In three years time, avoiding a temperature rise of two degrees Celsius will be impracticable, unless we reach peak carbon emissions by then. That is the finding of the Carbon Tracker in London, the Climate Action Tracker consortium, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut in a joint report.
What it boils down to is that we have a carbon budget. Depending on the varying ways this budget is calculated and subtracting past emissions, our remaining carbon credit falls somewhere in the range of 150-1050 gigatonnes of total emissions. This is the maximum we can emit if we are to have any serious hope of achieving the Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal of keeping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even below 2 degrees.
At the current rate of emissions of 41 gigatonnes annually, that would mean that at the lower end of that scale that we would cross the threshold in four years, so let’s hope somewhere in the middle or upper end of the range is closer to reality. Otherwise, we’ll have to deploy large-scale carbon capture technology and drop carbon emissions to zero right now, which would likely crash the economy, god forbid, when we’re on course to crash all of civilization.
So they’re presuming a 600-800 gigatonne carbon credit. Peaking emissions now would give us 25 years to get them down to zero, which, let’s face it, isn’t happening and won’t in the near-term, but we must do it by 2020 to have a reasonable chance to accomplish decarbonisation of the economy in time. If we do it by then, we should achieve zero emissions before 2040 with a 600 gigatonne credit. However, with an 800 gigatonne credit, we can push this out to 2050 but with a greater risk of crossing the two-degree threshold. Waiting till 2025 to peak emissions or even keeping them level until then will put that goal out of reach for all intents and purposes.
So here we are, pretty much being told it’s crunch time for climate action, but there doesn’t seem to be any corresponding increase in urgency. Things are being left to mosey along at a woefully insufficient pace. Let “market forces” drive change they said, the economy will fix the problem they said.
Yes, the capitalistic, growth at all costs, money-hooked machine is going to resolve a crisis that ultimately requires that it rejects itself. Corporations do not want to do anything that’s going to affect profitability. Competitiveness is what is inclining many companies to favour renewables and electric transport, as they know where things are going long-term, but they won’t jump the gun from their perspective if it risks them losing money.
Ideally, governments would regulate corporations and national bodies, forcing them by means of legislation to change how they operate. However, governments are nearly more scared of regulations these days than the corporations themselves. They don’t want to be seen as impeding businesses that bring jobs and wealth into their respective countries by whatever trickle-down argument they want to use.
We can pretty much be assured that in most countries that this will continue. A few like the Scandinavian nations are committed to more appropriate targets for complete decarbonisation, but even their plans would fall short if the actual carbon budget is less than the 600 gigatonnes we’ve allowed ourselves.
I imagine at this point that even 2 degrees is the aspirational goal, and 1.5 is already out of reach without actions so drastic that it would make the US mobilisation for WW2 pale by comparison. On our current course, we could be threatened with up to 3 degrees Celsius of warming at least. There are some estimates that say that we’ve grossly underestimated climate sensitivity and warming of up to 7 degrees Celsius is possible by 2100.
It’s hard to fathom what that much warming could do but assuming even the lower value of 3 degrees, we can be assured of massive upheaval, perhaps civilization-toppling effects. We could see the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, raising sea levels tens of feet. We could see desertification in the equatorial regions, the complete annihilation of the rainforests, and the loss of major breadbaskets. We could assume that all this along with major natural disasters would lead to mass migration and inevitable conflict over reduced space and resources.
Even if we “only” warm the world by that much, we can’t be positive that it would end there because of all the feedbacks in the Earth’s systems.
So, again, here we are, poised to unleash disaster on a scale no human has witnessed since the rise of civilization, if ever. We could potentially set back our development centuries, if not right back to the Stone Age. Hell, if the higher climate sensitivities to GHGs are correct, we could be galloping towards our own extinction like so many lemmings charging towards a cliff edge.
I really hope that we can avoid that world. I hope that what momentum there seems to be from Paris and the drive for renewables and zero emissions transport really will continue on the up and up. I hope that our leaders can start to see beyond short-term economic gain and begin assuring a safe future for our children and all the generations to come. I hope, I hope, I hope!
It really does feel like instead of putting it out, we’re playing with the fire that is catching. I feel as though we’re all living on a prayer with this carbon credit shot in the dark. We’re hoping the credit is higher, and we are depending on probabilities of achieving that below two degrees goal. However, the reality is that we could see a sudden upshot in warming any year now. 2016 proved that, having crushed the two previous warmest years, 2014 and 2015. If that happens, we’ll be forced into drastic action one way or another, and it still might not be enough.
I still believe we can do better, that we still have a chance to do so, to leave the world better than the generations before us have and how we have it now. However, the margins are tightening and time is slipping away from us. Just because we don’t know exactly how tightly we are bound doesn’t mean we should assume the most optimistic scenario, that we still have plenty of time. We should assume the worst and act accordingly. It seems to me to be the only responsible thing to do.
Image Source: List of Polluted Earth Wallpapers (allwidewallpapers.com)
All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions.