Updated 10 December, 2020
I’m looking for a paradigm shift in the climate change goal from (a) ‘limitation of warming to 1.5°C’, thus escaping the worst of an already dangerous climate, to (b) ‘restoration of a safe climate’.
A safe climate may be described as ecological sustainability within planetary boundaries to include preservation, restoration and enhancement along with responsible economic, social and personal growth and development.
A mouthful perhaps, but the difference between hope and despair.
Looking at existing aspirations (zero net emissions for a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C) how can we say we will preserve the Great Barrier Reef when scientists tell us that 1.5°C will destroy up to 90% of it?
How can we stop our Pacific neighbours from being swamped by the ocean when we are told that current levels of total greenhouse gases (including methane and all of the ‘Kyoto six’) have an implied warming of 1.75–1.95°C (p13) and longer term equilibrium warming of~2.4°C?
That is with total greenhouse gases at ~490 ppm CO2 equivalent. Right now they are at 508 ppm.
We have been told that current levels of CO2 imply longer term sea levels 10-22 metres higher than now.
That seems obvious when during the last interglacial, the Eemian, we had sea levels 6-9 metres higher than now with 300 ppm CO2. Right now CO2 levels are about 413 ppm.
How will we cope with a fire regime worse than we have now?
I could go on, but even the 1.5°C target seems out of range. The latest UNEP Emissions Gap Report has said that countries need to increase their targets at least fivefold.
On 13 November this year, a group of climate scientists, writers and activists posted an open letter urging governments and companies to start acting, by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time drawing down CO2 to achieve climate restoration and a safe climate.
The signatories included climate scientists Michael E Mann and James Hansen. Of course it was James Hansen, who in a special session of the American Geophysical Union annual conference way back in December 2007, answered Bill McKibben’s question on target levels for atmospheric CO2, just as newly elected minister Penny Wong was representing us at the Bali conference of the UNFCCC. As Hansen recalled in this interview:
- Bill McKibben asked me what should be the target for CO2. He was going to form this organization, 450.org, and that’s when I told him, hold on, what I’m finding is that’s actually a pretty dangerous level. So he did hold on for a while. So what should humanity aim for? It’s not any larger than 350 ppm, and it might be less. It just turns out that if you look at the paleoclimate, it’s really very sensitive.
And so 350.org was born.
350 ppm became accepted theoretically as the planetary limit for a safe climate in a paper Planetary boundaries: a safe operating space for humanity (later published in Nature) with 29 authors including Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, James Hansen, Tim Lenton and our Terry Hughes, a meeting of great minds.
If 350 ppm was a planetary limit, then we passed it in August 1988, just two months after James Hansen addressed the US Senate, making climate change a public policy issue.
There never was any burnable carbon for a safe climate.
However, as Hansen said, 350ppm is a direction rather than a definite end-point. See draft Chapter 40 of Sophie’s Planet – Target CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? where he showed this slide:
He in fact nominates a range of 300-350 ppm.
By the time we get to 350 ppm, we will know whether we have to go further, he says. The point is we need rapid decarbonisation, simultaneous drawdowns, adaptation to mitigation of the harms that will inevitably transpire, plus a vision for a better and more livable world.
Addressing current political policy platforms, the one held by the Liberal-National Coalition is easily dismissed. I outlined in March 2019 what I thought about it in the post Cheap accounting tricks and sovereign risk: the Morrison government’s climate policy.
In short, it is what you do when you want to pretend you have a policy and you don’t, or your real agenda is something else. Typical of the Morrison government. In response to the dawning of the Biden era in the US Morrison has altered the rhetoric. Katharine Murphy documents how his language shifted in Scott Morrison’s climate language has shifted – but actions speak louder than words. Probably no action will be forthcoming as a result, she thinks, only the language has changed.
She believes Morrison is The prime influencer and the pork-barreller: voters deserve better.
Everything Morrison does is choreographed for making an impression. He’s more concerned with how things look than how they are.
Turning to Labor, a speech Leadership in a New Climate on 21 February 2020 Anthony Albanese once again re-iterated Labor’s commitment to zero net emissions by 2050, in concert with many other countries, including a vision for renewable energy and new clean technologies. Will Steffen was quick to intervene with Labor’s climate policy is too little, too late. We must run faster to win the race.
The Greens leapt on his criticism with a Media release of 23 February 2020, subsequently revised their position with a Media release of 4 July 2020 Greens announce new climate targets as modelling shows higher 2030 targets needed to meet Paris goals and finally posted a new Greens climate and energy policy.
The first point to make is that if zero by 2050 is your go, then you should realise that the advanced economies were intended to get there sooner, to leave room for the developing countries to pollute their way to prosperity.
Those who made the most mess and reaped the benefits should clean it up. That’s fair.
Now Climate Tracker has found that to reach net zero by 2050 Australia should reach minus 66% by 2030. And create 76,000 new jobs in renewable energy alone.
It wasn’t Will Steffen’s best piece. He had jokers in the pack and disclaimers at the end, but it tended to support the validity of the whole IPCC 1.5°C shtick. Prof Andy Pitman said in response to the BOM-CSIRO State of the Climate 2020 report that it was no longer possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, that reaching net zero by 2050 would not be enough to stop global warming reaching two degrees, and even getting to net zero would be “hugely challenging”. He is not alone.
As I outlined in a long-read post last year Climate emergency – ecological sustainability within planetary boundaries, and a safe climate a number of proposals starting with Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding from 2009 onwards have proposed rapid decarbonisation and drawdowns, the latest being from Tim Flannery.
In that post I cited Paul Gilding recent reflection in Climate emergency defined. He said a full-scale emergency mobilisation, which would be much more disruptive, would require in the range of 5-10% of GDP dedicated to the task, compared to WWII, for example, where the war effort required 30–50% of GDP. That wasn’t off the top of his head. He cited a couple of global commissions that had considered the matter.
So it really depends, as a politician and a policy maker, how brave you think you can be. I’m arguing for full honesty and bravery, which is politically more possible now because few things have changed in recent times.
Firstly, about 20 years ago James Hansen said that people would respond to global warming when they could look out of their widow and see it. As I write there are 100 fires burning in NSW, 40 in Queensland and on Fraser Island Kingfisher Bay Resort guests are told to leave as weather conditions worsen. That fire burnt about half the island.
As a country we need to think seriously about the fossil fuel industry, which I think is best done under a new Labor government through a major climate audit with public involvement. However, it is evident now, given the urgency and the timelines, that new fossil investments will involve a near certainty of becoming stranded assets. The financial system is voting with its feet. There are now some 1,200 organizations and businesses worldwide that since 2012 have publicly pledged to divest more than $14 trillion.
My other comment would be that communities that survive are likely to do so through coming together to take a hand in their own future, as much as through government support and assistance.
Secondly, the cost-benefit equation seems to have flipped. Back in the Stern Review days in 2006 he found that the cost of mitigating the climate was around 1% of GDP, compared to the cost of doing nothing, which was 2%. Since then it has been broadly assumed, I think because of the immediate impact of carbon taxes, that acting costs more than BAU.
A recent Deloitte Access Economics study found the equation radically favoured climate action.
In 2018 the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found that climate action could yield a direct economic gain of US$26 trillion through to 2030 compared with business-as-usual.
Policy makers should always consider the risk of the worst happening. When society and the ecology as we know it are on the line, and with mass extinction of species well on the way, really we have no choice.
Third, developing countries were always given space to pollute their way to prosperity in the thinking of the IPCC and the UNFCCC. This graph is from Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environmental round up, 8 November 2020
Back in the early 1990s when Swedish scientists investigated ‘dangerous anthropomorphic interference (DAI) they found one degree safe, two degrees dangerous and in between they said:
- Temperature increases beyond 1°C may elicit rapid, unpredictable, and nonlinear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.
Scientists working back then found that the only way they could provide a budget of burnable carbon was to declare two degrees as the guardrail against catastrophic climate change, and work on scenarios in the risky zone.
No-one could ever show that two degrees was safe. (See my post of 2014 The folly of two degrees.)
We have inherited the results, but developing countries can now go straight to renewables.
To get back to Will Steffen and the Greens, Steffen’s climate prescriptions were anaemic – minus 50% by 2030 zero by 2045, or 2040 if you can do it. No mention of drawdowns.
The Greens have maintained 350 ppm of CO2 equivalent of all greenhouse gases (which was what Hansen intended) or lower as an aim.
They are looking for net zero or net negative Australian greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 or sooner.
And yes, they want to decommission coal power and exit fossil fuel burning and mining, I’ll skip the details here.
On drawdowns, they have this:
26. The adoption of the precautionary principle in relation to capturing carbon through geosequestration, by opposing public funding, and ensuring that companies are financially responsible for the risks and effects of greenhouse gas leakage.
27. Preservation and promotion of natural carbon sequestration in soils, forests and marine sea grass and kelp, swamps and mangrove beds, and a funding and focus on restoring these natural carbon sinks.
Pro tem I’ll run with that, but it would mean that direct sequestration of airborne CO2 would have to be pursued if at all possible. (For example, Canadian firm Carbon Engineering claim they can capture CO2 directly from the air if they scaled up at less than $US100 per tonne.)
If you reach net zero by 2030, or even 2035, you don’t need a midway interim target.
In this submission I have concentrated on a limited number of issues I think important, and need emphasis.