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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)