The road to ruin

Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change at the University of Manchester has been sounding alarms about the inadequate rate of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions for some years now. He’s done it again in a sobering paper written with colleague Alice Bows and recently published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (free access).

A Guardian article this week indicates some of the gist of the paper. Anderson points out that that policy advisers and policy makers are working on the basis of naïve and inappropriate assumptions which simply don’t obtain in reality. Growth rates in emissions are actually much higher than those used by most Integrated assessment models (IAMs) employed by researchers today, where climate change data is integrated with economic data. Emission peaks, even on an optimistic reckoning are not likely before 2020-2030 whereas most IAMs estimate 2010-2016. The IAMs also assume untested geoengineering, and a high penetration of nuclear power alongside untested ‘carbon capture and storage’ technologies.

Anderson’s calculations have shown that, if we want to aim for a high chance of not exceeding a 2 degree increase in global temperature by the end of the century, our energy emissions need to be cut by nearer 10% annually rather than the 2–4% that economists say is possible with a growing economy.

The models are producing politically palatable results. However, the reality is far more depressing and unfortunately many scientists are too afraid to stand up and say so for fear of being ridiculed.

“Our job is not to be liked but to give a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community.”

Because policy makers are living with false hopes they are not engaging with the sweeping changes necessary for industrialised nations to drastically reduce their emissions.

“This requires radical changes in behaviour, particularly from those of us with very high energy consumption. But as long as the scientists continue to spread the message that we will be ok if we all make a few small changes, then climate change will never be on top of the policy agenda and we will fail to meet our international commitments to avoid a 2 degree rise.”

Climate change is not a problem to be addressed in the future, but a cumulative problem that needs to be tackled now. And this can only be done if researchers use realistic data and report brutally honest results, no matter how disturbing or depressing.

To turn to the paper. It points out that though the Copenhagen Accord reiterated the commitment to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees, it focused on global emission peak dates and longer-term reduction targets instead of facing up to cumulative emission budgets.  That focus belies seriously the scale and scope of mitigation necessary.  There was also lack of attention to the pivotal importance of emissions from non-Annex 1 (developing) nations in shaping available space for Annex 1 (developed countries) emission pathways. The paper provides a cumulative emissions framing to show what rapid emissions growth in nations such as China and India mean for mitigation rates elsewhere.

The consequence of focusing on end-point targets rather than facing up to emission pathways is that there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2 degrees.

“Although the language of many high-level statements on climate change supports unequivocally the importance of not exceeding 2 degrees, the accompanying policies or absence of policies demonstrate a pivotal disjuncture between high level aspirations and the policy reality.”

In essence we are putting off what must be faced up to now:

“In general there remains a common view that underperformance in relation to emissions now can be compensated with increased emission reductions in the future. Although for some environmental concerns delaying action may be a legitimate policy response, in relation to climate change it suggests the scale of current emissions and their relationship to the cumulative nature of the issue is not adequately understood.”

We are also relying on an outdated understanding of the likely severity of the impacts of a 2 degree rise in global temperature:

“…it is reasonable to assume…that 2 degrees now represents a threshold, not between acceptable and dangerous climate change, but between dangerous and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change; in which case the importance of low probabilities of exceeding 2 degrees increases substantially.”

In relation to economic growth, the paper observes that if only a 2-4% level of emission reductions is compatible with economic growth, then it appears that:

“…(extremely) dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within Annex 1 nations and a rapid transition away from fossil-fuelled development within non-Annex 1 nations.”

The paper’s judgement as to the reality underlying the political talk:

“Put bluntly, while the rhetoric of policy is to reduce emissions in line with avoiding dangerous climate change, most policy advice is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission reductions.”

The reader won’t argue with the authors’ description of their assessment of the climate challenge as “stark and unremitting”.

But they deny any negative intention:

“However, this paper is not intended as a message of futility, but rather a bare and perhaps brutal assessment of where our ‘rose-tinted’ and well intentioned (though ultimately ineffective) approach to climate change has brought us. Real hope and opportunity, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community. This paper is intended as a small contribution to such a vision and future of hope”

Hot Topic readers may recall that Clive Hamilton’s book Requiem for a Species, reviewed here, drew on an earlier 2008 paper by Anderson and Bows and quotes Anderson at the 2009 Oxford conference where climate scientists looked at the implications of a 4 degree increase in global temperature: “The future looks impossible.” It’s a pretty slim hope that Anderson allows, but he’s right to puncture the false ones.

[John & Beverley Martin]

Shaken and stirred: Christchurch earthquake Feb 2011


It’s a grim day in Canterbury. 75 people are confirmed dead and 300 are missing following the magnitude 6.3 earthquake which struck at 12-51pm yesterday. As I write, teams of urban search and rescue specialists from NZ and Australia (soon to be joined by teams from all over the world) are crawling over collapsed buildings throughout the central city. The cathedral (above) has lost its spire, and there are bodies in the rubble around it. I am glad to report that my family and friends, and that of Climate Show co-host Glenn Williams are well, but no-one is untouched by this terrible disaster. Up here in Waipara the initial shaking was bad enough to make us run outdoors, but our relief at escaping damage was immediately tempered by the realisation that someone had just taken a hammering…

Continue reading “Shaken and stirred: Christchurch earthquake Feb 2011”

Europe looks to bolder targets

No doubt the New Zealand climate change minister will point out that the New Zealand’s emissions profile is different from that of the EU and that the exchanges about reduction targets that have been taking place in Europe in recent days therefore have little relevance for us. Nevertheless I have taken heart from reading about them in their own right, whether they have relevance to us or not, though I think they do have at least some.

Currently the EU has a target of a 20% cut in emissions by 2020. The Guardian reported last week that the UK’s climate change secretary Chris Huhne (pictured) wants to see that target toughened to 30%. Gunther Oettinger, the EU’s energy commissioner, disagreed on the kind of cautious grounds that we are all too familiar with in New Zealand. “If we go alone to 30%, you will only have a faster process of de-industrialisation in Europe. We need industry in Europe, and industry means CO2 emissions.”

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Lignite: dirty brown forbidden fruit

Two items during this week highlighted the continuing progress of Solid Energy’s intentions to develop the Southland lignite fields. I therefore provide this depressing update to two Hot Topic posts on the issue late last year. Don Elder (left), CEO of state-owned enterprise Solid Energy, appeared before the Commerce select committee during the week and announced that the proposed lignite developments will be worth billions. And it appears that this will be the case even if they don’t receive free carbon credits under the ETS, which they appear to nevertheless hope for. There was a slight acknowledgement that there were carbon footprint issues still to be resolved and some soothing suggestions, reported in the Otago Daily Times, that approaches such as mixing synthetic diesel with biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and planting trees, could reduce the net emissions. With a convenient fall-back – that the company could pay someone elsewhere in the world to do this for it. There is little evidence that carbon capture and storage will feature as anything more than talk in this scenario. The wildest extremity of the CCS option was touched on outside the committee when Elder spoke of the possibility of eventually piping carbon out to sea and pumping it into sea-floor oil or gas wells, after the Great South Basin has been developed.

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Montana and a singular madness (wishin’ and hopin’)

Magical thinking is wonderful. Sprinkle a little oofle dust, twitch your nose, and the world can be put to rights. Joe Read certainly believes in magic. He’s just introduced a bill into the Montana state legislature which will solve the global warming problem at a single stroke:

(2) The legislature finds:

(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;

(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and

(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.

Peter Gleick and Josh Rosenau have more, and Brad Johnson at The Wonk Room phoned him up for a chat, with extraordinary results. It’s clear that ideology trumps physics in Joe Read’s Montana. A pity he hasn’t told the glaciers in Glacier National Park. But Read’s wishful thinking is a minor thing, compared to the heroics indulged in by Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil

Kurzweil is well known for his contention that exponential growth in technological capabilities (generalising from Moore’s Law) will lead to a merging of human and machine intelligence that will amount to a singularity — an event horizon beyond which we cannot envisage what will happen (though it’s a fertile field for SF writers like Charles Stross). He puts the date of this event in the not too far distant future (mid century or thereabouts), and is doing his best to stick around to see it happen. In this interview with Lauren Feeney at The Daily Need, he applies his exponential vision to developments in solar power:

So right now it’s at half a percent of the world’s energy. People tend to dismiss technologies when they are half a percent of the solution. But doubling every two years means it’s only eight more doublings before it meets a hundred percent of the world’s energy needs. So that’s 16 years. We will increase our use of electricity during that period, so add another couple of doublings: In 20 years we’ll be meeting all of our energy needs with solar, based on this trend which has already been underway for 20 years.

It’s a seductive concept, this idea that technology will advance so rapidly that it will amount to a get out of jail free card for human civilisation. It’s a view that underpins the Lomborg/Breakthrough Institute position that what is needed is not cuts in emissions, but investment in technology. We’re smart, right? We can figure a way to solve this problem.

Kurzweil is quite explicit in the interview. We have “plenty of time”:

Feeney: A lot of climate scientists say that we have about 10 years to turn the situation around, otherwise we’re going to hit this tipping point and we are all doomed. So you think we’re going to make it?

Kurzweil: Even if those timelines were correct, there will be quite a transformation within 10 years and certainly within 15 or 20 years. The bulk of our energy will be coming from these renewable sources. So, I think we have plenty of time. I think we can make it to the point where these renewables are taking over.

Set aside for a moment that Feeney’s question is ill-posed (Stoat will be having kittens, to miscegenate freely). Kurzweil’s answer betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of the climate problem — not least the climate commitment, the inevitable warming in the pipeline. If we wait for solar power to take over, but carry on emitting vast quantities of carbon in the meantime, the end result — even with 100% renewable energy on tap — will be warming well beyond two degrees, and a planet making a transition towards its own version of a singularity.

I have a more general objection to Kurzweil’s technological optimism, but I first want to make it clear that I find his vision of the future beguiling, interesting and in some respects feasible. It appeals to the boy in me, the one who read The Eagle in the 60s. It helps me to maintain a degree of optimism in the face of what any sane human might regard as an endless stream of bad news. The real problem is that this vision of accelerating “progress” is rapidly running into the buffers of ecological and planetary limits (which include climate impacts). Yes, we may well be smart enough to design and build superior solar energy capture and distribution systems, but can we do it for everyone — for the nine billion who are likely to be around in 2050, when the singularity will be overdue? Kurzweil glosses over this issue in the interview, but I suspect that reality will be a little more demanding than his interviewer. In fact, we already have the technology to “solve” the climate problem, just as we already grow enough food to feed everyone on the planet. The answer lies in fair distribution and getting things done, and we haven’t found it yet.

I want Kurtzweil to be right. I’d like Joe Read to be right too, but it ain’t gonna happen. I might as well move to Montana and become a dental floss tycoon.

[Dental floss and Dusty (something for everyone!)]