Conference - Going Beyond Dangerous Climate Change: Exploring the void between rhetoric and reality in reducing carbon emissions
The local groups' Conference was held between the 14-16 September – Everyone enjoyed the weekend and each attendee from our group has written a short piece on their favourite part:
Going Beyond Dangerous Climate Change: Exploring the void between rhetoric and reality in reducing carbon emissions
To keep the temperature rise to within the 2⁰C limit, we would need to have a 10% reduction in emissions year on year, starting now, at least in the developed world. This may seem impossible to achieve, but will it be possible to live with a rise of 4⁰C by 2050-70?
Going Beyond Dangerous Climate Change: Exploring the void between rhetoric and reality in reducing carbon emissions
A talk given by Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Climate Change Centre, University of Manchester, at the FoE Conference, Imperial College, London, Saturday 15 September 2012 (first given in July 2011)
Kevin Anderson believes that we are now on track to "go beyond dangerous climate change". This view is based on numbers that he describes as "brutal .... that are not what we wanted to hear", and that there is little hope of our taking effective action to mitigate the situation.
Even the International Energy Agency (a relatively conservative and highly respected organisation) is now very pessimistic about the future, believing that we are now on track for a rise of 3.5⁰C by 2040 (which means 4.2⁰C relative to pre-industrial temperatures). In their view, the data suggests that temperatures could increase by 6⁰C, which would have devastating consequences for the planet.
KA's talk focuses on the gap between what politicians say about climate change and what we, as a society, are actually doing to mitigate it.
Many people have made small changes, such as switching to a more energy efficient car, but this is of little use if we are all driving more.
The key questions are: "what are we responding to?", "what are we doing, as individuals and as a society?" and "what is our goal, nationally and internationally?"
The Copenhagen Accord (2009) is very clear: the aim is to prevent global temperatures rising by more than 2⁰C "which is consistent with the science and on the basis of equity". This is the stated objective of the EU and of the UK's Low Carbon Transition Plan (2009). However, the policies that have been adopted mean that there is only about a 1/5 chance of actually achieving this goal.
What needs to be done to stay within a 2⁰C temperature rise?
This means a global mean surface temperature rise of 2⁰C compared to the pre-industrial period. For people in the UK a rise of 2⁰C sounds quite attractive. However, the rise would not be distributed evenly. At the poles it could mean a warming of 7⁰C. Most of the earth's surface is covered by sea, so it could mean 3⁰C on land, with big changes in precipitation, and other serious repercussions.
Where does the figure of 2⁰C come from? The international community, with the guidance of scientists and civil society, have a consensus position that the collective impacts of this rise would be tolerable, above that, they would be intolerable. This assessment dates from the late 1990s. It was revisited in 2009 for the Copenhagen talks. The science has come a long way since 2000 and it is now thought that the impacts will be much more serious with smaller increases in temperature. Therefore 1⁰C may be the new 2⁰C, i.e. the new safe limit. In terms of practical reality, in view of all the emissions that are already in the atmosphere, the hoping of staying below a 2⁰C rise is tiny.
What level of carbon reductions is required to stick to a 2⁰C rise? How should the carbon 'budget' [the amount that can be emitted before the whole world gets down to near zero] be split between the developed and the developing world?
UK has set itself a carbon reduction target of 80% by 2050. The EU has set a target of 60-80% over the same period, while Bali has a target of 50%. 2050 is a convenient date: for politicians it means "not in my term of office", for companies it means that immediate investments are not affected, while for ordinary people it means we can pass on the problem to the next generation. It means that we hope the problem can be solved by someone else, with technology, a long time in the future. Unfortunately this has no basis in science.
It should not be forgotten that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for 100-200 years. Therefore 2050 reduction targets are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the accumulation of long-lived gases in the atmosphere. Long-term gradual reductions are not enough. We need to make radical changes now.
What is the scale of the problem? Things are getting worse much faster than was first thought. The rate of increase in CO2 emissions has grown alarmingly in the last few years, rising from 2.7% p.a. over the last 100 years to 5.6% p.a. in 2009-10. The increase in population and consumption – of stuff, cars, flights etc. follows the same trend. If any other species followed this pattern we would be very pessimistic about their prospects. However, we believe we are clever enough to defy the laws of science.
The current economic downturn has only had a very small impact on CO2 emissions. In future we are likely to see much higher rates of increase as China and India produce more and more stuff (much of it for consumption in the rich world), deriving much of their energy from coal. We are going in totally the wrong direction.
What does this failure to reduce emissions, so far, tell us about what we need to do in the future?
The earlier our emissions peak the better, because if they peak sooner rather than later, it means that we won't have to come down from the peak as fast as would be necessary if they peaked later.
If we peak in 2015 (as the Stern report assumed), emissions could fall to almost zero by 2050, except for emissions from agriculture, which are unavoidable (even if the tractors are all carbon free, the use of fertiliser and growing plants will still put CO2 into the atmosphere).
If we peak in 2020, energy emissions will have to fall by around 10% p.a. after that date. Even then, the science is very uncertain in this scenario, and the probability of avoiding dangerous climate change is only 50:50. This scenario is very optimistic about the rate at which deforestation can be brought under control.
Reductions of 10% per annum would be extremely difficult: the British switch to gas-fired power stations only brought emissions down by 1% p.a., as did the French switch to nuclear energy (because the UK and French economies grew to make up for the reduction), while the collapse of the Soviet economy led to emissions reductions of only 5% p.a., for about ten years.
How is this different from the standard analysis?
Emissions' growth rates are much higher than was expected a few years ago. Earlier reports (e.g. Stern, UK Committee on Climate Change) expected emissions to peak in 2010-16. The UK Committee expected China and India to peak in 2017 (without consulting them). These expectations are not realistic.
It is now thought that we will peak much later and reductions post-peak should be about 10%. Earlier reports thought that 2-4% would be sufficient.
Most analysts suggest [hope] that technology will provide the solutions, but big supply technologies will not be in place fast enough. Far more can be achieved [in the short term] through behavioural change and energy-demand technologies.
We are now in a world of very large, very rapid change. Conventional economics, which are premised on marginal changes, cannot deal with this. Economists believe that the same solutions can be applied to all problems, big and small, but the problems we are facing are massive and conventional solutions will not work. Conventional economics can provide solutions for 'niche' parts of climate change but cannot address the broader issues.
Would it be more realistic to try to hold the rise at 4⁰C? (with a peak at 2020 and reductions of 3.5% p.a. thereafter). A 4⁰C rise would mean a 5-6⁰C global rise on land (as most of the earth's surface is sea), with + 6-8⁰ on the hottest days in China, + 8-10⁰ in central Europe and even higher in New York. This would mean a reduction in the region of 40% in maize and rice yields, at low latitudes (when the population is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050). A rise of this magnitude is thought to be incompatible with an "organised global community". It would be devastating for the majority of eco-systems and would probably not be stable, i.e. the temperature would rise further before it stabilised. It should therefore be avoided at all costs.
If the rise in emissions is to be held at 2⁰C, how can the emissions 'budget' be split between the rich world and the developing world?
The developing world might be able to peak in 2025 and then see their emissions fall at a rate of 7% p.a. thereafter (twice the rate anticipated in the Stern report). In this scenario the rich world would have to cut its emissions to zero immediately.
China is currently responsible for about 25% of global CO2 emissions, with a GDP growth rate of 10.5% p.a. (ten year trend), while India accounts for about 6% of global CO2 emissions, with a GDP growth rate of 7.4% p.a. While Shanghai and Beijing are very developed with living standards on a par with those in the OECD (developed countries), around 200 million Chinese people live on only $1.25/day and another 350 million live on $10-20/day. So there's plenty of scope for living standards to rise. India's per capita income is much lower, so again, there is huge scope for growth.
It is highly likely that by 2020 China will account for 50% of the world's CO2 emissions. If China carries on growing at the same rate, by 2030, its emissions will be same as the rest of the world's emissions now. The Chinese themselves expect their emissions to peak in 2030, with a post-peak reduction of 3.5-5%. But none of these figures are embedded in Western models. India is expected to follow a similar pathway, and again Western modellers don't take account of these projections.
Currently policy makers are acting upon much more optimistic projections: they believe, or have been told, that it will be possible to prevent global temperatures rising by no more than 2⁰C without too much economic pain. E.g. "the good news is that reductions of that size are possible without sacrificing the benefits of economic growth and rising prosperity," (UK Committee on Climate Change 2009).
However, Anderson and Bows of the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University believe that dangerous climate change can only be avoided if the rich world accepts a period of prolonged austerity while developing countries "transition away from existing development patterns".
Why are there two such different interpretations of the same science?
§ Recent historical emissions have sometimes been ‘mistaken’ or ‘massaged’
§ Short-term emissions growth has been seriously down played
§ Peak year choice is ‘Machiavellian’ & dangerously misleading
§ Reduction rate is universally dictated by economists
§ Belief in geoengineering is widespread in low carbon scenarios
§ Split between emissions of developed and developing countries is neglected or hidden
§ Assumptions about ‘Big’ technology are naively optimistic
§ (‘Net’ Costs meaningless with non-marginal mitigation & adaptation)
The optimists have a magician's view of time and a linear view of problems – e.g. they think that if we don't do it now, we will be able to do it later [without realising or acknowledging that the scale of the problem will have changed].
Do we have the agency to escape from this dilemma?
How much can we do? How many people need to really change their life style?
According to the Pareto 80:20 rule [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle], about 80% of emissions come from about 20% of the world's population. If this is run three times, about 50% of emissions come from 1% of the population, which, illustratively, means anyone earning more than about £30K p.a., and anyone who flies at least once a year.
This gives us hope, as it means we know who to target. However, are we sufficiently concerned to make or accept major changes to our lifestyles to avoid a rise of 4⁰C in the future?
Fortunately, demand side reforms can make a big difference. Electricity generation and transmission are very inefficient, so small changes in demand can have a big impact on supply [most electricity gets lost in the process of conversion and transmission]. Some diesel cars are now extremely efficient. If all drivers switched to very energy-efficient vehicles this would have a big impact on emissions – we could see a 50% reduction by 2020. Increasing vehicle occupancy rates could also have a big impact.
§ If the link between emissions and temperature change is correct
§ If emissions peak in the developing world by 2025/30
§ If there are rapid reductions in deforestation emissions
§ If food emissions halve in today's values by 2050
§ If there are no 'tipping points'
§ If Stern reductions of 3-4% are achieved
Holding the global temperature rise to 2⁰C is very unlikely, or "virtually impossible".
A 4⁰C rise by 2050-70 looks likely, and 4⁰C is unlikely to be stable – it could go much higher.
We have to acknowledge we have left it so late to respond to the challenge – that we now face radical and completely unprecedented levels of mitigation if we are to have even an outside chance of 2°C. In the West these cannot be reconciled with continued economic growth – at least not until we have low/zero carbon energy supply in place (not just electricity).
Therefore, climate scientists now feel that we should be mitigating for 2⁰C – doing everything we can to hold emissions to 2⁰C – while planning for a rise of 4⁰C (this is of particular relevance to builders, farmers, engineers, town planners, etc.)
At the moment we are doing the opposite: we are mitigating for 4⁰C – doing what we can to hold emissions to 4⁰C – while planning for a rise of 2⁰C. Which is the worst of all worlds.
Unfortunately we are not prepared to make the changes necessary or be honest about it. Government advisers say that "too much is invested in 2⁰C for us to say it's not possible – it would undermine everything that's been achieved. It will give a sense of hopelessness – we may as well just give in."
However, "this [talk] is not a message of futility, but a wakeup call". The hope is slim, but it still exists.
In the words of Roberto Unger: "At every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different."
The only thing we can be sure of is that the future will be different: if we do nothing, we will be hit by the effects of climate change; if we mitigate to avoid the worst, the changes will still be very significant.
Our role now is to think harder, to have greater clarity and imagination and to "make the impossible, possible." The situation is not hopeless, but hope is diminishing every day.
Change is possible. We live in a very wasteful world in which people heat their gardens in winter with patio heaters and drive 4x4 vehicles tiny distances on trivial errands. We eat strawberries in mid-winter and think we have a right to fly and drive wherever and whenever we want. We want second homes, three cars and TVs in every room, etc, etc. While the population is heading for nine billion!
Meanwhile we imagine that we will be able to solve all our problems with a bit of technology in 2030. This is wildly over-optimistic. We need to understand that we are way beyond that now. We started talking about climate change in the 1990s, but have done very little about it since then, other than talk. The time has come to act. If we do act appropriately there is an outside chance that we will be able to hold the rise to 2⁰C, maybe 3⁰C. If we do nothing we are bound to see temperatures rise by at least 4⁰C, or more, with all the catastrophic consequences that that entails. The choice is with us today.
The talk is available at: http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professor-kevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyond-dangerous
The full report is available at: http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/20.full.pdf+html