November 2012: The Four Reports of the Climate Apocalypse

May 2, 2013

I have succumbed to temptation with the title of this post. While I hesitate to attract the label of being “alarmist”, by the time I had finished contemplating the four reports which are the subject of this blog, I was very alarmed. So please allow me the liberty of an attention-grabbing title.  The best thing for me to do is to tell you about the four reports and then you can decide how much hyperbole is contained in my use of the word “apocalypse”.  I introduce them in the order in which they appeared, and I include an article (not a report) which did nothing to reduce my level of alarm.

5th November 2012: PwC UK Too late for two degrees? Low carbon economy index for 2012.

This was the fourth annual low carbon economy index report from the UK member of the global PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) network. This global network of accounting and corporate advisory firms is hardly a radical left-wing deep green environmentalist organization; however the economists in their global sustainability and climate change practice have for four years now been calculating the carbon intensity of the global economy (measured in tonnes of emissions per $million GDP), watching how it changes from year to year and calculating by how much it needs to change if warming is to be limited to 2 °C. The news was not good, and this is their summary from the beginning of the report:

The PwC Low Carbon Economy Index evaluates the rate of decarbonisation of the global economy that is needed to limit warming to 2°C. This is based on a carbon budget that would stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at 450 ppm and give a 50% probability of limiting warming to 2°C.

This report shows that global carbon intensity decreased between 2000 and 2011 by around 0.8% a year. In 2011, carbon intensity decreased by just 0.7%.

The global economy now needs to cut carbon intensity by 5.1% every year from now to 2050 to achieve this carbon budget. This required rate of decarbonisation has not been seen even in a single year since the mid-20th century when these records began. Keeping to the 2°C carbon budget will require unprecedented and sustained reductions over four decades.

Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2°C appear highly unrealistic.

 

One of the great advantages of the PwC approach is that it gives us a yardstick against which to judge emission reduction objectives. An annual reduction of 5.1% represents a halving of emissions in just under 14 years – a 50% reduction from 2013 emissions by 2027, assuming no increase in GDP. Australia’s current target is a 5% reduction from 2000 emission levels by 2020.

12th November 2012: International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2012.

The International Energy Agency (known as the IEA to energy policy aficionados) is an independent agency established by the member countries of the OECD to advise them on energy policy. Every year the IEA publishes its World Energy Outlook, a compendium of energy data and energy policy options, which the IEA organises into scenarios. The full document is expensive; however the IEA helpfully publishes an Executive Summary in a number of languages which can be freely downloaded from its web site. For several years the IEA has been pointing out with increasing force that actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases are falling short of what is required to achieve the current global target of constraining warming to 2 °C. In the 2012 report the IEA first discusses the very important role energy efficiency can play in reconciling disparate policy objectives, then follows with this section which I quote with their emphasis:

Energy efficiency can keep the door to 2 °C open for just a bit longer

Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. Our 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017,  all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time. Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies – as in our Efficient World Scenario – would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS)  technology is widely deployed. This finding is based on our assessment of global “carbon reserves”, measured as the potential CO2 emissions from proven fossil-fuel reserves.  Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22% to oil and 15% to gas.  Geographically, two-thirds are held by North America, the Middle East, China and Russia.  These findings underline the importance of CCS as a key option to mitigate CO2 emissions,  but its pace of deployment remains highly uncertain, with only a handful of commercial scale projects currently in operation.

So to summarise the IEA’s first paragraph, if we wish to limit warming to around 2 °C we have until 2017 – 4 years away – to either get very serious indeed about energy efficiency, or at that date we have to completely stop building all coal fired power stations, all gas fired power stations, all other coal and gas fired equipment, all airplanes, all trucks (apart from electric ones), all cars (apart from electric ones), and all ships – apart from sailing ships.  Further, the second paragraph tells us that we had better not plan to burn ourselves or export for others to burn all of Australia’s large coal and gas reserves – they need to stay safely in the ground.

How much have you heard people from Australia’s mainstream political parties or from the mainstream media talk about leaving our coal and gas in the ground? Compared with where the mainstream Australian political dialogue is at, these recommendations of the IEA are shockingly radical.

17th November 2012: New Scientist cover story: Climate Change: five years ago we feared the worst, but it’s looking even worse than that.

New Scientist is a widely respected science magazine with an excellent track record of bringing the latest in science to a non-technical audience. The detailed story considered seven areas of concern:

1.           The Arctic is warming faster than predicted

2.           Extreme weather is getting more extreme

3.           Food production is taking a hit

4.           Sea levels will rise faster than expected

5.           Greenhouse gas levels could keep rising even if our emissions stop

6.           We’re emitting more than ever

7.           Heat stress means big trouble

 

While the articles summarize information that would mostly be known to people who try to keep with climate change science, it is a good summary in a single article  ̶  but don’t read it if you want to feel happier about climate change. While technically this is an article, not a “report” and is not counted as one of the four reports of the title of this blog, its presence as the magazine’s cover story for that issue gave it extra prominence.

18th November 2012: World Bank Report:- Turn Down the Heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided.

The World Bank was assisted by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics in this detailed (≈ 100 pages) report. The Executive Summary is enough to qualify it for its place in this blog post. The report:

            reviews observed climate change impacts such as rising global mean temperature, increasing ocean heat storage, rising sea levels, increasing loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica, ocean acidification, heat waves and extreme temperatures, and agricultural impacts.

            looks at the likelihood of a 4°C world before the end of the 21st century and the implications of such a world for precipitation, droughts and cyclones.

            reviews risks from sea-level rise and how they vary from region to region.

            discusses changes in extreme temperatures, with the emphasis on projected increases in heat extremes and the impacts of more frequent heat waves.

            reviews the potential impacts of the changes already discussed on agriculture, water resources, ecosystems and biodiversity and human health.

            finally considers the risks of non-linear and cascading impacts. Up until this point, issues such as sea level rise had been considered on their own; now the report discusses how problems could add to each other (a “cascading impact”), or how tipping points could be reached, leading to a non-linear response. An example of such a non-linear response is the sensitivity of some food crops (such as maize, wheat and soya) to temperature; growth rates can reduce quickly if temperatures exceed a threshold.

The concluding remarks of this report are:

Concluding Remarks

A 4°C world will pose unprecedented challenges to humanity. It is clear that large regional as well as global scale damages and risks are very likely to occur well before this level of warming is reached. This report has attempted to identify the scope of these challenges driven by responses of the Earth system and various human and natural systems. Although no quantification of the full scale of human damage is yet possible, the picture that emerges challenges an often-implicit assumption that climate change will not significantly undermine economic growth. It seems clear that climate change in a 4°C world could seriously undermine poverty alleviation in many regions. This is supported by past observations of the negative effects of climate change on economic growth in developing countries. While developed countries have been and are projected to be adversely affected by impacts resulting from climate change, adaptive capacities in developing regions are weaker. The burden of climate change in the future will very likely be borne differentially by those in regions already highly vulnerable to climate change and variability. Given that it remains uncertain whether adaptation and further progress toward development

goals will be possible at this level of climate change, the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.

27th November 2012: United Nations Environment Program: Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost

This report gives more detail to point 5 in the New Scientist summary: Greenhouse gas levels could keep rising even if our emissions stop. Permafrost is frozen soil, and currently occupies about 24% of the exposed land surface of the Northern Hemisphere. Permafrost typically contains organic matter; if the permafrost thaws, then the organic matter is expected to decay releasing carbon dioxide and methane. Thus thawing permafrost is a mechanism for runaway climate change: warming thaws permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, which causes further warming, which thaws more permafrost, which ...

 

As well as describing permafrost and the large potential for emissions as it thaws, the report tells us that permafrost thawing is being observed, but there is not much information available to tell us how fast it is currently thawing. The main paragraphs from the conclusions section of the report are:

 

Climate projections indicate substantial permafrost loss and degradation by 2100. Wide-spread permafrost degradation will permanently change local hydrology, increasing the frequency of fire and erosion disturbances. The number of wetlands and lakes will increase in continuous permafrost zones and decrease in discontinuous zones. Overall, the total number of wetlands and lakes will decrease as the continuous permafrost zone shrinks, impacting critical habitat, particularly for migratory birds. Risks associated with rock falls and erosion will increase, particularly in cold mountain areas. Damage to critical infrastructure, such as buildings and roads, will incur significant social and economic costs.

Degrading permafrost can release enough CO2 and methane to influence global climate, amplifying warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Permafrost contains approximately 1672 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon in the form of frozen organic matter. If the permafrost thaws, so will the organic matter, which will then decay, potentially releasing large amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. Emissions from thawing permafrost could start within the next few decades and continue for several centuries, influencing both short-term climate (before 2100) and long-term climate (after 2100).

 

In Conclusion:

Let me try to brutally summarise all the above:

1.           A very dramatic and complete change of direction in our collective greenhouse gas emissions is needed very soon (before the end of this decade) if we are to have any hope of avoiding more than 2 °C warming. Making that change in direction requires us to turn our backs on fossil fuel reserves we already know about and have counted as collective assets. It will also require us to take on the fossil fuel industry, perhaps the largest and most successful industry in human history.

2.           A world in which we fail to limit warming to 2 °C will be very problematic. We cannot assume that we will be able to feed, house and keep relatively healthy those members of the human family that we can now.

3.           While we don’t think we have crossed the threshold into uncontrollable runaway climate change, we don’t know where that threshold is. We do know we are drawing ever closer to it.

It took me a long time to write this blog; in part I think it was avoidance behaviour as I was reluctant to look at the details of these reports again. In my next blog I will discuss my reaction in more detail and discuss some of the climate change developments since then.

 

References:

PwC report is available from http://pdf.pwc.co.uk/low-carbon-economy-index-nov12.pdf

IEA World Energy Outlook summary is available from http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/English.pdf

World Bank Report is available from http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf

UN Environment Program permafrost report available from http://www.unep.org/pdf/permafrost.pdf

 

Why should/must growth stop?

September 19, 2012

I will leave why growth should stop until later in this post and will start with why growth must stop. Not everyone agrees that growth must stop; in my experience most of those who argue that growth can go on forever are economists. As Kenneth Boulding (himself an economist) put it: Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. I have not taken a straw poll on this, but I suspect that there would be a divide between physical sci...


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Why this blog?

September 2, 2012

At the time of writing this blog we are in the very early stages of developing our seminar. We have the idea, a title, and an organizing committee, but no sponsorship, no budget, no date and only the beginnings of a possible program - and only one speaker. Before we can identify additional speakers and build a program we need to find out who is active in the area, or in closely related areas and what ideas have already been developed. In other words we (the organizing committee) are on a jour...


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Why a seminar?

August 30, 2012

The idea to organize a seminar on the policy implications of the end of economic growth was inspired by Paul Gilding's excellent book The Great Disruption. Paul writes of his expectation that some day (soon, he hopes) a political tide will develop which demands real action on climate change; a groundswell which regards the current objective of limiting climate change to an average temperature increase of no more than 2ºC as being grossly inadequate. When this hoped for day comes, Paul though...


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About Me


David Hamilton When I was 19 and studying physics at university I had the sudden insight that never-ending economic growth was not possible on a finite planet. This led to an interest in issues of population, resources and the environment and a particular interest in energy. Now in semi-retirement and living in northern Tasmania, I am doing some energy consulting - and still concerned about issues relating to growth, energy and the environment.

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