The urgency to solve our climate crisis feels something like a ship heading off course: The longer you delay, the more you have to turn the wheel.
Consider these numbers: 2, 350, 1990. These were the original climate goals. In 1975, at the time of the first Greenpeace whale campaign, environmental economist William Nordhaus proposed that the danger threshold for a temperature increase above Earth’s preindustrial average would be 2°C. This goal was not considered entirely safe, but beyond this target we risked severe climate disruption and likely runaway heating.
Dr James Hansen, 2016
The 350 figure came from several climate scientists, including Dr James Hansen, who co-authored the first NASA global temperature analysis in 1981. Hansen proposed that to remain below the 2°C target, we would have to hold the carbon dioxide (CO2) content of the atmosphere below 350 parts-per-million (ppm). In 2007, Bill McKibben adopted Hansen’s target for the name of the climate activist group, 350.org. “if we want to stabilise climate”, Hansen said in 2012, “we must reduce CO2 … back to 350ppm.”
To achieve this, we must reduce human carbon emissions. In 1990, the Stockholm Environment Institute confirmed the 2°C maximum and, in 1991, the first climate COP met in Berlin with the goal of returning carbon emissions to the 1990 level. Achieving the 1990 carbon emissions, about six billion tons per year, only represents a good start. Ultimately, we have to reduce human carbon emissions from our current 10 billion tons to about 2-billion tons per year. That will require an 80% reduction in the use of fossil fuels.
Some European nations have retained the 1990 emissions targets, although none have achieved this. Most other nations have abandoned the 1990 emissions date in their recent 2015 Paris “pledges”. The US and Canada move the target forward 15 years, to 2005 and only pledge to reduce emissions 17% below those levels. Neither nation has done anything significant to achieve even this pathetic goal. Claims in North America and Europe of “reducing” carbon emissions reflect, primarily, exporting those emissions, the dirtiest industries, to nations such as China, India and Mexico. If we look at emissions-per-capita, the US and Canada still lead the pack and the European Union remains well above the world average and above a pace that would lead to 1990 emission levels.
Other nations — such as Mexico, Israel and Brazil — have only pledged to hold emissions below a “business as usual” future projection, which is almost meaningless. Likewise, China will only commit to “reducing carbon intensity”, which is a similar measure of emissions versus economic growth, also meaningless in the effort to actually reduce carbon emissions. As a atmospheric scientist, Tim Garrett, said in a recent email: “The bathtub only stops filling when the tap is turned off, not when we stop cranking it open.”
Since the first COP conference in 1990, carbon emissions have increased by about 67%. In any practical sense, we can consider the original 1990 emissions target abandoned by the politicians.
By 1930, primarily from burning coal, humans had pushed Earth’s CO2 content above 300ppm for the first time in over 500,000 years: through four glaciation-warming cycles, most of the fire-making history of Homo erectus and the entire history of Homo sapiens.
Jim Bohlens and Bob Cummings in Canada, 1971
When Greenpeace began in 1971, atmospheric CO2 stood at 325ppm. We learned of the climate threat in the mid-70s, when a colleague of James Lovelock sent us a hand-drawn graph. By 1991, atmospheric CO2 had increased to 355 ppm. A recent January 2017 reading, after 25 years of climate conferences reached 406.47ppm, and in April 2016 a Mauna Loa reading registered over 409ppm.
Serious ecologists still cling to the 350ppm goal and scientists know that this is what it will take to have a chance of stabilising Earth’s climate, but national policies, international conferences and some environmental groups have abandoned it in favour of promises to establish carbon taxes, improve carbon intensity or improve “business as usual” projections. While we fiddle, Earth burns.
Nevertheless, the ultimate question is whether or not we can keep the human-industrial average Earth temperature increase below 2°C. Paleoclimate data tells us that there is a simple relationship between CO2 content and Earth’s average temperature. There are multiple factors and feedbacks, such as methane releases and forest decline, but the CO2-to-temperature relationship remains consistent: for every doubling of CO2 measured in parts-per-million, Earth will experience approximately a 3°C temperature increase (2.2°C to 4.8°C, depending on the feedbacks that are triggered, and recent feedbacks suggest the higher range). We will reach a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 when we reach 560ppm.
During the 141 years between 1850 and 1991, human industry increased atmospheric CO2 content by about 0.5 ppm per year. However, during the last twenty years of that stretch, we were increasing CO2 content by about 1.5ppm per year. In the ten years between 2006 and the latest readings from 2017, we were increasing CO2 by about 2.5ppm/year, and in the three years between 2014-17, we have been increasing CO2 by over 3.5ppm/year.
If we continue at this business-as-usual rate, increasing the atmospheric carbon at 3.5ppm/year, we will reach 560ppm by 2060. If we reduce the rate from 3.5ppm to 2.5ppm/year, we buy a couple of decades and reach that unhappy milestone in about 2078. In either case, this means a +3°C temperature increase at least, and the risk of runaway heating — due to methane releases, forest loss and other feedback factors.
If we begin immediately to phase out fossil fuels and achieve a 50% reduction by 2100, we still reach 560ppm, a +3°C temperature increase and runaway heating by about 2075. That represents an epic fail.
So, if we are serious, we require a much faster and immediate reduction in fossil fuel consumption, which honest climate scientists have been suggesting for decades. We need to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon emissions by at least 80%, and quickly, over the next 30 years, before 2050. This means cutting carbon emissions from 10 billion tons per year, to two billion tons/year by 2050.
Starting now, we need to slash global carbon emission by about about 4.5% per year for the next 30 years. That means a 450 million ton decrease this year.
We can no longer be satisfied with flying around the world to conferences to talk about it or dither about future technologies. We can no longer pretend that we can continually grow our global economic footprint and solve the climate crisis with electric cars and windmills. The “carbon capture” technologies promised by industry for decades have failed to materialise, with no sign of success for the future. The only way to actually reduce emissions is to reduce fossil fuel use. Windmills and solar panels might help, but they haven’t helped so far because we’ve remained delusional about their carbon-costs (for steel, cement, mining, and so forth) and because these energy technologies have only added to our energy supply, not actually reduced fossil fuel consumption.
Eemshaven coal plant protest in Groingen, Netherlands, 2016
In isolated regions, some politicians claim we have reduced fossil consumption, but keep in mind: those regions that have significantly reduced fossil fuel use, have exported their dirty fossil fuel sectors to China, India, and elsewhere. Earth’s atmosphere does not care if the carbon molecules rise from Europe, China or India. Total global emissions is the only factor that matters.
If every nation signing the Paris agreement met its goal, we would still be headed to 3°C or more. The Paris pledges are not remotely enough and do not represent any sort of “victory.”
Why do our societies have such a difficult time making this change? “The efforts are not commensurate with the goal,” says Dr Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, because “the inertia in the system (oceans, economies, technologies, people) is substantial.” In physics, inertia is the resistance to changes in motion or direction. In human society, inertia includes the addition of 80-million new people every year, the unrelenting growth of consumption, a growing industrial economy and particularly the wasteful extravagance of the rich. The wealthiest 10% of the global population create 50% of the carbon emissions.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church forbade certain scientists from publishing their discoveries about the natural world. Ironically, after the 2015 Paris conference, Pope Francis was the only world leader clearly articulating the implications of the scientific data. ”Even to limit warming below 3°C”, he warned, “a radical transformation of capitalism will be necessary.” Today, the deniers of truth represent the Church of Money. The solutions to the climate crisis are simple but unthinkable for the devotees of profit. This has to change if we are to succeed in our climate goals.
Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.
Sources and links:
“Carbon Dioxide Emission-Intensity in Climate Projections: Comparing the Observational Record to Socio-Economic Scenarios.” Felix Pretis, Max Roser, Oxford University Dept. of Economics.
“No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change,” T. J. Garrett, Univ. of Utah: Earth Systems Dynamics.
“Why we’re losing the battle to keep global warming below 2C” The Guardian
“Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? J. Hansen, M. Sato, P. Kharecha, et. al. (NASA, Columbia Univ., Univ. Sheffield, Yale Univ., LSCE/IPSL, Boston Univ., Wesleyan Univ., UC Santa Cruz): Cornell University Library
Daily CO2 readings: CO2 Earth
Climate Sensitivity to doubling CO2 = 2.2 - 4.8°C: Nature; summary in The Guardian