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.
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.