The global response to climate change is worse than most people think—and betterby Sam Knight / February 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
World leaders want to limit the global temperature increase to two degrees above pre-industrial levels
For those who live and work on the battered field of climate change, these are strange days. On the one hand, the disaster in front of us has never appeared more visible or close at hand. On the other, especially in the rich societies of the west, we seem to have lost the will to push for a solution, or even to talk much about it. Late last year, the annual gathering of thousands of negotiators of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, this time in Doha, Qatar, passed with barely a murmur. The Kyoto Protocol, as the world’s only climate change treaty is formally called, which now covers just a handful of countries, was extended for another eight years, to neither acclaim nor disdain.
In the US, it seems to have taken Hurricane Sandy—a possible omen of the world to come—to get President Barack Obama’s attention. In Britain, we have watched the “greenest government ever” creep towards airport expansion, gas drilling in Lancashire and become more sceptical on wind farms. Across Europe, recessions and rising unemployment have not only pushed climate change down the political agenda, they have contributed to a small decline in popular belief that the problem exists at all. Many climate change activists—so visible in the run-up to the 40,000-strong UN climate change summit in Copenhagen in 2009—have switched their attention to the iniquities of global capitalism. The UK’s main umbrella lobby group, the National Climate Camp, disbanded in 2011, fragmenting into several separate, single-issue campaigns: against a third runway at Heathrow, against cuts, against fracking. “It has definitely been a trip into the wilderness,” one of its former members told me.
The sense of drift is understandable. It is born of economic distress; a sense of powerlessness against an almost inconceivable threat; the feebleness of our leaders; the effective troublemaking of climate change deniers. But it does us no good. Not only because of the real urgency of the threat of climate change: the time frame for critical action is now within one or two electoral cycles at most. But also because the fug, the silence, the denial serves to conceal the fact that there is, actually, a wealth of positive human activity taking place at the moment that may end up limiting the scale of the disaster after all. By refusing to engage with the question, many of us have reached a state of rather calm ignorance, whereas the truth of climate change is probably simultaneously worse and better than we allow ourselves to find out. It is time to wake up.
We’ll start with some of the worse. The maths of how to halt our greenhouse gas emissions at a level unlikely to disturb human life on this planet is ugly. While there remains considerable uncertainty about how climate change will ultimately play out, its primary cause—the heat-trapping effect of certain polluting gases—is not widely disputed. Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to higher temperatures, warmer seas, wetter air. At Copenhagen in 2009, the leaders of the world agreed that we should try and limit any such temperature increase to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Although many scientists disagree, thinking even two degrees is a dangerous target, politicians generally use it to indicate the scale of climate change, notwithstanding huge geographical and social variations, that the world can more or less afford.
In emissions terms, two degrees corresponds to a concentration of carbon dioxide at around 450 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere—about one and a half times the level of carbon dioxide before the industrial revolution. Last spring, an observatory of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Barrow, Alaska, detected carbon dioxide concentrations above the 400ppm mark for the first time: eight-ninths of the way to the desired limit. Air samples from Canada, Finland, and Norway confirmed the finding. Global average readings fall between 394ppm and 397pmm, but the overall picture is the same: the threshold of what we believe to be our safety is coming into sight.
We know roughly when we will reach it, too. Because it takes hundreds of years for carbon dioxide to disperse in the atmosphere, it is a simple matter of accumulation: like adding water to a glass. Scientists call the amount of carbon we can afford to emit before the glass overflows the “carbon budget.” To give us a 50:50 chance of keeping within the two degree budget, an average of 20 models suggests that we can release around 1,000 more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) between now and 2050. If we carry on at our present rate—35.6 GtCO2 in 2012, and rising at a rate of 3 per cent a year—we will get through this carbon budget at some point around 2030.
You can play with the numbers yourself. (The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has a simple spreadsheet, called “Princap” that many scientists use). But there is no escaping the tightness in the figures. The problem gets even knottier when you try and divide the remaining carbon budget between the 7bn (growing to 9bn) people of this planet and work out how quickly this means the US and China must move to low carbon economies.
Even scenarios of outlandish optimism—that the rich nations of the world will cut their carbon emissions to zero within two decades—are no longer sufficient to make the sums work. The budget won’t stretch. Every country must now plan reductions. Nicholas Stern, the former World Bank economist and author of the 2006 review of the economics of climate change, refers to this as “the brutal arithmetic.” Last December, just before the UN’s annual climate summit, he published a report suggesting a more likely outcome of an eventual temperature rise of 3.6 degrees Celsius—the hottest the earth has been since the Pliocene Epoch, more than 3m years ago, when the sea levels were 70 feet higher than they are now.
The increasing implausibility of limiting emissions, and thus temperature rises, to what we currently regard as a manageable level, has put scientists in a difficult position. Since the early 1990s, seeking to raise the alarm while not panicking us completely, they have used formulations such as “doable but challenging” to describe the task in front of us. “Joking aside,” Kevin Anderson, one of the UK’s foremost climate scientists, told me, “we will go past two, and hit three or four degrees and there will still be people publishing emissions scenarios saying two degrees is ‘doable but challenging.’” Now, though, some are breaking ranks. Last August, in his final interview as the chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Bob Watson admitted: “There is really almost no chance now of meeting that political target [of two degrees].” At the same time, Stephen Emmott, the former scientific advisor to the Treasury, was on the stage of the Royal Court, telling audiences to learn to use a gun.
One of the things that scientists find hardest to communicate is the importance of time. Because emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, every year that we fail to make cuts only adds to the problem and increases the suddenness of the eventual, necessary abandoning of carbon. There will come a point when that is just not feasible anymore. That point is now approaching. “Climate change, from a mitigation perspective, is essentially about the next 10 years,” Anderson told me. In other words, what we do now actually matters. However, if you confront this urgency—this sense of reality—you can find yourself identifying signs of hope.
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An example of something we don’t talk about very much: emissions in many developed economies are now falling. The UK’s carbon emissions fell by 6 per cent in 2011, part of a trend across the European Union that has seen the greenhouse gas emissions of the 15 older member states fall by 14 per cent since 1990. The US, in the middle of its shale gas revolution—in which natural gas is displacing coal from the energy supply—is in the throes of an even greater transformation. Its carbon emissions have fallen by 15 per cent since 2007 and are at their lowest level for 20 years.
There are caveats for these numbers, of course. By importing much of our food and goods, we have outsourced pollution abroad; Europe’s performance has been assisted by economic crisis and mild winters; the US is now exporting lots of its coal. But they do show that the rise of carbon emissions is not an inexorable rise. And they reflect some deliberate policy decisions: the UK’s emissions fell, in part, because of an increased use of nuclear power. Among the quieter achievements of Obama’s first term were emissions standards forced on the car industry during the bankruptcies of 2008 and new air quality regulations that have made it effectively impossible to add to the US’s stock of coal-fired power stations.
These modest reductions also show the extent of the global task we are up against. One of the few remaining remotely plausible “pathways” to stabilising the accumulation of greenhouse gases by 2050 means that all developed economies must start cutting emissions now, accelerate to cuts of 6 per cent per year by the end of this decade, and do so for the next 30 years. The emissions of the rest of the world, including China, must peak in 2020, and do the same thereafter. In other words, the world as a whole must attain, and stay on, the same trajectory as the UK followed in 2011. Britain’s economic stagnation is nothing to emulate—countries would prefer to reach these targets by cleaner technology not by recession—but at least it gives a sense of perspective.
The approaching imaginability of climate change means that you can also look out across the world and see some amazing national preparations. Bangladesh has thousands of new cyclone shelters, disaster-proof latrines, a $300m domestic climate change fund, and a plan to reduce its emissions by a third by 2030. Saleemul Huq, a scientist who is helping lead the adaptation efforts, told me that it helps to think of climate change as an invasion from outer space. “The aliens have actually landed in certain parts of the world,” he said. “Bangladesh happens to be one of them.”
Others are driven by opportunity. South Korea has been spending 2 per cent of its GDP on “green growth” ($23bn a year) since 2008 and was last year’s unanimous choice to host the UN’s new Green Climate Fund, which, the heady plan goes, will be disbursing $100bn a year in climate change funding to poor countries from 2020 onwards. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s government is committed to paying above market rates for renewable electricity; Germans face a 7 per cent rise in their energy bills this year in order to get 25 per cent of their power from clean sources (the UK gets 9.6 per cent). The US military currently consumes more oil than Sweden, but the US Navy is on track to get 50 per cent of its power from algae, biofuels and other renewables by the end of the decade.
No country, though, has a more impressive—or globally significant—plan for change than China. Its 12th Five Year Plan, launched in 2011—an array of industrial targets, regional plans, and prohibitions—is mankind’s most ambitious attempt to redirect economic growth along less polluting lines. It had good reason, as China is the world’s pollution disaster. Since 2002, its greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 150 per cent, to more than twice the total for the EU. Last month, the air in Beijing was, according to the World Health Organisation, 32 times too polluted to be safe to breathe. And yet, it might be China that saves us. The government has already enacted environmental policies that more democratic nations would balk at. Under the brusque targets of the last Five Year Plan, hundreds of the most polluting factories were simply closed—thousands of people lost their jobs—and cities suffered blackouts as local officials switched off the power to meet their regional emissions targets.
This time, the plan is to spend three trillion RMB (£800bn) by 2016 on green investment, reduce emissions per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020 and increase the proportion of renewable energy to roughly 20 per cent by the same year. There will be a carbon tax and a carbon market: pilot schemes were launched in five cities this year. It is planning to cap coal production in 2015; a third of new coal-fired plants approved for construction are now on hold. “Almost all coal-fired plants in China are losing money right now,” Ailun Yang, a Chinese environmental analyst at the World Resources Institute in Washington told me. China already has the biggest wind and solar industries in the world.
It is too soon to make sunny predictions about the 12th Five Year Plan. “It is the classic Chinese model of encouraging a variety of different experimental forms, and then winnowing and reinforcing the things that are working well and discarding things that don’t work so well,” said Thomas C Heller, the executive director of the Climate Policy Initiative, an environmental think tank in San Francisco.
However, the sheer breadth of China’s plans already represents something new: the recognition, common among institutions used to thinking a decade or two into the future, that climate change is not a discrete problem. Pension funds, actuaries, insurance companies now count it within the so-called “pyramid of peril”—water, food and energy—that represents the most serious challenges for humanity. “I think we’ve had the problem of saying, OK, here is a singularity called climate change and here is a singularity called carbon markets,” Nick Robins, the head of climate change at HSBC, told me. “But actually climate change does infiltrate itself into every part of the economy.”
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Financial markets are focusing more on the potential costs, if climate change does bring more storms and extreme weather. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy and America’s worst drought in 50 years wiped more than 1 per cent off US GDP—about $150bn. That is the sort of number that makes insurers wonder how they can reduce their exposure. Fanciful as it sounds, an example of a question that is now being asked along these lines is how should we think about the value of oil and coal reserves in the next two decades. If, barring a technological breakthrough, we have only around 1,000 GtCO2 of carbon dioxide that we can safely emit over the next four decades, that means we would have to leave around 70 per cent of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. What is the future of those assets, and the companies licensed to extract them?
Nicholas Stern is one of a handful of economists and analysts trying to draw attention to what he calls the “fundamental contradiction” between the $7.5 trillion value of the world’s top 100 listed coal companies and top 100 oil and gas companies and the world’s alleged political goal to radically reduce its carbon emissions. “This contradiction is important,” he wrote in the Financial Times in December. “It means that the market has either not thought hard enough about the issue or thinks that governments will not do very much—or somewhere between the two.”
At the moment, however, the market valuations of oil, gas and coal seem sensible, because of the lack of progress in global talks. The UN Framework Convention, a diplomatic cavalcade of thousands of negotiators, has been trying to write a meaningful, global treaty for the last 20 years. Late last year, as usual, the UNFCCC held its annual jamboree, known as a Convention of the Parties. The meeting in Doha passed off with scant attendance by heads of state, and even less media attention. It was hosted by Qatar, home to the highest per capita carbon emitters in the world, which did not pledge to do anything to change that. The only notable outcome was the renewal of the Kyoto Protocols for another eight years. But Kyoto, signed in 1997, now only covers a handful of mostly European countries, whose emissions make up 15 per cent of world’s total. “Its impact on the atmosphere is nothing,” as one of its negotiators told me. “It is ridiculous when you think about it.”
It is easy to mock the UN talks—certainly easier than trying to understand their solid printers’ blocks of acronyms: the MRVs, NAPAs, NAMAs and SBSTAs—that for years have been attempting to encode regulations on trees, intellectual property rights, aviation fuel, migration. Since Copenhagen in 2009, for which 119 heads of state were summoned to make a global deal that never happened, diplomats have politely described the negotiations as being in a “lull phase.”
Most of the work has been on extending Kyoto, and agreeing a plan for the next big showdown, scheduled for 2015 in Paris. By that time, the thinking goes, China will be in a position of respected authority and President Obama might have made climate change a signature issue of his second term.
But talks have made shockingly little progress compared to the distance they need to travel in the next few years. In Doha, as they always do, delegates spent two weeks arguing about the sacred issues of “equity” and “CBDR”: Common But Differentiated Responsibility. Who destroyed the planet? How will they pay? As always, these questions got no answer. The US even asked for all mentions of these phrases—the reason why many countries come to the talks—to be deleted from any future treaty. As for a new principle, known as “Loss and Damage,” under which countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change want to claim compensation from rich, polluting economies, the response of the US’s lead negotiator, Todd Stern, was even more explicit. “I will block this,” he was overheard to say. “I will shut this down.”
It is hard to find something hopeful to say to that. In terms of the UNFCCC process, really the only consolation is that it can’t go on forever. We are running out of occasions to disagree. As the European negotiator in Doha told me: “We have hit the hard core.” But maybe there is no reason to look for a silver lining. Maybe we are past that point. We spent 20 years experimenting with optimism and fear. Now it is just time to make decisions. We are all going to have to give up things which we never wanted to give up. We tried hope. We tried denial. And we tried delay. Here comes reality.