Hard Numbers to Remember.

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 am, December 8th, 2015 - 32 comments
Categories: climate change, energy, Environment, global warming, Revolution, science - Tags: , ,

This post is essentially a distillation of two presentations given by Kevin Anderson at the Earth 101 gathering in Iceland earlier this year. You can view them here and here I highly recommend that you do as they are packed with high quality, no nonsense information. For those who don’t know, Kevin Anderson was the director of the Tyndall Centre, the UK’s leading academic climate change research organization and is a professor of energy and climate change in the School of Mechanical, Aeronautical and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester.
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In about a weeks time COP 21 will wind up, spin machines will crank up, and no doubt they’ll whir furiously for a while. The numbers below, derived from the hard scientific data and not including any wishful thinking with regards big sucky machines some day taking CO2 directly back out from the atmosphere, well…they don’t add up, stack up or, unlike politicians and policy makers, lie. So you might want to know what they are.

The global growth rate of emissions is about 2 or 3% per annum and annual global emissions are now 60% above what they were in the 1990s. Our current emissions pathway will see us emit something in the order of 5000Gt of CO2 this century. That equates to an average global surface temperature somewhere in the region of 4 to 6 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. No-one who has thought about it believes there will be evidence of a functioning, integrated global community at those temperatures; it’s an impossible future.

In order to give us a 2 in 3 chance of avoiding 2 degrees C of warming, it’s calculated that we might be able to emit as much as 1000Gt of CO2 between the years 2011 and 2100. (IPCC figures)

Between 2011 and 2014 (inclusive) we emitted, from all sources, 150Gt of this century’s CO2 budget – ie, we’ve just emitted 15% of the total volume of emissions that would give us a 2 in 3 chance of avoiding 2 degrees C warming in the space of 4 years.

1000Gt minus the 150Gt we emitted over the past four years leaves us 850Gt of possible emissions from all sources for between now and 2100. If we then subtract projected emissions from both land use and cement for between 2015 and 2100, we are left with a budget of around 600Gt for energy related emissions.

China recently said it reckoned it could peak its emissions by 2030 (India is looking at sometime around 2035 at best). Both of those targets are ambitious. But let’s imagine they can do it even quicker than that and peak their emissions in 10 years from now (2025). And let’s also imagine that all non-OECD countries can also peak their emissions by the same date. And then let’s assume that they all drop their energy related emissions at an annual rate of some 6 – 8% p.a. until they achieve zero emissions from energy. Okay, bear in mind that level of reduction has never been achieved before. As a marker, the collapse of the USSR saw emissions drop by about 5% p.a. over a few years.

In that scenario, the emissions from energy amounts to 700Gt. But for a 2 in 3 chance of avoiding 2 degrees C, we can only emit 600Gt. So we’re 100Gt over budget before we factor in the energy related emissions from any OECD/’Western’/Annex 1 country. We in ‘the west’ could have turned out all of the lights and switched off all the ignitions and pilot lights and what have you, shut down all the gas or coal power stations and burned the very last drop of fossil fuel back in 2011 – and the world would blow the emissions budget for a 2 in 3 chance of avoiding 2 degrees of warming.

Question. Would you take a 50/50 chance on anything your life depended on? I wouldn’t and I guess you wouldn’t either. But this isn’t something we get to cop out of or walk away from. It’s what we’ve got. The global carbon budget for a 50/50 chance of avoiding 2 degrees sits at around 1300Gt (IPCC figures) – 300Gt above the 2 in 3 chance that, according to the figures and calculations above, just doesn’t pan out.

Running the same optimistic scenario as above, ‘the west’, annex 1 or OECD countries have a total energy related emissions budget of 200Gt for between now and 2100. What that means is that the richer countries of the world have to achieve zero emissions from energy by about 2030. And that means reducing energy related emissions at a rate of around 15% p.a. – ie, to have reduced emissions by 40% by 2018 and by 70% by 2025. Achieving those kinds of reduction rates probably means cutting the economy loose if the example of Russia is instructive, or if the input to climate change models from orthodox economists are to be believed.

The Paris talks aren’t going to produce any plans that come close to achieving anything like the emission reductions necessary for a 2 degrees C future. There will be whole lot of bluster and bullshit designed to cover for the fact that an impossible future (+ 3 degrees C or whatever) is beckoning us from just a little way down the track. There will be talk of grand energy supply side schemes (that can’t be built quickly enough) and of unknown carbon capture and storage technology (that may never exist).

In other words, we will be actively discouraged from imagining and taking the necessary actions that would allow us to find out whether the seemingly impossible task of avoiding 2 degrees C is in fact possible. For all of us, accepting the rosy but unrealistic spin that’s about to come our way is going to mean accepting an impossible, not too distant future.

I’m guessing we’ll generally be happy enough to be discouraged, because you know, that wool will probably feel strangely comforting as it pulls over our eyes. I hope I’m wrong, mind.

32 comments on “Hard Numbers to Remember.”

  1. Wayne 2

    Bill,

    Based on what you have written, it appears that you envisage that China and India may be able to peak by 2025. Well that is certainly reasonable for China. However that is only part of the story. Thereafter China will have to start reducing their emissions. It does not appear you have envisaged that. But it will be essential.

    China (unlike India) is already a middle income country. For instance they already have a car for every eight people and by 2020 it will be a car for every four or five people. Their per capita emissions are already comparable to Europe, so they are going to have to reduce emissions in the same way as European nations.

    Without that, the OECD nations, but especially the US, will not radically reduce their emissions. A zero target by 2030 is therefore fanciful. Some smaller countries may achieve it, but the big ones especially will not.

    The carbon budget of 700Gt for energy, will have to be allocated differently to what you envisage.

    Have you for instance calculated (or have you read anything) what the allocation of the global energy carbon budget looks like if the best practice of a modern European country was applied to whole world?

    But that I mean applying the 2030 commitments of say Sweden across everyone in the world.

    • Bill 2.1

      Is there any chance you might trouble yourself in the future to read posts before commenting? (Or maybe the Copenhagen Accord the NZ government signed? [reduction policy to hold below two degrees based on available science and equity])

      In the post I posit a very difficult scenario for the developing world – 6 – 8% reductions in emissions pa.

      The rest I’m going to skip because it’s just plain fucking vexatious, but sure, zero by 2030 and 2050 is considered politically impossible (‘fanciful’ in your words) by many. It’s not. Radical changes in behaviour that can emerge overnight take us there.

      Meanwhile, a four fucking degrees future is impossible. And unlike the ‘impossible by 30 or 50’ statement you and others make, that four degree statement’s not based on politics.

    • lprent 2.2

      One of the problems with looking at places like Sweden as a model is that they have already poured most of their concrete and got their steel.

      The vehicle emissions in China, while significiant in the future, aren’t really where they are getting their shift. It is because they aren’t doing as much construction and not putting in as many coal powered power stations as they were a few years ago. They aren’t likely to do so in the future.

      Most of the developing world will run through the process as they lift living standards of their populations from very low incomes to mid-range. They don’t have room to limit their emissions unless the developed world wants to give them more efficient income raising technologies – which seems bloody unlikely because of the levels of intransigence from the developed world. So they will do it the cheapest (and usually dirtiest) way possible.

      Mind you if we wanted to provide room for them in the carbon budget, then the fastest and simplest way would be to stop all animal farming and feeding of carnivore pets in the developed nations. That’d provide a medium term hiatus from the reduction of methane and the more efficient use of farm land

  2. Wayne 3

    Bill,

    Fair point about missing the relevant sentence. I find I am more likely to do that when reading a screen.

    You are right. It would require very radical changes for the OECD nations to get to Zero by 2030. And I am certain that such a thing will not be done in just 15 years from now (which you seem to accept in your primary post). I suspect either a slower time frame, such as 2050 will be necessary, with China also hitting that target at the same time.

    So maybe some major geo-engineering will be necessary from 2050 onward to reduce the amount of sunlight that is absorbed.

    • Bill 3.1

      It’s like you still haven’t read the post Wayne. Which part of the simple arithmetic around the carbon budget don’t you get? Even the very difficult and tight time frame in the post gives a mere 50/50 chance of avoiding 2 degrees. If the west hangs out til 2050, then the chances for two degrees will be nada, zilch and zero. You happy to resign yourself to simply throwing your hands up in the air and placing faith in some hallelujah thing riding out of the sunset? That’s not acceptable.

      And as for geo-engineering – we have nothing up our sleeves beyond wishful thinking on that front. We could have fixed all of this with current, tried and tested technology if we’d chosen to do something back in 1990 or whenever. Now there is no technological fix: We’re out of time.

      Now the problem is social and behavioural…and that’s where the dearth of imagination and/or political will on the part of our governments and institutions comes into play. They are entrenched and call the shots, but the systemic focus is on preservation of the status quo or some recognisable version of it. Insofar as they (the people who inhabit governments and institutions) are incapable of imagining possible futures, they are condemning us to an impossible one.

      • Pasupial 3.1.1

        Wayne

        “I a[m] certain that such a thing will not be done in just 15 years… a slower time frame, such as 2050 will be necessary… So maybe some major geo-engineering from 2050 onward…”

        You’ll be dead by 2050, so won’t have to sacrifice any aspect of your lifestyle – which is convenient for you. Not so much for those of us (and their children) left to try clean up the mess.

        As for major geo-engineering; that is exactly what the continued emission of fossil carbon is. The exothermic reaction of combustion produces energy that is inefficiently harnessed into work. Recapturing the carbon thus emitted is an endothermic reaction that will require more energy than produced in the centuries of emission since the industrial revolution (due to that inefficiency).

        Apres vous le deluge.

      • lprent 3.1.2

        We actually know several geo-engineering systems that work. Some types of pollution and cloud formation are effective tested and tried. I suspect that we can probably induce volcanoes for a while with underground judicious nuclear explosions.

        None are effective as they don’t sequester greenhouse gases. So all they do is increase the risk if their technological infrastructure ever has a breakdown because they don’t force the pace of adaption. Stopping them will cause a rapid increase in the rate of climate change that is likely to be faster than previously.

        Besides all of the known and possible techniques carry risk levels that are as high as, if not higher, than the slow pace of climate change.

        I don’t think that we have a hope in hell of remaining below 2 degrees C whatever we do now. There are two many feedback systems and slow transports to do so. It wouldn’t surprise me if we hit 2C within the next three or four El Nino cycles regardless of what humans now do. I suspect we are on track to humans being driven out of large chunks of the tropics, and having a severely diminished agricultural system by the end of the century.

        The IPCC reports being based on high probability science, in an area where we don’t have nearly enough long-term data, gives a excessively optimistic viewpoint. If you talk to the people who read the papers about current not high probability science, the viewpoint is way more pessimistic.

        All because we have populations who really prefer driving their SUVs to looking after the welfare of their grandkids kids.

        • Bill 3.1.2.1

          I don’t think that we have a hope in hell of remaining below 2 degrees C…

          Agree. So that leaves us looking at going as little above 2 degrees as possible (ie, aiming for 2 degrees and copping a measure of failure) while hoping like hell various feedback loops haven’t already set in. (Not optimistic on that front.)

          Deep and radical behavioural change across the whole of society is probably the only course of action left to us now. Unfortunately, the people we have entrusted power to, as well as those who have been ‘rewarded’ by way of privilege, have a lot to lose by encouraging that. Meanwhile and in addition, our institutions do not encourage either the intellect or imagination to instigate any such shift.

          So how do you promulgate the hopeful idea of revolution to those wed to the notion that swift and radical change is always going to be detrimental and chaotic? And how do you cut through the miasma of current propaganda in order to even engage them in the first place?

          Answers on a post card or on the back of a sealed stamped envelope, aye? 😉

        • Macro 3.1.2.2

          Yes – I’ve long thought 2 degrees is in the rear view mirror – and that is assuming a rather benign climate sensitivity. I strongly suspect that actually climate sensitivity is more sensitive than the rather conservative average figure used by the IPPC. Certainly the last few years are showing a strong warming trend and the latest indicators are that we are in for a rough time ahead.
          I agree with everything you say Bill. I have recently been reading “Consumptionomics” by Chandran Nair subtitled “Asia’s role in reshaping capitalism and saving the planet.” In it he addresses his book to Asia and says that it is impossible for Asia to follow the lifestyle of the west and there is an urgent need rethink consumption of diminishing resources, the way we measure economic wealth and social health the changing balance of power between east and west and the damage we are doing to the natural environment. I think there is some hope in China – there are some indicators from there that are positive. I can’t say the same from India,
          But even though we point the finger at the East – their emissions are almost exclusively our emissions because the West has simply exported the large proportion of its manufacturing emissions to the East. Their production is largely for consumption in the West. If the West was to reduce its consumption – emissions from Asia would drop accordingly. But can you imagine westerners not wanting the latest smart TV or idodacky, or a dozen new T shirts for $20?

      • Pat 3.1.3

        the problem with explaining to those that have the denier/delayer attitude is if you make them understand the basic truth of the situation then their response is likely to be one of eat,drink and be merry for tomorrow we die….hardly conducive to the radical changes required within our societies to give our children a fighting chance

        • One Anonymous Bloke 3.1.3.1

          The new meme goes like this:

          “It’s a hoax It’s a hoax It’s a hoax It’s a hoax It’s a hoax It’s a hoax it’s too late to do anything about it now.”

    • weka 3.2

      Are you willing to bet your life on technology that doesn’t exist currently and might never exist?

      Relying on major geoengineering is exactly the kind of thinking that got us in this mess in the first place. We are nowhere near smart enough as a species to manage something like that while taking into account the complexities of natural ecosystems upon which we are all completely dependent. It’s like giving a chemistry set to a 5 year old. This is how we created climate change.

      I know it can be hard for people so immersed in industrical society to face the fact that industrial society is inherently unsustainable. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t solutions, and it doesn’t mean that we all have to live horrible lives. We do have to change though.

      • Tracey 3.2.1

        “Are you willing to bet your life on technology that doesn’t exist currently and might never exist?”

        No need, he will have died by 2050. However it seems he is happy to bet the lives of his grandchildren.

        • weka 3.2.1.1

          True. My next question would be why is he willing to risk the lives of others. I’m curious how people work that out in their heads. I suspect what’s really going on is that they don’t believe it’s as bad as it is, they think there is still time.

          • Tracey 3.2.1.1.1

            It’s a shame he has moved from TPP issues to this one to be honest.

            The ideology runs strong in this one… same shit different topic…

      • Lanthanide 3.2.2

        We’re smart enough as a species to do it. But as a species we’re also far too greedy and entitled to:
        1. Believe the people who are telling us that things are bad and the future looks grim
        2. Change our behaviour to try and avoid the grim future

    • Macro 3.3

      The main problem with extracting CO2 from the atmosphere is where do you put it when you have done so.
      One proposed solution is to pump it miles out into the deep ocean – but the problem with that is that as this CO2 runs down over the sea bed it kills all life on the bottom. Its an ecological disaster.
      http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/ocean-carbon-sequestration-the-worlds-best-bad-idea-23521
      Pumping it into disused mines is another solution – but a limited one.
      The other problem is that habitation anywhere near a CO2 sink is impossible in case of a leak.

  3. Timely post. Puts all of our tinkering about the edges in perspective.

  4. Bill 5

    C-hrist on a bike! Moving into that space where anger precludes words.

    I heard last night that Australia was backing this 1.5 degree nonsense and now I see it being reported in The Guardian that there is a push from developed nations to adopt it.

    Here’s the deal. The world will fail to achieve 1.5 degrees – 2 degrees is already very, very shaky. But in calling for 1.5 degrees, developed nations can dump their previous commitment to tackling CC with an eye to equity (the Copenhagen Accord) and pressure developing nations to end any laying in of water reticulation, hospitals, transport and energy networks…the things we take for granted and that people suffer and die for the lack of.

    As Ashok Lavasa, India’s lead negotiator, says. “Why not 1C why 1.5C? The moment we are talking about target we are also talking about carbon budgets. We need to look at the development space that is available and therefore those who are eager to maintain it below 2C should actually be working to maintain that carbon space so that they don’t compromise the needs of developing countries.” (my emphasis)

    Or Erich Pica from FoE “The US and European countries are adopting the idea of 1.5C as a mitigation target but they are blurring of the lines on what has to happen to have a just and fair sharing of the 1.5C equation.” (my emphasis)

    In other words, western negotiators are being unconscionable bastards giving a fuck for nothing beyond their self anointed ‘entitlement’ to burn a little more fucking fossil.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/07/paris-climate-talks-biggest-polluters-back-tougher-warming-target

  5. weka 6

    I’m guessing we’ll generally be happy enough to be discouraged, because you know, that wool will probably feel strangely comforting as it pulls over our eyes. I hope I’m wrong, mind.

    Nah, too many people know now, and once you know it’s very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Whether we will change in time, I don’t know, but I have no doubt that people are waking up. Look at the change of the last 5 years, and even the change this year. Yes, the media and appointed leaders are mostly all freaked out about reality and in varying levels of denial, deception and self-centredness. But not all of them, and slowly but surely truth will out.

  6. Colonial Viper 7

    The deep sea clatharate gun has been fired and the issue is now out of human hands.

    • Bill 7.1

      Is that right? So there was a ‘burp’ through the night some time that released millions of tonnes or whatever of methane that I simply haven’t heard reported yet and that you can provide a link for? No.

      Can’t see any point in just sitting around twiddling my thumbs anticipating Brunnhilde’s dulcet tones btw. Y’know, just sayin’…

  7. Bill 8

    Great. From ‘The Guardian’ again – The main body of the Paris agreement will deal with goals from 2020 onwards, when current commitments expire.

    Meanwhile, for a 50/50 chance to avoid 2 degrees, ‘the west’ – according to the science – has to reduce emissions by 40% from current levels by 2018. Oh well, I guess the world and reality will just wait until they get around to addressing it.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/07/france-moves-breakneck-speed-paris-deal-done

    Somewhat laughably in the same article, but separated by a few paragraphs, is the following stuff and nonsense –

    One EU official told the Guardian that there had been no resolution yet of which parts of an agreement should be binding and which might have a lesser legal status, but nevertheless would be publicly stated commitments that any government would find difficult to renege upon.

    Followed a few paragraphs later by –

    The Kyoto protocol of 1997, which required rich countries to cut their emissions by about 5.2% in total, was legally binding but was never passed by the US Congress. As a result, it only came into force in 2005 and many countries ignored its provisions, without sanctions.

    The Copenhagen declaration in 2009 was not a legally binding document, but its provisions – by which the world’s biggest developed and developing countries jointly agreed for the first time to emissions limits – are still in force.

    • Tracey 8.1

      For a real laugh, go to RNZ from yesterday and hear Hoots paint Key as some kind of Hero of the COP12 conference. The man who, acccoridng to Hoots, single-handedly brought China and the uSA together to save the world.

      what a Hoot!

  8. The last time the environment went from about 280 ppm CO2 to 400 ppm CO2 it took something like 10,000 years, during that 10,000 year transition, most of life would have gone extinct. The oceans would have been stagnant dead zones, there would have been at least 60% less oxygen in the atmosphere, the oceans would be something like 26 meters higher, and the global average temp would have been 6 degrees above the 1880 yard stick ‘we’ use as the start of our end.
    CH4 which some say is 150 times stronger a Green House Gas than CO2 has risen from an 800,000 year average of point 7 ppm to nearly 2.ppm in the last 30 years, and is currently growing exponentially. There is something like 50 million years worth trapped under the fast melting sub sea ice and tundra, there could be the equivalent of over 80 times more CO2 worth of CH4 than humans have emitted in the last 200 years, with a 50 giggaton burst ‘any day now’ being predicted for over 14 months, tick tick on that one … 50 GT is equal to about 2 times the amount we have added to the environment.
    Link for Weka – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kx1Jxk6kjbQ
    Reducing emissions now will not be felt until after the affect of the current atmospheric loading has passed, and is in decline. CO2 hangs around the atmosphere for about 1,000 years .
    The Cop21 goal now of staying below +2c is admitting we have failed.
    The only way we could have avoided +6 is if we had stayed below +.5 … ops.

    We are fucked, our leaders are all clowns, and we foolishly think changing them every few years is going to change something, for the better.
    We get the idiots we have as leaders, because they are a byproduct of us. At this late stage in our coming extinction, it wouldn’t matter if we had Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa (who was actually a bitch), Gandhi, Hugo Chávez, and Robert Kennedy, running the show.
    The bullet has left the barrel, passed through our politicians heads, with no resistance, and is coming to get your children.
    We are in denial.
    Sadly bailing like a drowning mad person will not help.
    Oh I forgot we now have Paula, god save the little children.

    • In Vino 9.1

      “The fact that they were able to do it,”
      said the astronomer gazing off into the air,
      “is proof that highly intelligent people
      must have been living there.”

      A neat poem that I remember from the ’70s. The poet was writing about us, who had destroyed our planet by nuclear warfare, and an alien astronomer from wherever observing the ruins of our planet from afar…

      Well, it now seems more relevant than ever, but we will not have achieved it by nuclear warfare.

      Unless we act fast. (Syria may yet provide such an opportunity..)

      • b waghorn 9.1.1

        If things get rough and I’m picking they’re going to, the nuclear option will be added to the mess at some stage.

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