2° be or not 2° be: the choices we face

By Cindy Baxter 05/12/2012

Time to walk away from the goal of limiting warming to 2degC?

There’s been much talk in recent weeks about the 2degC global warming limit: agreed in Copenhagen, confirmed in Cancun. It has been questioned by many, including Kevin Anderson in a post on this blog, and by US Climate Envoy Todd Stern.

The scientists I’m working with in Doha, from the Climate Action Tracker, gave a press conference last Friday to outline what they think about this “goal” (I put it in quotes because I am a little tired of people saying it’s a “goal”.  A goal is something you strive for, but personally I’d rather we didn’t reach it).

But despite what Kevin Anderson and others are saying, these guys, from Climate Analytics, the Pik Potsdam Institute and Ecofys, have done probably the most substantive data crunching and modeling on this issue, the most definitive to date on the subject. Indeed, they did the core work on UNEP’s three Emissions Gap reports.

Their topline is that physically, technically and economically, it’s absolutely feasible. And without having to jump through crazy CCS or bio-energy hoops or any other such negative emissions.

There are many scenarios that show that the order of magnitude of the cost of staying below 2°C can be less than 1% of global GDP, if the investments are spread over time.  But this means starting now.

From today’s levels, emissions would have to drop 15% by 2020 to keep below 2degC temperature rise (well, to have a greater than 66% chance of doing that). “Coordinated early action.”  We can do it without CCS but with a lot of energy efficiency.

The IEA’s “efficient world scenario” says we can do it and that we would be economically far better off – none of those costs of hideous climate impacts to deal with either.  You know, those storms and extreme weather events that seem to cost us more each year.

The longer we wait the more expensive it gets.  The problem is that there have been a number of statements here in Doha, including two press conferences from the US, where it’s clear that many don’t intend doing anything beyond their Copenhagen pledges until 2020.

The next global agreement on climate is expected to be done by 2015 and coming into force by 2020.  This is the agreement that will have all the big emitters like China and India in it, and which Tim Groser tells us he will throw his weight into getting.

 A matter of choices

The problem with this is that if we wait until we get to this magic 2020 date to take any more action beyond the current pledges, then it’s going to get pretty tricky to stay below 2degC.

It’s still possible, but that’s when our choices start to narrow.  Big Time. If you don’t like nuclear energy: tough.  If you don’t like Carbon Capture and Storage: tough.  If you don’t like the idea of bio-energy on a massive scale: tough.

Because if we want to keep below 2degC, those are the types of technologies we’ll have to employ to stay there, if we do nothing more until 2020.

Clearly, we’re heading in the wrong direction, confirmed this week by the Global Carbon Project’s latest figures that show we’re continuing to average a 3% rise in global emissions each year.

These are the choices:

1.  We could act now, stay below 2degC temp rise, deal with the inevitable impacts that we’ve already got coming, but spend the least amount of money.

2.  We could wait til 2020 and face a nuclear waste and technofix nightmare (even more worrying if CCS continues to be the money-waster and not-quite-ready technology it is now).  And still probably risk breaching 2degC.

3.  We could continue with the political foot-dragging personified by Tim Groser: a 4degC world in 2100.  That’s the world painted by the Climate Action Tracker team – whose Director, Bill Hare, was lead author for the World Bank 4degC report, out a couple of weeks ago.  Here’s some of the highlighted impacts:

  • A warming of 4°C or more by 2100 would correspond to a CO2 concentration above 800 ppm and an increase of about 150 percent in acidity of the ocean.  At that rate, ocean acidification will rise at levels higher than ever known in  Earth’s history, leading to regional extinction of entire coral reef ecosystems.
  • New results suggest a rapidly rising risk of crop yield reductions as the world warms. Large negative effects have been observed at high and extreme temperatures in several regions including India, Africa, the United States, and Australia.
  • Given the massive threat to the living conditions of mankind, there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.

Cheery stuff.

Gareth tells me we’re not allowed to re-publish a New Yorker cartoon without paying out an awful lot of money,  but here’s the link to it.  The caption says it all:

 “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time, we created a lot of value for shareholders.”

 …which brings me to a natural segue to an update on our lovely Government in Doha.

They continue to be showered with awards.  Five “fossil of the day” prizes so far.  We’re even ahead of Canada in the Doha tally.  Yesterday’s fossil was for “being worse than Canada.”

Greens MP Kennedy Graham, myself and seven NZ Youth delegates are the only Kiwis here.   Kennedy and I agreed this morning that being from New Zealand in Doha means a lot of apologizing.  Embarrassing. And more to come, by the sound of it.

Groser’s belligerent statements as he left the country for Doha at the weekend beggared belief.  He said it was “time the developing countries got on the mitigation bus.” That would be the bus you just got off,  Mr Groser.