

Since spring, Russia has used its remaining supplies as a geopolitical weapon to divide the European front in support of Ukraine, notably, by reneging on long-term supply contracts that were considered sacred by European partners. After initial cut-offs to Poland and Bulgaria, Gazprom cut supplies to a dozen additional European countries and substantially reduced flows to its main markets Germany and Italy. By early July, Russia was only sending one-third of previously anticipated volumes of gas overall. As a result, gas prices in the EU have exploded more than tenfold and governments are nervously trying to protect consumers against this price shock by handing out billions in subsidies. Europe managed to compensate for reduced Russian supplies by importing record levels of liquified natural gas (LNG), most notably from the US. At the same time, several new gas deals have been signed by European governments with alternative suppliers, namely in Africa, with additional supplies expected to come online in the next years.

Finally, a series of unlucky coincidences exacerbated an already tight energy situation. Corrosion problems pushed France to temporarily shut down half of its nuclear power plants, increasing the need for gas in power generation. A severe drought in parts of Europe, compromised not only hydropower generation, but also thermal plants that require cooling and coal-fired power plants that rely on waterways to deliver coal. As extreme weather events become more frequent, this situation raises a longer-term issue around the impacts of climatic change in electricity production.

While Europe focuses on the short-term solutions that are necessary to tackle the crisis, it must not delay the deployment of long-term solutions to reduce fossil fuel consumption.  Investment in clean energy technology and the associated infrastructure is an essential part of escaping the energy crisis and meeting the EU’s decarbonisation targets. This crisis is an opportunity to invest in further connecting Europe’s energy grids, which will improve resilience to future shocks and facilitate a cost-efficient transition. One estimate from the green think-tank Ember, is that the EU must double the pace of wind and solar deployment to meet its goals based on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The current permitting process is slow and cited as a major obstacle to rapid renewables deployment; this should be simplified and accelerated. Scaling up deployment of renewables and long duration storage, more rapid electrification for heating, public transport solutions and clean mobility, among many other decarbonisations measures, should all be reinforced. Such long-term investment will improve energy security and decisively eliminate Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Choices over how to manage limited energy supply will shape the future of Europe’s energy system. If managed correctly, deeper integration and accelerated investment can allow Europe to defeat Putin’s strategy while also pushing the transition toward cleaner and more affordable energy.

Universitat Ramon Llull (Spain)

Written by Núria Llaverías, Climate Action Coordinator

Transforming the way we interact with the planet – Omukisa project

With the latest IPCC reports underlining the seriousness of climate change, governments, the private sector and civil society need to work together to transform the way we interact with our planet. Universities have a crucial role to play here. They collaborate to find new solutions and explore ways to implement them in developing countries. Beyond the contributions in advanced research that universities make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is important to highlight students’ participation in collaborative projects during the completion of their final undergraduate and master’s degree projects.

As an example, I would like to share with you the Omukisa project, with which we collaborate from IQS. Omukisa is a temporary shelter to guarantee fundamental rights and facilitate the social reintegration of minors who have lived on the street in Iganga, a district of Uganda. It works with local partner PECA Women and Children’s Foundation. This indigenous organisation exists to promote the efforts of women and children to achieve gender equality, equity, and well-being in Uganda. The project aims to create safe spaces for street children through rescue, rehabilitation, family follow-up, education, vocational training, and psychological support.

Thanks to this collaboration, two final degrees and master’s projects have focused on designing, sizing, building, and maintaining a water collection and distribution system. They have built a well with a solar-powered pump and a water tank. In this way, the community can use the water from the well for free and whenever they need it. Access to clean water and sanitation encourages better hygiene and waste management habits. It also ensures that the community can feed themselves all year round, allowing their vegetable plantations to stay alive in the dry seasons. In addition, all the time spent fetching water can be used for study, vocational training, and gainful employment.

Finally, the students have written a technical guide to enable the local team and other people or entities, mainly from underdeveloped countries, to understand these systems and to make these constructions. I believe that the role of the University as an actor in cooperation for Sustainable Development against climate change is to transmit knowledge. We must provide sustainable solutions, work with local labour and resources and generate citizen participation.

 Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Chile)

 Written by Maryon Urbina, Director of Sustainability

Higher Education Institutions and their role in the fight against climate change

During this month, the twenty-seventh version of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (COP 27) will be held in Egypt. It will discuss the challenges and objectives that humanity faces in the fight against climate change and the ways and commitments that nations are taking to limit global warming to 1.5° above the pre-industrial era. Year after year, evidence is added, and the message of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the urgency of taking ambitious and immediate action is reinforced, as we have already warmed the planet by 1.1 degrees Celsius. Above 1.5 degrees Celsius, the impacts of climate change will become more intense and more frequent, putting at risk the way of life of humanity and other species as we know it today.

Higher education institutions are called to contribute to the solution, but how? From the generation of new knowledge that allows addressing from science and innovation the challenges in energy, water, mobility, and agriculture, to mention a few; from the training of professionals capable of transforming the development model towards a sustainable one; from the generation of awareness in our society while providing information and ways to take action; from the contribution to public policy; and also from the internal coherence, generating university models capable of exemplifying with their community and daily operation on campus, that a sustainable way of living is possible.

Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Laudato Si’, has made a strong call to contribute to the care of the common home, and as Catholic institutions, we cannot be oblivious to this appeal. The negotiation between countries that will take place in Egypt is of utmost relevance, but let us not forget that all actions count. As institutions, we must be able to keep the issue on our agenda and maintain permanent action to reduce the effects of the climate emergency we are experiencing today.

Australian Catholic University (Australia)

The key to preserving the world’s largest rainforest

In parts of the Amazon, the stark contrast between forested and deforested areas can be seen clearly in aerial images. If this deforestation trend continues, scientists believe the Amazon will reach a tipping point. Meanwhile, illegal logging, mining and forest fires are surging, especially in Brazil, which holds more than 60 per cent of the Amazon within its borders.   ACU’s Dr Kathryn Baragwanath is a political scientist whose work explores the political economy of natural resources and environmental politics, with a focus on Latin America. She believes Brazil’s recent presidential election result is crucial for the future of the Amazon.

“The new president, Lula da Silva, has signalled a strong commitment to preserving the Amazon, protecting Indigenous people’s rights and reaching a zero-deforestation target,” she says.“It’s a welcome shift in the lead-up to the United Nations climate conference, COP27. But Lula still faces stiff challenges in delivering his promise to protect the rainforest.” Dr Baragwanath’s current research looks at whether the country’s system of protected areas and Indigenous territories has helped to curb deforestation. Her analysis of property titles and historical satellite data going back three decades showed that the areas where Indigenous groups had full ownership rights saw a 66 per cent reduction in the rate of deforestation. The landmark study’s findings come with an important caveat. Historically speaking, it is only when the land has gone through the process of homologação, or homologation, that Indigenous peoples can properly safeguard the forest.

Under Brazil’s constitution, homologation is the final step in designating land as Indigenous property and is signed off by the country’s president. Since taking power in January 2019, the Bolsonaro government eroded protections for Indigenous land, it also smoothed the way for deforestation, making it easier for the Amazon to be developed for mining, agriculture and other economic activity. It is almost certain that the refusal to grant full property rights to more Indigenous territories has contributed to the escalation of land-clearing. While there is no single solution to slowing deforestation and ultimately saving the rainforest from collapse, Dr Baragwanath says that the land rights and traditional conservation practices of the Amazon’s Indigenous tribes must be prioritised and respected. “The protection of Indigenous territories serves a human-rights role, recognising these peoples’ original right to land,” she says. “But they are also a cost-effective way for governments to preserve the Amazon rainforest, which is important for the future of Brazil, and the rest of the world in our attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Universidade Católica Portuguesa (Portugal)

Written by Margarida Silva, Professor of the Faculty of Biotechnology

Countering indifference and selfishness

Every time countries come together for a major event on climate change – such as COP27 – saving the climate seems to be the one goal delegates have in mind. Reasonable, too. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to which this Conference of the Parties belongs, came into force in 1994, but we were already trying to save the climate at the Earth Summit in 1992, at the First World Climate Conference in 1979 or indeed at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment which sparked it all.

But according to the latest trends, it doesn’t seem to be working. A recent article in The Guardian made it clear right at the title: “Atmospheric levels of all three greenhouse gases hit a record high.” Greta Thunberg, an unlikely hero in international politics, warns we’re “missing the fact we’re running against time.” So, for at least 50 years, countries have known about the climate challenge (scientifically, it’s since 1896), and it is still getting worse. Why? Could it be that we missed something? Are we looking at the wrong target? Let’s entertain that thought for a moment. Climate has always changed throughout the planet’s history, meaning this is nothing new. Nature has seen it all and knows how to deal with it: life adapts and evolves in a tight dance synced with the climate variables.

This effectively means climate is in no danger at all. But we are. As a society and as a species, we may not make it to the other side. Could it be we’re not even trying? After 50 years of addressing a worldwide emergency… failure is all around us. Yet we’re still trying without asking what failed. Truth is, we’re unable to see it’s not working because we don’t really want it to work. Change is uncomfortable, and scary. Unless we see the ocean knocking at our door, we’d rather reschedule for the next COP. Except we are COPping out. So here’s what we really need saving from: greed, selfishness, and indifference. How about we table those to the COP’s agenda?

Sophia University (Japan)

Written by Anne McDonald, Director of the Island Sustainability Institute

Taking Note of Island Voices

Flashback to 1995. 6 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, global leaders met to discuss the first multi-lateral environmental agreement on climate change. Island Nations marshaled the call to action. Led by the voices of Hon Isaac V. Figir of FSM and H.E.T. Neroni Slade of Samoa, island nations rang the warning alarms about the realities of climate change and the urgency for collective global action. Climate change, they argued, was not a future possibility but a living reality. If they were the canary in the coal mine sitting on the frontlines of climate change, what was happening in small island nations, was the beginning of what was yet to come on a larger global scale.

Fast forward to 2022. Scientific evidence of global warming is now unequivocal. Climate scientists say the last eight years were the warmest in recorded human history. As we enter the climate talks in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt, the recently published 2022 edition of UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report: Too Little, Too Slow – Climate adaptation failure puts the world at risk underlines the urgency of Island States voices. Darkly put, the current trends are on a dangerous trajectory of too hot, too wet, and too dry. According to the report, extreme heatwaves, devastating flooding, and droughts have adversely impacted millions of people and cost billions. Failure to take action will result in aggregate costs for future generations. Further, the cost of inaction will be far greater than the socio-economic and environmental costs of taking action.

Inaction should not be an option. Not only will inaction increase the vulnerability of the Island States and other vulnerable populations on the frontlines of climate change, but the estimated economic stresses due to climate change project losses of US$63 billion per year starting in 2010. Experts expect this impact will rise by more than 100 percent to US$157 billion annually by 2030. More importantly, if we focus on Island States voices and their call to action to combat climate change since the 1990s, when we think of vulnerability the Average Annual Losses (AAL) as a percentage of GDP is much higher in small island developing states (SIDS) compared with the global average. Take, for example, the Caribbean region). The cost of inaction in the Caribbean alone is projected to amount to over US$22 billion annually by 2050 and US$46 billion by 2100 – equalling 10 percent and 22 percent of the current size of the Caribbean economy.

As island voices gain strength on the global stage, they reverberate about climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Impacts are evolving in a plutonian spider-web-like configuration. As the magnitude of extreme weather events increases, the need for integrative approaches addressing the intertwined natural and human system-related impacts of climate change is all the more evident. In 2015, people were twice as likely to be displaced by a disaster than in the 1970s. According to experts, the sudden and slow onset impacts of climate change are expected to increase people’s internal and cross-border displacement and affect human mobility strategies. It is already happening in island nations. Take, for example, low-lying atoll island countries like Kiribati, Maldives, Seychelles, and the Marshall Islands, where climate migration and related mobility and human security issues top the government climate agenda.

Since COP1, Island Nations have been calling out an SOS for transdisciplinary research knowledge sets. There is an urgent need for the place and context-specific transdisciplinary research that can inform island states, island territory governments, and the international community on the way forward. As Darwin identified, islands are a laboratory for change. Sitting on the frontlines of climate change, in-depth studies of islands – the climate change laboratories – may lead us to develop sustainability solutions for the greater global community.

Pessimists will say the COP26 Glasgow aim to “keep 1.5 alive” alive is dead. Optimists will say, though we’re racing against time, there is still a chance if we stand with the Island States and take responsible collective action.