Is plastic distracting from climate action?

Written by Rebecca Jones on 27th Nov 2018

The rate at which the world is now tackling single use plastic is astonishing. Since the BBC’s Blue Planet series movingly highlighted the plight of global marine life choking to death on plastic bags, barely a week goes by when a new measure to curb our plastic habit isn’t announced.

Some of the latest moves have come from the EU, New Zealand and even Malaysia, with governments phasing in complete bans on single use plastic as soon as next year. Other areas include New York in the US, which is scrapping single use foam carriers from January, while closer to home Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is consulting on installing water fountains across the City to reduce plastic bottle use.

In the private sector even businesses are making what seems like radical strides. In the UK, supermarket Budgens is trialling a completely plastic free store as owner of Legoland and Madame Tussauds Merlin Entertainments has just announced it is banning plastic straws from its 124 attractions from 31 December.

Misdirecting attention….

As a long-term eco-warrior I am regularly moved to tears by headlines like these. In the 1990’s I drove my poor old dad to distraction with my various recycling ‘initiatives’, vegetarianism and insistence on having my pocket money sent to Greenpeace via weekly cheque. Apart from him, though, it often felt like no one was listening.

So now, to see governments and businesses actually standing up and taking action on an environmental issue – and with such fervor, urgency and uniformity – is truly wonderful.

However, while the (largely) Western world wages war on plastic, the level of investment piling into fossil fuels – the leading source of climate change, i.e. the biggest existential threat to humanity since, well, ever – is continuing apace.

This was underlined by a UN report published on Friday, a prelude to the 24th annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Poland next week – or COP24, for short.

An overview of climate finance flows, the paper in-fact led on the very good news that investment into global climate finance increased by 17 per cent in 2015/16, with close to $300 billion going into renewables over the period.

Buried on page ten, however, was the figure for global investment into fossil fuels, which stood at $742 billion in 2015/16 – up from just over $500 billion ten years ago. Meanwhile, more recent data from the International Energy Agency shows this rose to $790 billion last year.

Perhaps unsurprising, then, is the report published today (Tuesday), that shows Co2 emissions rose for the first time in four years in 2017, while a separate paper showed levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere continue their upward trend. This, warns the UN, suggests the world is “way off target” to curb devastating climate change.

… from a coal shaped cloud on the horizon

To many this may seems incredible. With so much scientific and political consensus now built up around climate change and its causes (with one, notable, detractor feeling a little chilly in Washington) it seems bizarre that we would be piling new, fresh money into the instrument of our species’ destruction.

Perhaps even stranger to some, then, would be the news that in developing regions, this investment is going into coal – the dirtiest and most damaging of all fossil fuels.

Nonetheless though, according to a recent New York Times report, across Asia no less than 1,200 brand new coal-fired power plants are chalked up for construction in coming years. Again: that is one-thousand-two-hundred-brand-new-coal-plants.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China is leading the way, with the world’s most populous nation reportedly contributing to 40 per cent of the world’s coal supply since 2002.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, a nation of just 95 million people, 50 new coal-fired power plants are in the pipeline,[1] with the nation expecting the energy it gets from coal to rise from around 36 per cent to 42 per cent by 2030. This is despite the fact that, currently, 4,300 Vietnamese people die every year from coal-power related causes. By 2030, the UN expects this to rise to 25,000.[2]

Perhaps most concerning though, is India – the world’s second most populated region – where around 50 gigawatts of coal power are under construction. This is enough to power 35 million homes every year. And again, this is despite the fact that Delhi is fast becoming un-inhabitable due to air pollution that killed 15,000 of it inhabitants in 2016.[3]

And perhaps even more incredible than all of this is the fact that, after multi-decades long periods of decline, coal power is also on the rise in the West, where politicians are gaining popular support with plans to resurrect coal mining.

In the US, Donald Trump’s election promises to revive the country’s coal industry was a big vote winner. Similarly, in Germany, Poland and Australia right wing politicians have all persuaded voters by evoking images of hard working local labourers covered from head to toe in coal dust.

Eye on the 1.5 degree prize

None of this is to say the action being taken on plastic pollution is not absolutely vital. I have lived in Vietnam and spent extended periods in India where I can tell you from experience single use plastic is a pandemic that is destroying the natural landscape at a terrifying rate.

However, it is important that we don’t as a global community take our eyes off the biggest prize for our species: limiting global warming to within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels.

As an earlier study from the UN this year highlighted, if we fail to do this it really is game over for large swathes of nature and humanity – with even 1.5 degrees locking in some devastating changes, including the loss of chunks of the US eastern seaboard, including most of New York City.

Great strides are being made in renewable energy and investment in fossil fuel is, in-fact, stagnating. Despite the grim picture in some parts of the developing world investment in coal supply did, in-fact, decline on a global scale last year, down by 13 per cent to just below $80 billion.

This was, hearteningly, mainly due to reduced spending in China, which is also spending more than any other country on developing wind and solar energy as the Chinese are becoming more and vocal about air pollution.

As ever, though, more can and should be done, and it’s important we all raise our voices for COP24 next week to keep the pressure on governments to make sure it does.

To find out how you can invest in renewable energy, see the Good With Money Guide to Renewable Energy.


[1] Source:



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