Citizen Action Monitor

With annual global emission increases of 3-5 percent, humans are hurtling towards a cliff

The prospects for reducing emissions to meet the 2°C target look grim

No 1205 Posted by fw, December 8, 2014

redflag 2“Despite considerable discussions about climate change, particularly since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, emissions have gone up rather than down, as one might have expected. In fact, even the rate of increase has gone up. Between 2000 and 2007 the rate of increase was 3.5 per cent, despite the considerable attention global warming had in this period. In absolute terms this means vast increases, as the increase is exponential; that is, every year the growth rate is working on a larger number…. Without radical and immediate mitigation …. we are fast heading in the wrong direction, accelerating towards the cliff rather than breaking and steering away from the edge.” Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

This is Part 3 of a multipart series extracted from Kevin Anderson’s incisive, fact-filled 2012. 24-page analysis. To access the preceding two parts, click on these links — Part 1 and Part 2.

To read Anderson’s original, full 24-page paper, click on the following linked title. Alternatively, below is a reposting of the excerpted passages selected for this Part 3 post with some added subheadings inserted as hanging indents in bold italics.

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Climate change going beyond dangerous – Brutal numbers and tenuous hope by Kevin Anderson, Published in What Next Volume III: Climate, Development and Equity, September 2012 (24 pages)

What is the scale of the problem?

How, then, does a scientifically literate carbon budget approach change the scope of necessary mitigation?

The global CO2 emissions situation is deteriorating at a very fast rate

To begin with, it is necessary to factor in the latest emissions data. It is clear that the situation is deteriorating, at a very fast rate. Figure 2 shows global emissions of CO2. The graph rises in a dramatic way and the rise is connected to a wide range of phenomena, from the stuff we consume — the plasma screens we buy, how many cars and how far we drive, how many refrigerators we have — to the growth in population and so on. If any other species exhibited this same exponential pattern, we would know it was headed down a genetic cul-de-sac and faced a sticky end. The belief that it is possible to endlessly pursue such growth of everything and that the human species is somehow clever enough to defy the laws of science and physics betrays a certain arrogance in our collective imagination.

Fig 2

Fig 2

Over the last 100 years, CO2 emissions have grown by about 2.7 per cent a year. Despite considerable discussions about climate change, particularly since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, emissions have gone up rather than down, as one might have expected. In fact, even the rate of increase has gone up. Between 2000 and 2007 the rate of increase was 3.5 per cent, despite the considerable attention global warming had in this period. In absolute terms this means vast increases, as the increase is exponential; that is, every year the growth rate is working on a larger number.

We are fast heading in the wrong direction

It is true that the economic crisis slowed emissions down, but less so than people generally believe, and only for a short period. The latest data reveal that for 2009-2010 emissions rose by 5.9 per cent, and for 2010-2011 by 3.2 per cent – despite the economic slowdown in many of the industrialized nations. Regaining ground that was lost in the recent economic downturn might account for part of the increase, but the underlying message is that we are more likely to see higher rates of increase as the industrializing parts of the world (non-Annex 1 countries) — particularly China and India, the producers of a large part of the goods consumed in the West — drive up emissions. Without radical and immediate mitigation, we are likely to see global emission increases of 3-5 per cent per year from 2012. We are fast heading in the wrong direction, accelerating towards the cliff rather than breaking and steering away from the edge.

What are possible emission reduction pathways?

In light of our failure to reduce emissions, what does the science on cumulative emissions say about the mitigation efforts necessary now for 2°C?

The sooner emissions peak and begin their descent, the better, but coming off the peak will be hard in growth driven economies

Firstly, the earlier emissions peak the better. Generally, if emissions peak sooner, post-peak reductions need not be as drastic as for a later peak date. Coming off the peak will be the hard part, demanding continuously reducing emissions every single year while politicians and much of society are trying at the same time to foster economic growth.

Fig 3

Fig 3

It’s highly unlikely that we can peak as soon as 2015, as Stern assumed in his groundbreaking report

The three graphs in Figure 3, visualize different pathways based on different peaking dates. It is important to note that emissions in all of the scenarios continue to increase before they reach a global peak in 2015, 2020 or 2030, respectively. There remains considerable scientific uncertainty about the relation between greenhouse gas emissions and resulting temperature increases, reflected in the set of different coloured curves in the graphs. But even the least demanding, most hopeful curves become horizontal and flatten out from around 2050. The reason is that emissions from all activities would have to be zero by then, with the exception of food production. Even allowing for efficiency improvements in agriculture it will not be possible to feed the world’s population, projected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, without significant emission of greenhouse gases. Even if tractors run carbon free, the use of fertilizers and simply tilling the soil releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These emissions absorb a substantial part of the 2°C budget, putting further pressure on the energy sector to reduce emissions immediately.

The key point is that curves of the same colour correspond to the same cumulative emissions budget. In the first graph, emissions peak in 2015, as assumed in the [2006] Stern report. Many consider it highly unlikely that global emissions can peak as soon as 2015.

Emission curves in the second and third graph peak in 2020 and 2025, respectively. Because cumulative emissions are the same in all three graphs, the post-peak reductions are much steeper for a later peaking date. Furthermore, if emissions grow unchecked until the peaking date some cumulative emissions budgets are impossible to achieve, so the graph on the right contains fewer curves than the graph on the left.

The least demanding radical emissions descent still require an unprecedented 10% reduction from 2020 to 2040

A closer look at the 2020 graph reveals different estimations of what a 50:50 chance of avoiding exceeding 2°C warming would entail. The least demanding set of curves still require radical emission reductions of about 10% per cent year upon year from 2020 and continuing for around two decades. This is the scale of the challenge if we are to retain even a 50:50 chance of not exceeding the 2°C threshold – that is, to avoid what arguably constitutes extremely dangerous climate change.

Fig 4

Fig 4

This is not a promising outlook, and it looks even starker once unavoidable emissions from food production and deforestation emissions are subtracted to show the space left for energy-related emissions: subtracting them from the green and purple curves in Figure 4 yields the curves in Figure 5. Note that the curves in Figure 5 correspond to the same amount of cumulative emissions (the most optimistic case with respect to what is needed to avoid global warming in excess of 2°C) and only differ in their assumed deforestation scenario. Whichever of the two very optimistic deforestation scenarios is chosen, global energy-related CO2 emissions have to decrease by 10-20 per cent per year, hitting zero between 2035 and 2045. Flying, driving, heating our homes, using our appliances, basically everything we do, would need to be zero carbon – and note, zero carbon means zero carbon. Carbon capture and storage could not, as we understand them today, get near to delivering this.

Fig 5

Fig 5

The Stern Report had concluded that cuts in emissions greater than 1% are historically associated with recessions

Reduction rates of 10-20 per cent are unprecedented – there are no appropriate analogues for this level of mitigation. The Stern report (Stern, 2006) concludes that cuts in emissions greater than 1 per cent have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval. Although there was a considerable shift to gas-powered electricity in the UK and a massive increase in nuclear energy production in France, both countries saw only small emission reductions as their economies continued to grow. When factoring in emissions from international shipping and aviation, which are currently not included under the Kyoto Agreement, there was no meaningful reduction of emissions, only a temporary slowing of the rate of growth. The disastrous collapse of the Soviet Union triggered 5 per cent year-on-year emission reductions for about 10 years – a rate just half to a quarter of what is necessary to give us a 50:50 chance of achieving the %°C goal (Anderson and Bows, 2008).

To put it bluntly — We’re toast

In 2012, with emissions at a historically high level and with economic growth driving emissions still higher, we simply have no precedent for transforming our economies in line with our commitments to avoid dangerous (or even extremely dangerous) climate change.

End of Part 3

(NOTE: Anderson’s original article is based on a transcript of a public presentation at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in July 2011, available at http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professor-kevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyond-dangerous.)

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