Climate report gloom

The last couple of weeks has seen a rash of new climate change reports fighting for attention and hoping to influence the annual jamboree the is the Conference of Parties no.18. As the hope builds – surely after 17 goes we have to make a breakthrough this time – what message do these new reports bring?

Well I have read four: Bridging the Emissions Gap from the United Nations Environment Programme; Turn Down the Heat from the World Bank; Global Coal Risk Assessment from the World Resources Institute; and Too late for 2 degrees from Price Waterhouse Coopers. These are some of the some common themes and lessons that I have drawn from them.

 

Two degrees is moving rapidly out of sight

Current emission trends put us nowhere near where we want to be to have any chance of limiting average temperature increases to below 2°C. The UNEP report looks at the emissions reductions needed by 2020 to keep us somewhere on track for 2°C or below, then compares that with the trajectory implied by current emission reduction pledges made by governments around the world. By 2020 they say the gap would be 8-13 giga tonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide (GTCO2) – and that is assuming that all pledges are met.

PwC use carbon intensity, how much carbon is produced for every dollar of output to assess the situation (they are accountants after all). In 2009 they said that carbon intensity had to reduce by 3.9% per year up to 2050. After three years of prevarication and inaction that figure has risen to 5.1% per year – beyond anything that has been achieved globally in any of the last 50 years.

The idea that hopes of sticking to 2°C are slipping away has been voiced by people like Kevin Anderson and colleagues from Tyndall Manchester for a number of years but seems to becoming common currency now.

 

Things can change but will they?

So we are heading in the wrong direction but can we put it right? The optimistic position voiced in the UNEP report is that it is still ‘technically’ possible to make the emission reductions we need to close the gap back to a 2°C trajectory. However, you only have to look at current progress to concur with PwC who see this as “highly unrealistic”. The 5.1% annual reductions in carbon intensity needed are being achieved by individual countries – France, the UK and Germany beat this in 2011, and the EU as a while matched it. However, it seems this was partly luck due to an exceptionally mild winter (although we might be having more of those), and globally we only managed 0.7% from 2000-2011.

The reasons for this are many but one example from these reports stands out. As the World Bank publishes a report saying we must, whatever else we do, avoid 4°C warming (more below), they also “increased lending for fossil fuel projects and coal plants in recent years” according the World Resources Institute (WRI). Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels but there are currently 1199 new coal fired powers stations proposed around the world. If they were all built that would amount to somewhere in the region of an extra 4 GTCO2 being emitted each year (my calculations). There must be money to be made though judging by how involved top commercial banks are in funding coal projects. From 2005-2011 JP Morgan Chase invested €16.6bn, with Citi, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Barclays making up the top 5. In total, for the top 20 commercial banks listed in the WRI report, a staggering €171bn has been invested in coal in this 6 year period, with the Government owned Royal Bank of Scotland contributing around €10bn.

Closing the gap... I don’t think so.    

 

The outlook is grim

Not only are we missing our 2°C target it seems that we travelling headlong towards 4°C warming or more. How will this 4°C world look? Well according to the World Bank report it will be one of “unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services”.

The report details a litany of impacts focusing on sea-level rise, changes in extreme temperatures, agriculture, water resources, ecosystems and biodiversity and human health. None of it is good. Just to pick out one example on extreme temperature, “In the Mediterranean and central United States, the warmest July in the period 2080–2100 will see temperatures close to 35°C, or up to 9°C above the warmest July for the present day”. Recent heat wave events would become the norm and “and a completely new class of heat waves, with magnitudes never experienced before in the 20th century, would occur regularly”. It brought a staggering fact to mind that I read recently that if you are 27 or under in the US then you have you have never lived through a month that was colder than average... and you maybe never will.

If all that isn’t scary enough, the authors talk about the uncertainty around the full nature of the impacts with the emphasis very much on the possibility that these impacts are underestimated. So much so, they conclude “there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible” and that “it simply must not be allowed to occur”.

Of course it cannot end with such doom and gloom so makes clear we can avoid this with early co-operative international action... but as was said earlier...

 

What to conclude?

Well clearly any Doha delegate reading these reports will be heading to Qatar with a fire in their belly to put all this right and set us back on course for somewhere nearer 2°C. Or maybe not. It is hard to be optimistic about a process that has brought so little meaningful progress despite the dire situation we are careering towards.

One lesson from these reports is abundantly clear – we need to get really serious about adaptation. I sit on the steering group for the Manchester Climate Change Action Plan and a recent discussion was about whether adaptation needed to have a prominent role. I think it would negligent if it didn’t. However, this has to be alongside a monumental effort to do what we can to reduce emissions. As the World Bank report says we really don’t want to go to a 4°C world. Maybe it is too late but if 4°C is bad then 6°C is going to be an awful lot worse.

The PwC report states that “The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions”. However, in their view that transformation doesn’t include any move away from seeing economic growth as essential. This is an idea that we really need to start taking seriously. This is why it was great to see so many people at a recent event organised by the Tyndall Manchester called ‘we need to talk about growth’, and also at the launch of a report this week that looks at what a steady state economy might mean for Manchester.  

So should we all retreat to our homes in despair? There is a strand of thought that what we need is an ecological disaster, a collapse and then we will do something about it and create the world we want. The trouble with this is that collapses rarely seem to lead to benign outcomes – the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece provides a sobering warning from current times and there are many other lessons from history. Given the individualistic culture we have, are we all likely to pull together when the trouble hits?  

I like Joanna Macy’s concept of active hope, the idea that we should try and identify the outcomes that we would like to see come about and then play an active role in trying make them reality. The outcomes might not be likely but we put our energy into it because it is something important to us. I can only speak for myself but it seems more essential than ever to keep working for the things we believe in. 

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