Thursday, November 26, 2015

Avoiding the climate catastrophe: not so easy as many people think

Last month, Kevin Anderson published a very interesting article on "Nature Geosciences" (12 Oct 2015). The article may be behind a paywall, but most of it is reported in Anderson's blog.  Let me summarize it for you because it goes to the heart of the problem: the transition is NOT going to be easy, as many people say. Installing double paned windows and using hybrid cars will not be enough; not at all, at least as long as we want to maintain business as usual in terms of economic growth.

First of all, Anderson states about the current plans (boldface mine):

If these up-beat — and largely uncontested — headlines are to be believed, reducing emissions in line with a reasonable-to-good chance of meeting the 2 °C target requires an accelerated evolution away from fossils; it does not, however, necessitate a revolutionary transition in how we use and produce energy. Such conclusions are forthcoming from many Integrated Assessment Models, which are key tools for informing policy makers of alternative climate change futures.

But things are not so easy, according to Anderson:

In most Integrated Assessment Models, 2 °C carbon budgets are effectively increased through the adoption of negative-emission technologies. These technologies are currently at little more than a conceptual stage of development, yet are ubiquitous within 2 °C scenarios. Nowhere is this more evident than in the IPCC's scenario database. Of the 400 scenarios that have a 50% or better chance of no more than 2 °C warming (with three scenarios removed due to incomplete data), 344 assume the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies. Even more worryingly, in all 56 scenarios without negative emissions, global emissions peak around 2010, which is contrary to available emissions data.

This is truly chilling: it seems that we have arrived at a point in which geoengineering is the only way left open to us to maintain carbon emissions within 2 °C carbon budget; that is, unless we use a time machine to alter the past and make peak emissions occur in the past. Anderson says in his blog  

In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of 2°C assume either an ability to travel back in time or the successful and large-scale uptake of speculative negative emission technologies. A significant proportion of the scenarios are dependent on both ‘time travel and geo-engineering’.

Anderson says:

Delivering on such a 2 °C emission pathway cannot be reconciled with the repeated high-level claims that in transitioning to a low-carbon energy system “global economic growth would not be strongly affected”

and summarizes with: 

I conclude that the carbon budgets associated with a 2 °C threshold demand profound and immediate changes to the consumption and production of energy. 

Is Anderson right? I think so, at least as long as we remain within the built-in assumptions of the models, that is of continuing economic growth. What do we have to do, then? Well, one thing that Anderson suggests in his blog is that we haven't been good enough at explaining the situation

.....there remains an almost global-scale cognitive dissonance with regards to acknowledging the quantitative implications of the analysis, including by many of those contributing to its development. We simply are not prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly.  

There exists, indeed, a diffuse attitude in the scientific community that we shouldn't alarm people about the climate disaster, that if we do that people will simply run away while plugging their ears and singing "la-la-la" and that, therefore, we should keep saying that it is just a question of some adjustments in our ways and that everything will be fine.

That approach hasn't worked out very well so far and I think it is time to change strategy. Years ago, President Kennedy said that if we are going to the Moon, "it is not because it is easy, but because it is hard." And that worked out. Avoiding the climate change disaster is surely hard, but not impossible. There are ways, if we are willing to make sacrifices.


  1. I was reading Nature yesterday, and I saw this:

    This is how it starts:

    The year is 2100 and the world looks nothing like it did when global leaders gathered for the historic climate summit in Paris at the end of 2015. Nearly 8.8 billion people now crowd the planet. Energy consumption has nearly doubled, and economic production has increased more than sevenfold. Vast disparities in wealth remain, but governments have achieved one crucial goal: limiting global warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures.

    The United Nations meeting in Paris proved to be a turning point. After forging a climate treaty, governments immediately moved to halt tropical deforestation and to expand forests around the globe. By 2020, plants and soils were stockpiling more than 17 billion tonnes of extra carbon dioxide each year, offsetting 50% of global CO2 emissions. Several million wind turbines were installed, and thousands of nuclear power plants were built. The solar industry ballooned, overtaking coal as a source of energy in the waning years of the twenty-first century.

    But it took more than this. Governments had to drive emissions into negative terri­tory — essentially sucking greenhouse gases from the skies — by vastly increasing the use of bioenergy, capturing the CO2 generated and then pumping it underground on truly massive scales. These efforts pulled Earth back from the brink. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations peaked in 2060, below the target of 450 parts per million (p.p.m.) and continue to fall.

    So I had red lights flashing in my head as soon as I saw that. Bioenergy? Did anyone bother to do a whole-system analysis of such a proposal? Highly unlikely -- the net energy may well be (and likely is) into deeply negative territory once the carbon burial is accounted for, and clearly nobody is thinking about the effects on the soil and ecosystems, etc. etc. 7-fold economic growth? How is that going to be supported with renewables, not to mention all the other mineral inputs... What effects will that have on ecosystems? Not a word about that...

    But it wasn't all, I kept reading and then I saw this:

    Although the caveats are listed in the IPCC assessment, the report does not adequately highlight economic and technical challenges or modelling uncertainties, says David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who participated in the IPCC assessment. Victor does not place all the blame on scientists glossing over the problems: when researchers drafted the assessment’s chapter on emissions scenarios and costs, he says, they included clear statements about the difficulty of achieving the 2 °C goal. But the governments — led by the EU and a bloc of developing countries — pushed for a more optimistic assessment in the final IPCC report. “We got a lot of pushback, and the text basically got mangled,” Victor says.

    So let's summarize:

    1) The IPCC apparently only cares about how they can model GHG emissions reductions so that warming can be kept under some random target. That this is meaningless on its own because what we want is not just limiting warming, but preservation of civilization, which is threatened by a lot more than global warming (and will, accordingly, require much more drastic measures), is apparently not understood.

    2) Nobody even dares think about questioning sacred concepts like infinite economic growth or that population inevitably must be allowed to increase to 10 billion.

    3) As bad as that is, governmental pressure is also exercised to create optimistic models and predictions by making basically absurd assumption about not-yet-existing technologies...

    That's the scientists...

    What hopes is there given all that?

  2. Might I suggest that the phrase, "Avoiding the climate change disaster is surely hard, but not impossible.", falls into the trap that you mention. The climate change is already upon us and will get worse. We're already seeing deaths and displacements from events that are likely exacerbated by climate change. We're already at +1C (argued to be the dangerous level by Hansen and others) and have more to go, even if we stopped emissions today, which we won't.

    Your submitted paper mentions "the worst consequences of climate change", which is a fairly nebulous phrase but at least perhaps gets to the right area. We can't avoid serious consequences, which will be seen as disastrous for some living today and for many/most future generations, but we can, in principle, make it less worse than it otherwise would be, if we continue to put economies above the environment.

    Kevin Anderson is calling a spade a spade, I wish more would. We don't need plan B, we need a plan, and we need to execute it.

    1. Well, I still hope we can avoid disaster; even though it is true that we can't avoid climate change - it is already here. At this point, any plan can be labeled "B", "C", "D", etc...

    2. I think Mike is right - you talk about avoiding a disaster, but how do you define that? For some/many it already is a disaster. So if we are scientists, we need a definition. e.g. when the annual costs of climate exceed GDP growth - has anyone tried to model that?

      By the way Kevin is a brilliant fellow, excellent and dynamic speaker, fearless at challenging politicians - a top guy.

    3. You are right, I didn't define my terms. Actually, I have in mind a clear idea for what is the real "disaster;" it is the "runaway climate change" - when it starts feeding on itself and becomes unstoppable until we get to 6-8 degrees of temperature increase, and even more. At that point, we don't talk any more of GdP and growth - it is pure survival and even that is uncertain. Now, that depends on where the "tipping point" is. And that's what I meant; we may still be on the safe side of the tipping point, but it is hard to say if we can remain there.

    4. Ah.... about Kevin, yes, I saw his interview. Truly brilliant. We need this kind of people, who say what they think. And he has generated a rather strong reaction from some people of the climate science community don't seem to be able to accept criticism.

    5. Kevin's a great guy, but a hopeless Pollyanna. He's still saying that there is a 0.1% chance of staying under 2 degrees. He falls into the same trap that he decries. "Yes, things are bad, but if we act *now*...". No, the last time drastic action could have kept us under 2 degrees was about 2000. Pretty much where it was when we were first warned in a proper, comprehensive report to government, in 1965. We're over 1 now and there's about 2.4 degrees currently hidden by industrial aerosols. If we turn off coal burning, the aerosols all drop out within 3 years and we will be pushed up to the other stable state of about 22 degrees. (9 degrees above pre-industrial). If we don't stop coal burning we'll add enough CO2 to push us up to the other stable state of about 22 degrees. Our only options are to stop or not stop. Both options end with 22 degrees average global temperature.

  3. I fear that given a choice between the collapse of civilization now, due to voluntary and rapid contraction of energy use, versus collapse of the environment (and civilization with it) in 50-80 years, people will choose to delay their discomfort. After all, we have dithered and delayed for the last several decades, so why expect anything different now? Nothing will be done.

    So, if it's too late for a plan, what we need is an economic catastrophe to achieve involuntary energy reduction. Here's hoping for the mother of all financial crises.

    1. It's worse than that -- most people cannot even comprehend the meaning of the phrase "collapse of civilization". The average person on the street has not spent and mostly does not want to spend absolutely any time thinking about such distant and abstract to him notions such as global "civilization" and it's future. Then there are those who will just shut down the discussion immediately because it makes them uncomfortable. And only then there is a relative minority of people who you can actually talk with about this and who can make that choice to begin with. And a majority of them will indeed discount the future....

  4. You only need a couple things to avoid going over 2C: completely change human nature and human societies.

    Voila! You are welcome.

    (this is probably why no one talks about slowing population growth, I suspect)



  5. Hi Ugo,
    I don't understand your concern with climate change. You have posted several articles over the years about peak oil and peak everything leading to economic collapse, and that looks like it night occur in 2016. I cannot see us getting beyond 2020 without a disconnect to the global financial system. So why worry about climate change?

    1. Because climate change is cumulative!

    2. The current course of humanity is such that civilization can collapse first (to the extent that there will be a single proximal cause) due to resource exhaustion but still manage to commit the planet to disastrous climate change before that happens. Worst case scenario basically, And it's a very likely one.

    3. In order to discuss scenarios, one would have to express them with some kind of "limits to growth" diagrams, such as :
      And it could be the case that industrial civilisation crash, but climate change is also getting out of hand due to fossile emission, or for instance due to extreme deforestation during or after the crash.
      But all this is so sobbering that basically nobody is making global coherent scenarios anymore.

      For instance I'm quite convinced that CCS will never happen, as the drop in energy productivity for CCS is something like 30% at least.

    4. My own feeling is that we have achieved absolutely nothing with regard to limiting climate change. How can we when economic growth is the be all and end all of civilisation, and no-one I know is willing to downsize their 4x4s for the sake of saving the planet. We have let the climate change genie out of the bag and there is nothing we can / are seriously willing, to do about it. On the other hand, the global financial meltdown that seems to be unfolding, now that could and probably will sort things out, in a rather unsatisfactory way. Our own fault.

  6. Hi Georgi,

    Even if the world economy were to collapse tomorrow, with human carbon emissions plunging to near zero, we are still stuck with the effects of 400 ppm CO2 for the next several centuries. How bad that will be will depend on the equilibrium climate sensitivity to CO2 levels, but we can hope that 400 ppm will still be livable. And if there is significant reforestation after the collapse and die-off, with brush and trees taking over what is now arable land, survivors may be able to look forward to reductions in atmospheric CO2 (if they are even aware of its importance).

    But that is the best-case scenario, not the worst, unless one is confident in our collective ability to deliberately go carbon negative in the near future, which I am not. Every year that goes by without collapse diminishes the benefits of that best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is several more decades of business as usual. Perhaps that was what you were referring to as our "current course". If so, I agree.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)