2 700 events protesting inaction on global warming have just taken place across 161 countries. And Lord Stern has released a new, somewhat upbeat report , claiming there are fifteen years in which to take action on global warming. I’ll come back to that, but first the good news.
Anthropogenic Global Warming is a good thing. It’s good because we know and control the things we do that cause average global surface temperatures to rise. So all we need to do is stop doing those things. Pretty damned simple then.
What follows is largely an attempt to distil information relating to carbon emissions from energy use contained in reports and articles by leading climate scientists Alice Bows and Kevin Anderson Any information not otherwise linked, is contained in a 2012 presentation by Anderson that I’m providing video, transcript and powerpoint slide links to.
As far back as 1992, governments of the world came together at Rio to…well, essentially to talk about global warming among other matters. They waffled a lot and did nothing. Thereafter, very conservative IPCC reports were compiled and more meetings were held. All the while, total atmospheric carbon increased and the rate of accumulation also increased. ( Graph – pp 22)
Seventeen years after Rio, government people all flew into Copenhagen and signed a non-binding declaration to “hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius and to take actions to meet this objective, consistent with the science, and on the basis of equity”.
Three years after that, in 2012, Anderson presented findings from his having trawled through the available scientific data and various reports to reveal the following scenario for keeping average global surface temperature warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
If the energy related carbon emissions of non-Annex 1 countries ( India, China, the African continent etc) increased by only 3.5% per annum, and their emissions peaked in or around ~2025 (China) ~2040 (India) and ~ 2050 (Africa) – and their emissions then reduced at twice the rate neo-classical economists hold to be compatible with a viable global market system of production and distribution (ie, if they reduced at a rate of 7% p.a.), then Annex 1 countries (that includes us in NZ) would have had to have brought carbon emissions from all sources (not just fuel related sources) down to zero in 2010.
Now here’s the thing. Impossible as it is to time travel or to get carbon emissions from all sources down to zero, that was only for a 50/50 chance of avoiding 2 degrees C of warming.
Also, when 2 degrees C was put on the table in the late 90s (Para one of abstract) it was viewed as being the difference between ‘acceptable’ levels of warming and ‘dangerous’ levels of warming. As more comprehensive scientific data became available, 2 degrees C has come to be understood as the difference between ‘dangerous and ‘extremely dangerous’ levels of warming. (graph on pp 19)
But, back to a 2 degrees C target. If we throw away any idea of fairness, and coerce or convince China, India and Africa to just stop any attempts to develop, then our 50/50 chance of avoiding “extremely dangerous” levels of global warming entails no household appliances, no cars, no ships or planes, no street lighting or industry – in short, nothing anywhere in the world, running on any energy related to fossil fuels by 2040.
Now, given that emissions are currently going up, and given that it’s unlikely non-Annex 1 countries will simply agree to forego development, it doesn’t seem feasible to suggest the world will achieve zero emissions from all energy sources in that time frame.
So that leaves us having to accept “extremely dangerous” levels of warming. That’s the deal we’ve dealt ourselves. The only question left then is: “How little above 2 degrees can we aim for”? Currently, according to informed scientific opinion, we’re in the midst of creating a future world of 6 degrees C of warming. Some reports by the likes of the World Bank, pdfs here, and here , the International Energy Agency and Price Waterhouse Cooper suggest that 4 degrees C of warming above pre-industrial global temperatures could be experienced by as early as 2040-2050. ( p1 para 4 and 5)
Putting aside the question of crossing any tipping points (because the games a bogey at that point…completely out of our control), and if we also assume great strides are made in reducing carbon from agricultural/deforestation sources, then the scenario for almost certainly avoiding 4 degrees of warming is that we must, as a species, globally peak energy related emissions by 2020. And then achieve global reductions in emissions at a rate of 3.5% per annum thereafter. (P13 para 4)
Currently, the idea that we must peak energy related emissions in five or six years time doesn’t form any part of any government’s policy that I’ve come across. Here in NZ the idea seems to be to drop CO2 emissions to half of what they were in 1990 by 2050. I’ll leave it to you to decide, given the science and the fact that the problem with atmospheric carbon is its accumulation over time, as to whether that’s an adequate response.
The bottom line is that 4 degrees warming isn’t an option for us either biologically or in terms of having a civilisation. That level of warming is widely seen within the scientific community as being incompatible with any kind of organised global community. So we have to avoid it. No ‘ifs’ and no ‘buts’.
Now before you go scrabbling to bring to mind various reports, or reports of reports, that paint an altogether rosier picture than this in order to conclude that what’s been outlined here is fairly baseless, there’s a few things you need to know.
Almost all reports on AGW, including Stern’s update mentioned at the beginning of the post, assume fanciful negative carbon scenarios, usually in order to suggest “likely” outcomes – where ‘likely’ usually means somewhere in the range of ‘better than a 66% chance’. (Table on p3)
So, you know, when a report gushes that we’ll “likely” avoid 2 degrees warming, but is all the while quietly inserting negative carbon scenarios into the picture, it’s not just a punt (a two in three chance), but it’s a punt based on a clutch of coincidental abracadabra moments – the moment when thousands of CC&S compatible power stations will just pop up from nowhere; the moment when the logistics of sourcing bio-fuels for power stations, shipping, aviation, road transport, and everything else that’ll be looking to run on bio-fuel, is instantaneously and somewhat neatly resolved; the moment when all the necessary geological features for storage just appear from nowhere; the moment when CC&S on a large scale, doesn’t just magically appear, but is serendipitously found to ‘work’ exactly as hoped.
See, even if current, tried and tested technology, such as nuclear is proposed as a ‘get out of jail free card’, big questions remain such as – Is there enough uranium in the world to fuel thousands and thousands more nuclear power stations?…(sigh)…at which point, some people duck and dive and begin wittering on about thorium reactors…
So okay, it takes years – decades – for large scale technology to be developed, tested and rolled out. And then more years of tweaking and redesigning to get it (hopefully) performing as envisaged. And we don’t have years. Well, we do – we have about five of them. Given the lag in cause and effect, it is precisely the CO2 that we emit today, that then stacks on top the total we’ve already emitted, that determines the temperature increases of the future.
As for influential and popular reports by such luminaries as Stern and Hanson, that governments have based policy on, the pictures those reports painted have been well and truly discredited by Anderson and Bowes who have pointed out that (among other things) they employed wildly optimistic and non-empirical data sets to determine certain parameters of their models (eg – emission rates much lower than the actual known rates and peak emission dates arbitrarily placed in the past or in the immediate future etc)
So, the stuff mentioned in the previous paragraphs is based on bollocks and not science, and yet it’s precisely that stuff that underpins the vast majority of well regarded and influential reports on AGW. No-one within the scientific community, at least not to my knowledge, and yes, I have searched, has challenged the critical analyses Bowes and Anderson have made on the various and numerous reports they’ve considered. The Copenhagen Accord was a commitment by governments to form policies to keep temperatures below 2 degrees on a basis that was consistent with the science; not a commitment keep temperature increases below 2 degrees based on hopes and prayers.
So, that’s the science; avoiding 2 degrees C is now all but impossible, and dipping below 4 degrees C is looking increasingly unlikely. But look. If you want to keep on contributing to impossible futures, if not for yourself, then certainly for any young people attached to your life, then cling to whatever rosy falsehoods you have and carry on exactly as you are.
Alternatively, understand that your civilisation and way of life will not be possible with 4 degrees of warming. And acknowledge that this civilisation and you’re way of living is steadily making any dip below 4 degrees C of warming increasingly improbable. Then act intelligently, accordingly, and maybe most importantly of all, quickly.