Why the United Nations climate conference matters to Massachusetts
There is a big climate conference called COP26. Yes, that’s a terrible name. In fact, the conference is full strange acronyms and strange numbers.
We are here to help you.
This FAQ will demystify COP26 and explain what it means to you – yes, you! – if you live in Massachusetts. Let’s go:
Another climate conference! What is it about ? And where do they get this name from?
The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or “COP26”, runs through November 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. “COP” means “VSconference Of the Parties “and brings together all the countries involved in international climate negotiations – 197 in total. They meet every year and this is the 26th time they meet. So, COP26! Ta-da!
During COP26, world leaders will review – and hopefully improve – their plans to reduce their country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Haven’t they already done it?
Yes! In the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries agreed that they should limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, preferably closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The problem is, the world has yet to hit any of these targets.
According to the handy Climate Action Tracker, we are currently heading towards 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2100. The goal of the Glasgow conference is to get everyone to agree to cut emissions so that we are heading further. around 1.5 degrees Celsius.
1.5 degrees, 2 degrees, 2.9 degrees – none of these look like much. I mean, this is Massachusetts! It can change 10 degrees before breakfast. What do these numbers really mean?
These annoying Celsius numbers are global averages. The world has warmed by around 1.1 degrees Celsius – on average – so far.
In Boston, this has translated into about 3 degrees Fahrenheit of warming since 1970. In other words, the average temperature in Boston during the year was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it is now around 53 degrees Fahrenheit. . It seems like a slight increase, but it has brought about some big changes: Summer 2021 was the hottest on record in Boston, and winter is about three weeks shorter than before.
If we keep the globe at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the average annual temperature in Boston will reach around 55 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 and stay roughly there.
If we keep doing what we’re doing, in terms of emissions, the temperature in Boston will not stabilize in 2050. Instead, it will reach about 60 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
“By 2050, regardless, Boston will have a climate that is more like Baltimore, Maryland,” said Andrew Pershing, director of climate science at Climate Central. “By 2100, if we don’t get the CO2 problem under control, Boston will have a climate that resembles Raleigh, North Carolina.”
Well, that looks pretty good – winters in Boston are brutal! Why is this a bad thing?
There are several reasons, says Pershing. First, Boston is not designed to handle these warmer temperatures. And while we could give everyone air conditioners, all that extra heat would lead to more flooding due to rising sea levels and more rainfall.
Take the Blue Line, for example, or the city’s stormwater system, both partly centuries old and already submerged in water.
The recent UN Climate Science Report also noted that global warming of around 2 degrees Celsius will lead to many other “compound events”, which means a few climate disasters in a row. Example: Hurricane Ida passes through New Orleans, cuts off the electricity, then there is a heat wave and people die because there is no air conditioning.
“What if we were hit by two back-to-back hurricanes in the northeast or two big northeasts? Or, you know, a heat wave followed by a hurricane that cut the power, ”says Pershing. “All of these things get so much harder once they start stacking up on top of each other. And that’s a big part of the risk in the second half of this century.”
Plus, at around 2 degrees Celsius of warming, almost all coral reefs die off – not a thing in Boston, but a major disappointment.
OK, that doesn’t sound great. But don’t they have machines that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air?
Well yes. But existing carbon suckers require so much energy to function that they are not yet very practical. There is one in Iceland that removes waste heat from a geothermal power plant. It works in Iceland covered with volcanoes, but wouldn’t work here in Massachusetts.
There are also carbon suckers called ‘trees’, but we keep cutting them down, so we should probably get rid of them.
Eventually, brains will discover the direct capture of carbon in the air. But to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius and stay there, scientists tell us we’ll have to suck carbon from the air. and stop throwing greenhouse gases into the sky.
But what can Massachusetts do to stop the emissions? We are only one state!
In order to keep the 1.5 degree Celsius target within reach, the world must reach a “net zero” level of emissions by 2050. Massachusetts is – sure – already ahead of the game, with the same objective enshrined in state law.
Getting our state to net zero basically means that our forests, fields and wetlands must absorb more carbon than our cars, buildings and factories spit out. One of the most difficult parts of this equation is our old buildings.
Almost 70% of greenhouse gas emissions in Boston come from buildings. The city has recently taken a big step towards greening large buildings with a new ordinance called BERDO 2.0.
“The biggest challenge is making all those old brown stones and older buildings built before 1950 more energy efficient, which requires expensive and time-consuming energy renovations,” says Cutler Cleveland, professor of land and environment at the Boston University. He says many of the older, hard-to-renovate buildings in Boston are home to low-income families, many of whom do not speak English, and many with vulnerable children and the elderly.
“Ultimately, we need new ways to fund these renovations. Because, over the life of a building, these renovations have a very positive return on investment,” Cleveland said. The problem is the initial cost.
Well at least our buildings run on natural gas which is better than coal, right?
A recent study found that gas leaks in Boston are six times higher than state estimates. These leaks undermine any climate benefit.
At the rate eastern Massachusetts is leaking natural gas, “the impact is equivalent to that of coal,” says Maryann Sargent, a Harvard researcher and author of the recent study.
But guess what! One of the big topics of COP26 is how to stop methane leaks. And that’s something everyone can agree on: you don’t want gas leaks, and gas companies shouldn’t want them either.
Well, that’s hopeful. Yet climate change seems so overwhelming! What can I do?
Here’s an easy task:
Take a look at the coverage of COP26 by WBUR. We have tons of stories covering the conference from different angles. Pick one, read or listen, and – here’s the kicker – speak to someone on this.
A recent poll in Vice found that 60% of people “never or hardly ever hear about climate change from their friends and family.” And as climatologist Katharine Hayhoe said in her charming TED talk, talking about climate change, from the bottom of your heart, is the best way to fight it.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a project to increase media attention to the climate crisis. WBUR is one of 400+ news organizations committed to a week of increased coverage around the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Discover all of our covers here.