Where I ended up after a series of happenings as described below, is concluding that we need a paradigm shift in our climate change aspirations. Instead of trying to limit warming to a point where we can avoid dangerous climate change, we need to recognize that we’ve already gone too far, that the climate is already dangerous, so we should aim to ratchet down GHG concentrations in the atmosphere to attain a safe climate.
1. Germans look to 7.4 trillion tons of fake snow to save the West Antarctic Ice Sheet
In 1999 NASA lost its $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because spacecraft engineers failed to convert from Imperial to metric measurements when exchanging vital data before the craft was launched. Numbers are important!
a revised worst-case sea-level rise scenario of 2.5 metres by 2100, 5.5 metres by 2150 and 9.7 metres by 2200. It says sea level science has “advanced significantly over the last few years, especially (for) land-based ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica under global warming”, and hence the “correspondingly larger range of possible 21st century rise in sea level than previously thought”.
if the UK cut its carbon emissions by 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030, as it has promised, its GDP would be 1.1 per cent bigger than if it stuck with fossil fuels, says a study by consultants at Cambridge Econometrics.
About half the gain would come from cheap running costs for fuel-efficient cars, with 190,000 new green jobs and higher wages also helping. The average household would be £565 a year better off.
I find each report has limitations in its own way, so at the end I remain agnostic.
The fourth, the IMF study, looks at carbon pricing in the top 20 emitters. As far as I can make out it comes up with two propositions. First, each country can act on its own, with benefit, no-one has to wait for the world to act. Secondly, it identifies a sweet spot, which varies quite a lot from one country to the next, where net benefits accrue from carbon pricing. In Australia’s case it’s only $11.50 per tonne.
This is all very promising but is not as such a plan for climate stabilisation at safe levels.
The third, the American study, finds the aim of reducing emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by 2035 doable and beneficial. The problem here is in the task identification. The study assumes that the US should decarbonise at the same rate as the rest of the world. It ignores the ‘carbon budgeting approach’ whereby high per capita emitters need to decarbonise rapidly to make space for developing countries to grow their economies. See Figure 5 of this post on the IPCC report. The United States is a Group 1 country, which must decarbonise rapidly:
As we saw in this post, two thirds of increased emissions are now coming from emerging and less developed countries. In other words in reality increases from Group 2 and 3 countries are not being offset by cuts in Group 1 countries. Until we get our heads around this issue and address it we’ll stumble along on the road to perdition!
The problem facing Group 1 countries is impossible. The way around it lies in emissions trading between rich and poor countries, as per Figure 6 in that post. This would entail considerable wealth transfer, which could be mandated to be used in greening developing country economies.
Also 40% by 2035 overall is not a recipe for a safe climate, as shown below.
The first study, has two limitations. Firstly it simply does not address the issues of economic costs and social implications. Secondly, it simply accepts the stabilisation pathway for a 2°C temperature increase which sees zero worldwide emissions about 2070. In looking at the IPCC report (same as linked above), I developed this table to relate concentrations to temperature rise. RCPs are Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) which are expressed in terms of watts per square metre of radiative forcing (W m-2). Roughly, RCP2.6 represents the 2°C pathway, while RCP8.5 represents our present path.
Green indicates a comparatively ‘safe’ climate, orange indicates the increasingly contested zone which clearly carries some danger, and red to indicate breaching the 2°C guardrail which everyone with half a brain accepts as dangerous.
Strictly speaking the green box should be orange, because it sits on top of ‘now’ which is an 0.6°C increase, and the orange box below it should be red, for the same reason.
On the orange zone, the Climate Change Authority in its Review published this wondrous graph, showing that they were well aware of the inadequacies of a 2°C target:
As I said then, in terms of CO2 equivalents we are now at 480. This gives us less than 33% chance of staying below 2°C and about a 10% chance of exceeding a civilisation threatening 4°C. These odds are unacceptable. We are already in an overshoot situation.
This is old information – very old. James Hansen told us at an American Physical Union meeting in December 2007 that we needed to aim for 350ppm in the first instance and then decide where we go from there.
The RCP2.6 path involves a 33% chance of ending up with more than 2°C, odds that should be completely unacceptable.
Turning to the third report, which specifically addresses the financial implications, it too is on 2°C path. The costs numbers when taken in isolation look large (US$45 trillion will be required in 2015–2030 for key categories of energy infrastructure), but in context are trivial:
costs of this magnitude look like “background noise” when compared with the strong underlying growth that the global economy is likely to experience.
These costs will go up if mitigation is delayed:
Costs are also likely to rise sharply with delay. If global action to reduce emissions is delayed until 2030, global CO2 emissions would have to decrease by 6-7% per year between 2030 and 2050 in order to have a reasonable chance of staying on a 2°C path. Such rates of reduction are unprecedented historically and are likely to be expensive (estimates of delay suggest an average annual consumption growth loss of around 0.3% in the decade 2030 to 2040, compared to a loss of less than 0.1% over the same period if we act now).
Fine, and perhaps not yet serious, but I’m afraid completely out of date. In 2011 the Climate Commission published this graph to illustrate the implications of delay:
Under the ‘climate budget approach’ the area under the line must remain constant.
That too would have been based on a 2°C target, but it illustrates that if we delay peaking emissions worldwide, even to 2020, we’ll be in completely uncharted territory.
Chapter Five of the third report gives enormous detail of the policy work that needs to be done. It may be summarised as strong leadership, consistent policy over decades, structural change and perhaps unprecedented international co-operation, even if we start now on a task that is eminently doable and inexpensive; so more than “a bit of political will” is required.
Frankly, our best hope lies in the prospect that solar technology with storage will simply become the cheapest form of new energy, and has the advantage that it doesn’t need a large grid. Nevertheless there will be residual problems – land use and agriculture, transport, ocean acidification etc. Zero emissions transport will require planning and subsidies.
One thing we should realise, however, is that further out our future will be energy rich, not energy-constrained. Saving energy is not a reason for localism and changing the way we live.
So where does that leave Val’s second option?
Firstly, concerted long-term action and international co-operation of the kind we need is not in our DNA. We are designed to co-operate in bands of up to 150 people, the number that our big brains can cope with in terms of knowing in any detail. We are told Fukuyama, Harari for example that bands were relatively egalitarian with a leader answerable to the people. Beyond that we can co-operate in amazing ways, but at the price of setting up hierarchies and privileges, coercive elites. This occurred in general with agriculture and owning stuff, even herds. These problems can be ameliorated in a modern democratic nation-state, with it’s formal mechanisms for election, administration, justice and accountability, but we are still apt to act in the self-interest of that larger entity.
What we need is an infusion of new values and ways of perceiving, thinking and feeling. While not sacrificing individualism we need to feel and act as social beings. We also need to revalue ourselves in relation to the biological and physical systems of the planet, so that we stop acting like the top rapacious predator, the one that has decimated the wild animal kingdom by 52% since 1970. Along the way, we need to challenge a Chain of Being, that sees elite mostly European males as next to the gods and women, children, other races, other social classes, slaves, asylum seekers etc in subordinate positions.
We need to live in nature, not over nature.
While localism and social participation are necessary, the required cultural and existential changes are hard work will happen over generations if at all. The planet can’t wait. That last reference tells us:
Efforts have been made to economically quantify the world’s “stock” of natural capital and the yearly “flow” of ecosystem services they provide. The latest numbers are $142.7 trillion and $48.7 trillion, respectively. By comparison, the flow of incomes through the global economy is currently about $71.8 trillion per year. The research suggests that by 2013 we were eliminating that stock of natural capital at a rate of about $7.3 trillion per year, and that the flow of ecosystem services would be $23 trillion higher if not for human practices like deforestation, burning fossil fuels, and the like.
And underneath all this, there is the point that these creatures and the ecologies they inhabitant have an intrinsic moral worth irrespective of the dollar sign that markets can place on them. “Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless,” author Richard Coniff recently wrote in the New York Times.
And the climate can’t wait.
We need hierarchies to get things done, a collective will not build a battleship, but we need to civilise them and render them accountable. We even need coercive powers, to counter the selfishness of states. The only supra-national entity that the major powers take notice of is the World Trade Organisation, not the UN. We need it to police international agreements, to oversee international carbon trading, and what Quiggin’s third report calls “border carbon adjustments”.
I never thought I’d say that!
The bottom line is that we must act if we want a future for our grandchildren, and cost, the only certain Armageddon is if we do nothing or not enough. We are heading into uncharted territory but indications are that there will be benefits and the net costs are unlikely to be as bad as pessimists might think. We just don’t know. And the groupie, local stuff, well there are reasons for doing that, but it won’t solve climate change as such.