Where Are We Up To With Carbon Emissions?

Paul Craine is a member of the Climate Reality Project and is available to provide group presentations on climate change including an Isle of Man perspective. Here he provides an update on the Climate Change Bill, compares the Isle of Man’s emissions to other countries and suggests what work needs to be done.

The Climate Change Bill

In May 2019, the Island’s Chief Minister announced that: “The government recognises the climate change emergency that is facing the planet, and we are committed to acting on this”. 

A Climate Change Bill is now progressing through the chambers of the Manx Parliament, having moved from the House of Keys into the Legislative Council at the start of this month.  Over the next few weeks the Bill will return to the Keys for consideration of any changes made by the Council and then finally progress to Tynwald for approval.  

The headline is that the Bill will make it statutory for the Isle of Man’s carbon emissions to reach net-zero by 2050.

Outside of the legislative chambers, the Climate Change Bill has been deemed ‘unfit for purpose’ by the Isle of Man Climate Change Coalition (IoMCCC) – a group of over 30 local organisations. 

To understand the concerns it may be helpful to examine the Isle of Man’s starting position as we embark on the journey to zero emissions by 2050.

Where are we now?

Figure 1 shows that in 1990 the Island’s emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) amounted to around 540,000 tonnes (CO2 equivalent).  By 2018, the latest year for which figures are available and the baseline for the Climate Change Bill, the carbon output had grown to over 870,000 tonnes. 

This growth in emissions took place despite the extension of the Rio Climate Change Convention to the Isle of Man in 1993, despite Tynwald‘s adoption of an emissions target of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 and despite the ‘first of a series of 5-year plans’ to reduce emissions per person in July 2016. 

Bill Gates, in his new book on climate change suggests that there are just two numbers that anyone needs to know about climate change – how many tonnes of greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere every year – and zero, the target we are aiming for. For the Isle of Man, then, the two numbers would be 870,000 tonnes…. and zero.

We need to recognise that 870,000 tonnes is a very high starting point for a population of under 85,000 – it amounts to an annual 10.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person.  But even this an undercount of the Island’s real contribution to GHGs because it does not take into account the emissions from all those goods imported into the Isle of Man. Our imports of cars, buses, clothing, furniture, foodstuffs, building materials and so on create emissions during their manufacture that will not be counted as ours. 

Zero is the figure we need to reach by 2050 – the Climate Bill will commit us to that target.  We need to reach this, along with all other human communities, to play our part in preventing the worst effects of climate change.  And we need to do this quickly. There really is the potential for the climate emergency to become a disaster, especially for the world’s poorest countries. 

The CO2 we release into the atmosphere is cumulative – it typically remains in the atmosphere for between 300 and 1,000 years   Bill Gates quotes figures suggesting that one fifth of our carbon emissions this year will still be in the atmosphere in 10,000 years’ time.  

To reach carbon-zero we will have to change virtually every activity of our modern lives – the way we generate electricity, build things, make things, grow things, heat things, cool things and travel from place to place.  This is not going to be easy. I am hugely optimistic that we can do this – but every community needs to play its part and we need to get started now.

How do we compare?

Figure 2 compares the emissions changes here since 1990 with the changes in the UK.  Over these 30 years, nearly everyone in the Isle of Man has witnessed the relentless energy transition taking place in the Irish Sea. Numerically, the wind turbines have swamped the gas rigs as the Barrow, Walney and Burbo Bank wind farm developments have all been extended.  We don’t even have to travel off Island as the turbines are often clearly visible from here. 

While the Isle of Man’s CO2 emissions have increased by over 60% since 1990, the UK’s emissions have fallen by over 43% during the same period.  Indeed, last week the UK published its 2019 emissions which have now fallen by a remarkable 51% since 1990. The UK is over half way to achieving carbon-zero, although it will get harder from this point onwards. The best we can say in the Isle of Man is that our emissions have plateaued and have remained relatively static over the past 10 years or so.  We have still got it all to do.

Figure 3 puts our starting point into an international perspective. Far from the Isle of Man being a world leader in tackling climate emissions, we have higher emissions per person than any of the other countries in the British Isles.  If we were a member of the EU we would have the third highest per capita emission levels in the bloc – higher even than industrial nations such as Germany and Poland.  We have to play catch-up.

This starting point does nothing for our environmental credentials.  

The Bill in its current form shows very little evidence of the ambition that will be needed to accelerate our progress.  It lacks a commitment to the ‘higher ambition’ pathway outlined by Professor Curran in his IMPACT report. It does not address the need for communities to reduce carbon emissions by at least 45% by 2030 to help prevent temperature rises reaching a damaging 2oC. It gives little hope of actual emissions reductions within the next five years. And it lacks interim targets to drive changes between the six national elections that we will experience between now and 2050.

What do we need to see?

Of course, tackling climate change is not just about actions by our government and we can all take steps to reduce our emissions. But we look to government to establish the frameworks, timelines, infrastructure and financing for the scale of the changes that are required.

We need to see a clear path towards the decarbonisation of our electricity grid and preparations to quadruple total electricity generation to facilitate the transition of transport and heating to renewable energy sources. The shift from petrol/diesel vehicles to electric (or hydrogen) vehicles appears likely to be more rapid than originally anticipated and the transition window for our 70,000 vehicles will be contracted here unless renewable energy sources are available to encourage early investment in electric cars. Likewise, the movement away from fossil fuel heating systems will be slowed by a lack of renewable electricity.

These may sound like problems – but they also provide real opportunities.  The transition to zero-carbon can bring an enormous boost to jobs and investment and stimulate economic growth, although the government will need to manage the energy transition very carefully to prevent us being left dependent on, and vulnerable to, private energy providers.

The Climate Change Bill is a start, but it needs to be backed up quickly by actions that address the ‘climate emergency’ that Tynwald recognised almost two years ago. 

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