- Fossil fuel use and deforestation are increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
- Carbon dioxide levels moved above 400 ppm in 2014, climbing at about 2 ppm per year.
- Global temperature: Increasing by 0.8 C per century
- Arctic sea ice: Decreasing by 11.5 percent per decade
- Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets: Melting
- Sea level: Rising at 3 mm per year, and the rate of rise increasing
- Ocean acidity: Increasing
With the current high levels of CO2 , the Earth is losing less heat into outer space and is accumulating heat. This accumulation of heat will continue unless we drop CO2 levels. The heat is being stored mostly in our oceans and also in our atmosphere.
The more we allow the planet to accumulate heat, the greater the risk of kick starting a warming spiral in which, again and again, warming leads to more warming.
The Earth’s climate is on a dangerous trajectory.
Climate Emergency: Unsafe to Burn More Fuel
In “The Real Budgetary Emergency and the Myth of Burnable Carbon”, David Spratt raises his concerns about an IPCC Summary Report 2013 implying that there is a large amount of carbon dioxide that humans can still emit (the carbon budget) and still stay safe.
The IPCC Summary (page 27) implies that keeping the temperature increase to below 2°C will keep the climate safe. The summary also identifies what is needed for a 2 in 3 (66%) chance of keeping the temperature within that safety limit:
- Cumulative emissions since 1880 must stay below 790 billion ton of carbon.
- Emissions up till 2011 were 515 billion ton,
- So, from 2011 onwards the world can emit a total of 275 billion ton of carbon.
Spratt identifies three difficulties with this:
The first difficulty lies in the assumption that keeping the temperature increase to below 2°C will keep us safe. Spratt argues that a temperature increase of 2°C is the boundary between dangerous and very dangerous climate change. With a 2°C rise many major ecosystems will be lost and oceans will eventually rise tens of metres swamping coastal cities and large productive river deltas, i.e. much of human civilisation. It is dangerous for humans to set a target of a 2°C temperature increase.
The second difficulty is that the IPCC calculations assume that there will be no emissions from the carbon and methane stored in permafrost, soils and vegetation. Any estimate of a safe level for future carbon emissions must be decreased by expected emissions from these ignored sources. And emissions from these ignored sources could be large.
The third difficulty is that a 66% chance of staying within the 2°C cap means that there is a 34% chance of the temperature increase exceeding 2°C – bringing serious and irreversible changes to our climate. We need to demand a much smaller chance than 34% (a 1 in 3 chance) of facing these extreme global dangers.
Would you book your family on a plane knowing that it had a 1 in 3 chance of crashing? We should be able to demand an extremely small chance of facing a global catastrophe. Even a 1 in 10,000 (0.01%) chance of facing such extreme dangers is too risky.
Spratt identifies a study from “The Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research” that shows that humans have already released so much carbon dioxide that even if we stopped all emissions now, we have a 10% chance of failing to keep the temperature increase to below the dangerous target of 2°C. For this inadequate level of safety, there is already no “carbon budget” allowing the burning more fossil fuels.
We now have a choice: (1) we can accept much greater warming of 3–5°C, warming that will catastrophically affect the world’s natural and human systems, or (2) we can take radical emergency action to restore our climate to within the range of conditions experienced during the last 10,000 years, the period of human civilisation and fixed settlement.
Radical emergency action would include moving to zero net emissions of carbon dioxide by:
- Reduction of energy demand,
- Increased production of clean energy,
- Reorganising essential systems like transport and food production, and
- Increasing the drawdown of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Radical emergency action would be at a speed and scale more akin to the “war economy”, where social and economic priority is given to what is perceived to be an overwhelming existential threat.
After 30 years of climate policy and action failure, we are in deep trouble and now have to throw everything at the climate challenge. This will be demanding and disruptive, because there are no longer any non-radical, incremental paths available.
IPCC (2013) “Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013; The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers”
David Spratt (May 2014): “The real budgetary emergency and the myth of burnable carbon”,
Restoring a safe climate
For the 800,000 years before about 1950, CO2 levels have been between 180 and 300 ppm. So, we know the planet can maintain a human-friendly climate while CO2 levels are in this range.
However, CO2 levels are now far outside this range, now around 400 ppm and rising. While CO2 levels remain high like this, the planet will continue to accumulate heat.
Keeping on with fossil fuel use, could take levels of CO2 and methane in the air to the high levels of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, 55 million years ago. Then the temperatures rose between 5 and 9 C and the climate and life on Earth changed radically. Rock weathering gradually removed these high levels of CO2 from the atmosphere, but it took over 150,000 years.
- Hot House Earth: National Geographic: Oct 2011
- CO2 Levels doubled 55 million years ago and Global Temperatures jumped: Think Progress: 8 Oct 2013
The Earth has been warmer in the past, but that does not mean that future warming is nothing to worry about, during these past warm periods, the sea level has been tens of metres higher, enough to submerge most major cities around the world.
(It’s been far warmer in the past, what’s the big deal: Another Climate Myth: New Scientist)
We do not know if our planet can maintain a human-friendly climate, with CO2 levels above 300 ppm.
The only solution that we can adopt with any confidence is to move our climate back to a state in which it has already demonstrated stability.
We need to restore each of the indicators of climate change to their values in about 1940:
- Cut carbon dioxide in the air from 400 ppm to below 300 ppm by: (1) cutting emissions, e.g. minimising fossil fuel use, and (2) increasing the drawdown of carbon dioxide from the air and storing it safely, e.g. expanding forests. This decrease should move the other indicators back towards safe levels.
- Cool the planet by 0.6 C from the 2014 average global temperature
- Restore the lost ice in the Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland,
- Decrease ocean levels and ocean acidity
We don’t lack the technical capability to do this, or the economic capacity. What we lack is the political will to undertake the changes required.
The advantages of a low carbon economy
Protecting our climate will also protect:
- our economy
- our security
- our health
- our children and their children, and
- life as we know it on our planet Earth
The US White House sees clear advantages in taking climate action.
“A low carbon, clean energy economy can become an engine of growth. Our scientists will design new fuels, and our farmers will grow them. Our engineers will devise new sources of energy, our workers will build them, and our businesses will sell them. … we will not just create new jobs and new industries … on the cutting edge; we will save lives, protect and preserve our treasured natural resources, cities, and coastlines for future generations”
US White House: President Climate Action Plan: June 2013
Australia is in danger of clinging to fossil fuels and missing out on the biggest economic opportunity of the new century.
Power to the People: ABC TV: Four Corners: 7 July 2014
We need to reach for the economic, health and environmental opportunities of clean electricity and clean air: a low emissions green economy with jobs and knowledge in industries that can prosper long into the future.
Security: Independence from Middle East Oil
One enormous advantage of moving to renewable energy is that Australia and the world would no longer be dependent on the oil reserves in the Middle East and on Russian gas. Without this need for oil, perhaps we could act more rationally to events in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and even Israel. Perhaps this could help to defuse a long-standing world trouble spot.
Currently, the Australian government is planning to spend half a billion dollars a year on military involvement in Iraq – even as it is reversing earlier climate initiatives.
Plans for a Low Carbon Australia
Australia could implement the detailed plans produced by Beyond Zero Emissions, plans to:
- Generate all Australian electricity from renewables within ten years
- Move to electric transport. Once most of our electricity comes from renewables, we should begin to run our cars on this electricity.
- Build high speed rail on the Australian east coast
- Refit our offices and houses to save energy
- Change farming and forestry
Australian Climate Action
The government agencies and policies established by the previous Australian government, in about 2011, could be a useful model for any nation. Unfortunately these initiatives are now being reversed by the current Australian government.
The science is clear. We have detailed plans for climate action. Now is the time to act. We need to reach for the economic, health and environmental opportunities of clean electricity and clean air: a low emissions green economy with jobs and knowledge in industries that can prosper long into the future.