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Climate change: game over? November 19, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming.

Climate change: game over?

(This column was first published on 2012-11-13 at News24 here)

Climate change didn’t enter the 2012 US presidential elections as a topic worth debating until superstorm Sandy knocked out the nation’s most populous city. But before we point accusing fingers at those clueless Americans, we should ask ourselves how serious we and our own government have taken this issue.

For years, the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists have warned that we need to restrict average global temperature increases to a maximum of 2oC above pre-industrial levels in order to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

At COP-15, the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen, this 2oC target was officially agreed on by the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Many experts now believe that the target is too high and that we should be aiming at 1.5 oC to be safe.

A new analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that we’re headed for 6oC by the end of this century. According to the international accounting firm’s Low Carbon Economy Index 2012, entitled “Too late for two degrees?”, the pace of reducing global emissions of greenhouse gasses has been way too slow.

While reductions in the carbon intensity (i.e. the emissions per unit of GDP) of countries like the UK, Germany and France reached rates as high as 6% or more in 2010-2011, they appear to have stalled in the world’s emerging economies. The so-called E7 group of countries (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey) now emit more than the G7 countries (USA, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada).

According to the PwC report, the global economy has to decrease its collective carbon intensity by a massive 5.1% annually until the year 2050 to stand a chance of achieving the 2oC target – a rate never achieved in any single year since World War 2. “Even to have a reasonable prospect of getting to a 4°C scenario would imply nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation,” says the study.

So does this mean that we’re toast? That the 2oC target is a pipedream and that we’re doomed to follow the Ancient Maya in succumbing to drastic climate change?

Not quite yet, but we do need to urgently decide how we are going to respond to this depressing news? It seems to me that we have three options. Take your pick:

1. Business as usual

There are a number of reasons why you might think that we should simply carry on burning oil, gas and coal, regardless of the consequences:
– you don’t believe in climate change in the first place;
– you think that any detrimental effects have been vastly exaggerated;
– you have faith in the powers of the “free market” to sort things out in the end;
– you’re looking forward to the long-awaited collapse of capitalism;
– you believe that global warming is a natural phenomenon that humans can’t do anything about; or
– you just don’t give a damn.

2. Addressing the symptoms

You may argue that we should focus our attention on:
– developing technologies to help us and future generations adapt to life on a warming planet;
– capturing and safely storing enough of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere to mitigate our continued reliance on fossil fuels; or
– searching for geoengineering solutions, like dumping iron dust into the oceans to stimulate CO2-trapping plankton blooms, or launching space mirrors to shield us from the sun’s radiation.

3. Tackling the causes

Like most environmentalists you may believe that the way to go is to transition to a low-carbon economy by:
– maximising energy efficiency; and
– replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy alternatives such as wind and solar power.

Personally, I’ve long been a supporter of option 3, but a considerable need for adaptation to the symptoms of climate change now seems inevitable. The authors of the PwC index agree, calling for “radical transformations in the way the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS [carbon capture and storage], removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation.”

Which option do you choose?

– Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath


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