Climate Change: The Need for a More Consistent Baseline and Immediate Action

The UN climate conference in Lima set the stage for Paris in 2015. Next year’s accord is to provide a working, albeit not a final, answer to the question: Is it possible to keep global warming at or below the 2 degree Celsius limit? This limit is considered the boundary beyond which the negative climatic, economic and social consequences of climate change are thought to become intolerably severe and potentially irreversible.

An approved final accord, however, will be possible only if the delegates are able to respond successfully to multiple scientific, economic and political questions already having proven problematic and divisive in their answers. For example, who bears what responsibility for the problem?  How will each country pay the piper? Will China, Brazil and India be considered the same type of developing economies as Vietnam, Nicaragua and small island nations in the Caribbean or the Pacific Ocean?

What is generally understood and agreed to by climate change acceptors is:

  • CO2 is the major cause of global warming;
  • CO2 is a long-lasting greenhouse gas and about half of what has ever entered the atmosphere is still there; 
  • CO2 longevity requires that emissions be cumulatively measured and considered;
  • The Earth’s temperature should not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius;
  • Avoiding irreversible climate change will require net carbon neutrality some time during this century.

Key scientific questions with unclear answers include:

  • How much cumulative CO2 will cause temperatures to rise beyond the threshold?
  • What is the size of the gap between the current amount of atmospheric CO2 and the tipping point?
  • Is there sufficient time to implement a final accord?
  • What happens if temperatures rise above 2 degrees Celsius?

The When and How Much Debate

The first three of these questions are inter-related and the subject of varying opinions by well-recognized and respected environmental researchers in academia, government, the private sector and NGOs.  Estimates vary on the amount of CO2 that can be safely emitted by a factor of nearly 2 ranging from 250 to 485 billion metric tons.  Assuming estimates of a tipping point of between 1,000 and 1,200 billion metric tons are correct and the rate of global emissions stays relatively stable between now and 2020, when the hoped for Paris accord will be implemented, then the threshold will be crossed less than a decade after the accord is passed.  If the higher estimates of the “still possible CO2 to be emitted” is correct then the scales will be tipped sometime between 2035 and 2045, depending upon what countries agree to and more importantly what they actually do to curb emissions within the next thirty years.

In its recent Gap Report, the UN has concluded that it seems likely that the 2 degree threshold will be crossed before the end of this century and that the world is on track to see a temperature rise of 3.7 degrees Celsius. According to Corinne Le Quere at the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia, England:  “We are nowhere near the commitments needed to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of climate change, a level that will be hard to reach for any country, including rich nations.” 

The issues of “when and how much” are complicated and dependent upon a better understanding of natural systems, (how much CO2 are plants and trees actually capable of soaking up) and human behavior (what motivates people to become climate conscious).  What is not complicated or in much dispute is the continuing rise in emissions and acceptance that there is in fact a limit to how much CO2 the atmosphere can hold without the occurrence of some serious negative consequences. This is particularly so in the face of rising global populations and diminished natural resources like arable land and potable water. 

The question of the exact consequences of going past 2 degrees is probably even harder to determine with certainty.  Although there is ample anecdotal evidence and a growing body of scientific and peer reviewed data of more frequent and destructive storms, rising sea levels, the loss of natural habitats, a greater incidence of insect borne diseases and the loss of species, the fact is that much research still needs to be done.  Anthropogenic activity leading to environmental disasters refers to more than a reliance on fossil fuel resources for power production.  It also means unsustainable agricultural practices, water and land pollution, the loss of topsoil, the use of carcinogenic chemicals and building supplies, runaway population growth, as well as a host of other harmful and unsustainable human activities.

It is not even clear whether 2 degrees is the actual boundary. There are those who would argue that the there is some slack in the target and that warming beyond 2 degrees could be tolerated, while others have argued that the danger point is closer to a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and 2 degrees would lead to a substantial loss of vegetation that would serve to slowly move the thermometer from 2 degrees Celsius to over 3 degrees as a sort of echo effect.  According to the former co-chair of an IPCC science-assessment working group, Susan Soloman: “there is little by way of quantitative evidence that this represents a ‘safe’ policy target.”  The target is really a function of differing assumptions.  Until more definitive research is done and consistent assumptions are established, the 2 degree target is more a place holder than scientific fact.

Implementing a Plan

The lack of scientific certainty about exactly when the environmental balance will be tipped has left the door open to climate deniers and support for the business as usual scenario.  However, there is an increasing probability that the door is closing.  Evidence of this can be seen through the actions of UN delegates in Lima, the rapidly increasing number of private corporations who understand the value and opportunity of sustainable practices and investments, the emergence of bi-lateral agreements as have recently occurred between the U.S. and China, the recognition that sustainability is a matter of any nation’s security and the clarity of the concept that environmental stewardship is the way forward for all economies.  Business can no longer operate as usual and neither can thought, business and government leaders. 

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Climate change is not a koan; it has answers. The real question is whether or not the answers we have will be implemented in time and at sufficient scale to keep the rise in temperatures within acceptable boundaries. Just as global warming has been a dynamic process occurring over time so too will be the implementation of solutions.

A Paris accord will provide impetus for future actions and an important example of the progress made since Copenhagen in making climate change a global priority.  In and of itself, however, it will not be the definitive answer.  The accord can serve several very important functions. 

First, it can help to develop a consistent concept and approach. For example, create a mechanism for reaching agreements on the temperature threshold — either validating 2 degrees Celsius or working to re-define it — and establishing with greater clarity what the carbon budget between now and the end of the century really is.  Establishing whether the target should be carbon intensity per capita or total global emissions or some other measure. 

Second, the accord should better define the status, relationship and responsibility of nations.  The relationship of developed and developing nations has been a source of contention since the first Earth Summit in 1992. 

Things have begun to change, however, including the possibility of dividing developing nations into different categories allowing for their current and potential carbon contributions. China, Brazil, India and South Africa are large developing nations whose climate impact is more akin to developed than smaller developing nations.  China is currently the largest emitter of CO2 responsible for 9.98 billion metric tons of CO2 annually. Although large developing nations may not have been historically responsible for the bulk of past emissions, going forward they are likely to play the most important role in staying to the right side of the line.

While emissions rates in the EU28 and the U.S. are declining in either absolute or relative terms those in large developing nations are on the rise. The recent U.S./China agreement is placing pressure on India to commit to reduce carbon intensity as it moves up the economic development chain.  As seen in the graphic below a number of the world’s top emitters are in fact developing nations.

Third, the accord should develop investment/funding mechanisms to support the adoption and deployment of sustainable energy and agricultural technologies and practices in poorest countries, as well as support for resiliency initiatives.  These nations are not and never will be the largest global CO2 contributors but they suffer disproportionately from the emissions of others.  Fair play seems to require richer nations to assist them in sustainable development and adaptation to the ravages climate change.

Fourth, the accord should provide for a workable carbon trading program. The program should serve as a mechanism for nations to purchase or sell carbon credits based on their emission allocations and the proceeds used as a source of capital for the support of research and investment in those nations most in need.

Independent Action

As important as a 2015 Paris accord could prove, immediate actions by nations and within nations by the public and private sectors will ultimately drive a successful response to global climate change.  Policies that encourage investment in sustainable technologies and their deployment, e.g. tax credits, valuing solar, other clean energy technologies and storage in utility ratemaking decisions, supportive net-metering regulations, development of disruptive technologies and practices, community clean energy projects, etc., should be the foundation for action in support of sustainable environmental action and economic growth.  The power of local action has proven the lynchpin of success in the deployment of clean energy solutions — in the absence of national leadership and the reduction in the price of coal and oil — and, consequently a significant impetus to the move towards price parity.

Doing right by the environment is showing itself to be the way to do right by the economy. There are now more clean energy jobs in California, for example, than there are utility jobs.  In Canada, the number of workers in the clean energy industry is greater than in tar sands.  In developing nations like Nicaragua, clean energy technologies represent 70 percent of its current power production and a significant source of foreign investment.

Finally, it is time to stop the simultaneous support for fossil and clean energy sources.  Fossil fuels are the primary source of the global warming and the lack of clarity created by a dual support system is perhaps the most confusing factor of all in efforts to keep to the right side of the line.  I would even go so far as to consider paying fossil fuel companies to not develop their resources.  Surely paying to keep these pollutants in the ground will prove more economic in the long run than massively expensive and speculative carbon sequestration programs. After all, how better to sequester the carbon content of these resources than by not extracting them in the first place?  How better to make clean energy alternatives affordable, while not harming the environment, than by wide spread application of these technologies?

Lead image: Carbon emissions via Shutterstock

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