The 40 page summary published this month by the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change makes some startling statements. The summary is the capstone of three major reports, 6 years of work and 30 years of experience in getting governments and scientists to clarify the likely outcomes of the increasing load of greenhouse gasses in our shared atmosphere. Recall that these are the same folks that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Though their detractors portray them as self-serving nerds whipping up hysteria in order to continue their research, the sheer effort involved deserves our attention.
Here are the statements that stood out for me:
Stop burning or die
There is a fixed limit to the amount of carbon fuel we can burn before we heat the atmosphere by 2 degrees Celsius. We’ve released 1800 gigatons of CO2 since 1870. We can double that amount and still have a chance of maintaining the climate to which we are accustomed. After that, all bets are off. The litany of disasters, migrations, declining food production and rising sea levels – that we are used to hearing about from this cheery group – kicks in with a vengeance at that point. Once we reach the limit, there is no turning back. The climate will remain warm for several hundred years until the earth can absorb all our exhaust fumes. Our society has come to regard oil and gas exploration as a good thing but, increasingly over the next century, it will become at first pointless and then evil. There will be no way to use this cheap source of energy without unleashing more havoc on our neighbours.
The problem is in the ocean
Once heat is trapped by the greenhouse gases it sloshes around quite a bit, driving weather systems and heating everywhere from the upper atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean. It turns out that 90% of the heat ends up in the oceans. The water will not only be warmer but will be more acidic and have less oxygen. This is bad news for fish production and coral reefs. Even if we succeed in holding the line at 2 degrees of warming, sea levels will continue to rise for centuries.
The next 16 years are crucial
Though there will still be time to quit carbon fuels cold turkey after 2030, it will be a much more expensive and wrenching process. Research that leads to removing CO2 from exhaust is considered an important strategy for reducing emissions. However, it is unlikely that such an approach can be applied cheaply. Late starters will have to spend heavily on this technology as well as on refitting their industries to electricity from renewable and nuclear sources. Though currently there is no great incentive for countries to prepare for a zero carbon emission society, those that get a head start in the next decade and a half will have an economic advantage.
Plan B is risky
Solar Radiation Management is a potential plan B for keeping the planet below the 2 degree target. There are a lot of uncertainties and problems with this large scale effort to increase cloud formation, the most damning of which is that it would lead to rapid warming if we were unable to sustain this effort to shut out the sun.
Changing how we invest
It is difficult and politically unpopular to get steady declines in carbon emissions underway. The summary document has high confidence that a carbon tax can weaken the link between increasing carbon emissions and a growing economy. They also recognize that more subtle approaches, like fuel taxes, power generation policy and energy efficiency guides are easier to put in place. Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper may be right in arguing that carbon taxes kill jobs in the short term. However, given the inevitability of the shutdown of coal, gas and oil industries, it might be better to look at such a tax as an investment in future jobs.
Hope from Beijing
The recent agreement between the United States and China on climate change sets the world on the right path towards removing this self-inflicted wound on our economies and our environments. Importantly, the side benefit of reducing air pollution in China makes this deal work. The summary points to other side benefits, including sustainable development for poor countries. My opinion is that the climate deal to be brokered by the UN next year in Paris should feature a couple of key conditions:
- All signatories should put in place a nominal carbon tax at a rate that will pay for their own immediate impacts from climate change (e.g. disaster assistance and rising insurance premiums).
- In addition, each country should pay into a climate change fund in proportion to their total contribution to carbon emissions since 1870. This fund should be used in less developed countries to address the most cost-efficient ways of decreasing carbon emissions.
- All incentives for carbon fuel development should be phased out over the coming decade.
- Carbon emission targets from Cancun – which the summary report found to be inadequate – should be reviewed in terms of the total cost for a country to reach zero emissions by 2100.
In the end, I hope the Intergovernmental Panel will be recognized more broadly than by the Nobel Prize committee. I hope they will be seen as heroes who saved the climates and homelands of ordinary people around the world.