After Paris, how do we really tackle climate change?

A record 177 countries signed the UN Paris climate agreement in New York on 22 April. That was a record for signing any international agreement on one day.

A few short days earlier another record had been broken – for the first time on any day CO2 emissions exceeded 409 parts per million. If you want some perspective on how aggressively we are forcing the climate, take a look at this graph, albeit from 2013:


When scientists say that the CO2 levels are higher than they have been for 800,000 years that’s because the ice cores don’t go back further. In fact CO2 levels are higher than they have been for millions of years. This Skeptical Science post talks about a lake in Northern Siberia where sediments show that atmospheric concentrations were at 400 ppm some 3.4 to 3.6 million years ago. The temperature thereabouts was 8°C warmer than today in the summer, warmer than climate models would suggest. I know there were beech trees in Antarctica around this time, so the effects were not local. This is supported by evidence of significant sea level rise.

Still that was before the Panama Isthmus closed and the heat distribution of the planet could have been different.

Back to the UN Paris Agreement, the procedures specify that the signing in New York only signals a country’s intention to launch the domestic processes for the ratification or acceptance of the Agreement. Once a government within its own political system formally approves what it is going to do in the post-2020 period it will lodge with the UN Secretary General “their instrument of ratification, approval, acceptance or accession, by which they consent to be bound by the Agreement.” For the agreement to come in force the UN has to receive instruments from 55 countries who are Parties to the UNFCCC, “accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Our government is going to wait for the Climate Authority to bring down its report in June, so it is an excuse not to start thinking about the issue until after the election. Only 15 countries, Barbados, Belize, Fiji, Grenada, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Nauru, Palau, Palestine, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Samoa, Somalia and Tuvalu, have so far done their homework.

Problem is, according to an article by Michael Le Page in the New Scientist (paywalled), we need to peak emissions by 2020 if we are going to have a good shot at keeping temperatures to a 2°C rise.

The Global Carbon project, working on countries records, had 2015 as flatlining. Unfortunately the CO2 in the atmosphere continues to grow aggressively close to 3 ppm/year:


That was from the WMO Statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2015.

It is possible that natural variation may delay the peak, but I don’t like the look of that graph!

Le Page also gives attention to greenhouse gases beyond CO2. Tamino at Open Mind looks at the relative forcing of CO2, CH4 and NO2. His bottom line is that CO2 forces four times more than CH4 (methane) and NO2 (nitrous oxide) together. Another way of stating the relationship is that CH4 and NO2 count for 20% of emissions.

When James Hansen says that we should aim for 350 ppm of CO2 he means that other greenhouse gases should be net zero. Le Page says that studies have shown that agriculture and land use changes (mainly deforestation), form a prime source of both CH4 and NO2. This source produces greenhouse emissions almost equal to fossil fuels.

A recent report suggests that treating the soil differently could store the equivalent of four-fifths of the carbon produced by fossil fuels.

They suggest techniques which:

    include planting crops with deep roots, which help keep soil intact and encourage the growth of microbial communities that help trap soil carbon, and using charcoal-based composts. The study also calls for a wider adoption of sustainable agriculture techniques — things like no-till farming, which involves growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil and has been shown to potentially help soil retain carbon, and organic agriculture, which also has shown some promise in restoring and maintaining soil health.

We may have to eat less meat, however. not just because ruminants belch methane. Arjen Hoekstra tells us we are sucking the planet dry producing food. Grains require 1000 litres for each kilogram produced. Beef requires 15,000 litres. Freshwater is being depleted and used unsustainably in many underground reserves, lakes and streams.

At the same time, the world is becoming greener, despite increased droughts. In the past 33 years plant coverage has grown by 18 million square kilometres. (Thanks to John D for the link.) The cause is mainly additional CO2 in the atmosphere. Nitrogen from agricultural fertilisers has also contributed.

Each year photosynthesis soaks up about one quarter of the carbon emitted by humans. This greening means only that the earth’s capacity to soak up carbon takes the edge off what otherwise would happen. Concentrations in the atmosphere continue to grow.

As we learnt in February, Australia’s emissions will continue to grow until after 2030. It looks as though both the main parties will largely depend on the lazy way of buying cheap international carbon credits. The basic problem is that politics in most places is just not taking the global warming issue seriously enough. If it did there would be no cheap international credits. Here in Oz apart from the Greens we can only look to a few instances of subsidiary governments, like the ACT.

Back in November 2013 I outlined what needed to be done in the post Climate change: reconnecting politics with reality according to Professor John Wiseman. I’ll repeat the bare bones here:

    we would need an Australian Climate Solutions Act which set up the targets, the structures and the priority actions. Principal amongst these would be an Australian Climate Solutions Taskforce chaired by the Prime Minister and drawing from state and local governments, business, trade unions and community organisations.

    Then we would need six key action plans.

    First, an Australian Renewable Energy Plan to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy within 10 years.

    Second, an Australian Economic Electrification Plan with initial priorities including a modal shift in passenger and freight transport from road to rail; the rapid replacement of fossil fuel based cars with electric vehicles; and the full electrification of household and industry heating and cooling.

    Third, an Australian Energy Efficiency Plan that identifies the regulatory, planning, educational and financial initiatives that could achieve the overall goal of a rapid transition to a zero waste economy.

    Fourth, an Australian Sustainable Consumption Strategy.

    Fifth, an Australian Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry Plan designed to reduce land-based emissions and increase carbon sequestration.

    Finally, state and local governments, community sector and business organisations would collaborate to develop and implement a comprehensive, long-term Australian Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Plan.

Ulrick Beck, the German sociologist before he died recently, published a book The Metamorphorphosis of the World: How climate change is transforming or concept of the world. I’ve just found it and haven’t had time to have a decent look yet. In the language of sociolgy he talks about “emancipatory catastrophism” changing out “normative horizons”.

George Monbiot has just published How Did We Get Into This Mess?.

Fred Pearce’s short review of both books and a couple of others suggests that Monbiot comes up with answers:

    And because his answers are overwhelmingly political, they offer solutions. Monbiot’s clear-sighted egalitarian internationalism suggests what Beck’s “emancipatory catastrophism” might mean in practice. That’s a good place to start.

The suggestion is, I think, that market mechanisms and new technology implemented sporadically will not take us where we need to go fast enough. The political problem needs to be addressed, especially in Australia.

2 thoughts on “After Paris, how do we really tackle climate change?”

  1. But, but, but …. it can’t possibly be true – because all those nice men who know so much told us that there was no global warming and that all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was caused by volcanoes.

    Seriously though, now might be the time to look at the origins of all the post-World War II War Crimes Trials; then set up a world-wide system of prosecution for those responsible for the destruction of our civilization. It would have to break new legal ground, of course, but it would scare the daylights out of the culprits. It would be ironic if those who became wealthy by wrecking our planet could then use that ill-gotten wealth to defend themselves from righteous justice.

  2. Graham, yes, justice is a funny thing and there should be scope for bringing the miscreants to book.

    Similarly I think there is something strangely weird about incentives and market encouragements to stop burning coal. We don’t depend on incentives to stop people committing murder.

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