Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, will be attending the Climate Change Conference in Paris this December. He has a stark warning about the future of our climate.
In July 2015 scientists attended a major climate conference as a prelude to the political negotiations in Paris in December. After four days of presentations the conference committee concluded that limiting “warming to less than 2 °C” is “economically feasible” and “cost effective.”
This conclusion chimed with a headline statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that “to keep a good chance of staying below 2 °C, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40–70 per cent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100”. Importantly, the IPCC also stressed how costs of mitigation would be so low that “global economic growth would not be strongly affected.”
The conference committee and IPCC statements are, in my opinion, dangerously misleading – offering optimistic political spin rather than reasoned assessments of the science and mitigation challenges. Their up-beat messages suggest the 2 °C target requires an accelerated, but still evolutionary, move away from fossil fuels; they notably do not call for an immediate and revolutionary transition in how we use and produce energy.
The IPCC’s support of an incremental and technical low-carbon transition is premised on two questionable assumptions. First, and contrary to the data, CO2 emissions reached a global peak in 2010 and, second, there will be a large-scale rollout of speculative technologies intended to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
In plain language, all the IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of meeting the 2 °C target rely on either an ability to change the past, or the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies. A significant proportion depends on both.
In stark contrast and building on the concept of carbon budgets, I present an alternative scenario that suggests a radically different challenge to those dominating discussions on climate change.
As the IPCC reiterates, it is cumulative emissions of CO2 that matter in determining how much the planet warms by 2100. Specifically the IPCC concludes that 1,000 Gt of CO2 can be emitted between 2011 and 2100 for a “likely” of remaining below a 2°C rise.
However, between 2011 and 2014 CO2 emissions from energy alone amounted to about 140 Gt of CO2. To limit warming to below 2°C, the remaining 860 Gt of CO2 (out to 2100) must be considered in relation to the three major emission sources; cement manufacture, land-use change and, most importantly, energy production.
For energy, the severity of 2°C mitigation excludes the use of fossil fuels, even with carbon capture and storage (CCS), as a dominant post-2050 energy source. Delivering on 2 °C cannot be reconciled with high-level claims that in moving to a low-carbon energy system “global economic growth would not be strongly affected.” Certainly it would be inappropriate to sacrifice improvements in the welfare of the global poor, including those within wealthier nations, for the sake of reducing carbon emissions.
But this only puts greater pressure on the lifestyles of the relatively small proportion of the globe’s population with higher emissions — pressure that cannot be massaged away through incremental escapism and technical utopias. With annual economic growth of 3%, the reduction in carbon intensity of global gross domestic product would need to be nearer 13% per year. Put simply, to avoid imposing devastating climate impacts on poor, vulnerable and low-emitting communities, we wealthier and typically high-emitting individuals need to make deep and immediate cuts in both the energy we use and in the level of goods we consume – at least until the transition away from fossil fuels is complete.
The IPCC’s Synthesis Report and the scientific framing of the mitigation challenge in terms of carbon budgets are important steps forward. As scientists, we must now leverage the clarity gained by the budget concept to combat the almost global-scale cognitive dissonance in acknowledging its quantitative implications. Yet, so far, we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly. Instead, my long-standing engagement with many colleagues in science leaves me in no doubt that although they work diligently, often against a backdrop of organized scepticism, many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.
It is not our job to be politically expedient with our analysis or to curry favour with our funders. Whether our conclusions are liked or not is irrelevant. Yet, as we evoke a deus ex machina (such as speculative negative emissions or changing the past) to ensure our analyses conform to today’s political and economic hegemony, we do society a grave disservice — the repercussions of which will be irreversible.
This blog post is adapted from an article published in Nature Geosciences.
This issue will feature as part of Policy Week 2015 in the following events
Stretching across five packed days and featuring discussion, lectures, workshops, simulations and even films, Policy Week brings together leading thinkers, academics, students and policy influencers to debate and progress key policy issues. Sign up for events using the links above.
This year’s theme is Science, Technology and Public Policy, and the event programme is part of European City of Science Manchester 2016.