Humanity Has One Decade to Get Climate Change Under Control

According to the latest report of U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate change, we are running out of time to do what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. As The Washington Post reported:

With global emissions showing few signs of slowing and the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide — rolling back a suite of Obama-era climate measures, the prospects for meeting the most ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris agreement look increasingly slim. To avoid racing past warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels would require a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before, the group found.

There is no documented historic precedent” for the sweeping change to energy, transportation and other systems required to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in a report requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

At the same time however, the report is being received with hope in some quarters because it affirms that 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible — if emissions stopped today, for instance, the planet would not reach that temperature. It is also likely to galvanize even stronger climate action by focusing on 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than 2 degrees, as a target that the world cannot afford to miss.

Although it does indeed provide a sliver of hope that we are not yet past the point of no return, the solutions the report advises will require considerable financial resources and political will, coordinated on a global scale, at a time when economic austerity and anti-globalism are on the rise.

Most strikingly, the document says the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, which amount to more than 40 billion tons per year, would have to be on an extremely steep downward path by 2030 to either hold the world entirely below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or allow only a brief “overshoot” in temperatures. As of 2018, emissions appeared to be still rising, not yet showing the clear peak that would need to occur before any decline.

Overall reductions in emissions in the next decade would probably need to be more than 1 billion tons per year, larger than the current emissions of all but a few of the very largest emitting countries. By 2050, the report calls for a total or near-total phaseout of the burning of coal.

“It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program. He added that the need to either stop emissions entirely by 2050 or find some way to remove as much carbon dioxide from the air as humans put there “means net zero must be the new global mantra.”

The radical transformation also would mean that, in a world projected to have more than 2 billion additional people by 2050, large swaths of land currently used to produce food would instead have to be converted to growing trees that store carbon and crops designated for energy use. The latter would be used as part of a currently nonexistent program to get power from trees or plants and then bury the resulting carbon dioxide emissions in the ground, leading to a net subtraction of the gas from the air — bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS.

“Such large transitions pose profound challenges for sustainable management of the various demands on land for human settlements, food, livestock feed, fibre, bioenergy, carbon storage, biodiversity and other ecosystem services,” the report states.

The Post notes that both the speed and tone of the report is uncharacteristic of the IPCC, which tends to be more cautious and deliberative—such is the scale and urgency of the problem.

The IPCC is considered the definitive source on the state of climate science, but it also tends to be conservative in its conclusions. That’s because it is driven by a consensus-finding process, and its results are the product of not only science, but negotiation with governments over its precise language.

In Sunday’s report, the body detailed the magnitude and unprecedented nature of the changes that would be required to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but it held back from taking a specific stand on the feasibility of meeting such an ambitious goal. (An early draft had cited a “very high risk” of warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius; that language is now gone, even if the basic message is still easily inferred.)

“If you’re expecting IPCC to jump up and down and wave red flags, you’re going to be disappointed,” said Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center. “They’re going to do what they always do, which is to release very cautious reports in extremely dispassionate language.

Note that the IPCC does not conduct research on its own, but relies on the intensely peer-reviewed work of close to 100 scientists representing institutions across the world. (By “intensely peer-reviewed, I mean tens of thousands of comments of scientists debating or deliberating the facts.)

Unfortunately, even by this conservative metric, the world is way off the mark in averting the most calamitous results of climate change.

Current promises made by countries as part of the Paris climate agreement would lead to about 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century, and the Trump administration recently released an analysis assuming about 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 if the world takes no action.

In a statement, a U.S. State Department official expressed appreciation for all the work that went into the report but noted that “governments do not formally endorse specific findings presented by the authors.”

“From 2005 to 2017, U.S. CO2-related emissions declined by 14 percent while global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 21 percent during the same time,” said the official. “This has been possible through the development and large-scale deployment of new, affordable, and cleaner technologies to capitalize on our energy abundance.”

That the U.S. remains indifferent, if not hostile, to taking action on climate change–it is, after all, the sole non-signatory of the non-binding Paris Climate Agreement–is deeply troubling given that it is the second worst offender in greenhouse gas emissions:

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Note that although China tops the list by a significant margin, that has a lot to do with the fact that it not only hosts 16 percent of the world’s population, but also the vast majority of the developed world’s industry and manufacturing; it is U.S. and other Western companies that have outsourced production, and all its attending pollution to China to save labor costs and avoid stricter pollution controls. Hence why addressing climate change must involve coordinating with numerous stakeholders across the world; this is not a problem limited to any single jurisdiction or invisible boundary.

The Atlantic also provided a great analysis of the IPCC report and a breakdown of its recommendations, particularly with respect to coal:

Nowhere are its prescriptions more glaring than around coal. By 2050, it warns that coal must generate no more than 7 percent of global electricity. Today, coal generates about 40 percent of the world’s power.

But more than 1,600 new coal plants are due to come online worldwide in the next few decades, most under contract from Chinese companies. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has tried to create new subsidies for coal companies. It has also moved to weaken or repeal pollution regulations limiting airborne neurotoxins, as well those reducing greenhouse-gas emissions—rules that attracted the ire of coal companies.

“Many will dismiss the [2.7-degree] target as unrealistic, if not laughable,” said Kim Cobb, a professor of climate science at Georgia Tech, in an email. “It is not our job as scientists to give the world a ‘pass’ in the face of damaging delays in tackling climate change.”

She added that its authors “spent months of their lives outlining a path that is entirely justified, from a cost perspective, and urgently needed.”

This report is the first time that the IPCC has examined a 2.7-degree warming “target.” For more than a decade, every nation on the planet has pledged to limit warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius. This goal remains as notional as its newer and more ambitious peer: Even if every country met its obligations as they stand today under the Paris Agreement, the world would emit too much carbon dioxide and shoot past the goal.

Vox.com offered some useful visuals of the IPCC’s prescriptions and findings. Here’s one graphic, via CarbonBrief, that shows what a massive difference 0.5 degrees can make:

2 vs. 1.5

As if often the case, the world’s poorest populations will bear the brunt of these effects:

Some high-latitude regions may benefit from the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees (though such benefits will be wiped out if temperature subsequently continues rising). But even getting up to 2 degrees, “tropical regions like West Africa, South-East Asia, as well as Central and northern South America are projected to face substantial local yield reductions, particularly for wheat and maize.”

 

As for sea level rise, relative to 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees would mean 10 centimeter higher levels and a 30 percent higher rate of increase by 2100.

Coral reefs, though, are pretty screwed no matter what. In a 1.5 degree scenario, the percentage of the world’s coral reefs at risk hits 90 percent in 2050 but declines to 70 percent in 2100. In a 2 degree scenario, they’re all at risk.

The IPCC report and the Earth System Dynamics study confirm what many scientists have been warning for years: 2 degrees is not a “safe” threshold. Negative impacts are already underway and will only get worse.

Given our isolationists systems, I imagine many Americans would be even less inclined to care about climate change, never mind its impact on U.S. coastal regions and agriculture. Moreover, the hundreds of millions of “climate refugees” will be our problem to fix, as even our military has acknowledged.

Another graphic by CarbonBrief, also via Vox, shows just far we are from meeting the IPCC’s recommend goals:

As if this was not dire enough, the above graphic is two years old, meaning that at our present rate of emissions, our chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees will be used up in just four years as opposed to six.

Moreover, to keep emissions at 1.5 degrees, they would immediately have to plunge faster than ever before, hit zero by 2050, and then go negative:

scenarios: 1.5 and 2 degrees

As Vox concludes, achieving such a feat would require the equivalent of America’s massive mobilization for the Second World War — only at a global scale and sustained for nearly a century. Needless to say, the chances of that happening are remote, to say the least. Even if most of the world somehow gets with the program, as long as one of the biggest and most influential polluters remains unmoved, we will have to adapt to a more chaotic climate–and all the attending social, political, demographic, and economic problems that will come with it.

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