September 10, 2014

Sorry policy-makers, the two-degrees warming policy is a road to disaster

Originally posted on my Guardian blog.

Global consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has released a timely analysis on economic growth and carbon emissions, which makes the point that there is a “disconnect between the global climate negotiations aiming for a 2°C limit on global warming, but national pledges may only manage to limit it to 3°C, and current trajectory actually on course for 4°C.”

The report was released in the lead up to the United Nations climate change summit in New York, which will also be the focus of global climate rallies, to hammer home the message that “taking decisive action to avoid the extremes of climate change is a pre-condition for sustained economic growth”.

The PwC analysis shows that in order to keep to the 2°C limit on warming, decarbonisation of the global economy would need to occur at “five times the rate currently achieved”.

In the analysis, Australia topped the chart for the second year running in decarbonisation rates for 2013, recording a 7.2 percent reduction in carbon emissions. China had a decarbonisation rate of 4 percent, while many major economies including the USA, India, Germany and Brazil increased their carbon intensity. This was largely due to increased coal consumption and a “slower pace of change to renewable energy”.

At the New York climate summit, delegates will be discussing how to achieve the 2°C limit on global warming. This is the same limit on global warming that was described in 2009 at the Copenhagen summit as a “suicide pact”. With less hyperbole, outspoken climate scientist James Hansen warned that “international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster”.

As climate activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben pointed out in his confronting 2012 Rolling Stone article, the warming we have already locked in, about 0.8°C, is already causing “far more damage than most scientists expected”.

While policy analysis like that produced by PwC is welcome, in that it hopefully emphasises to business and political leaders the urgent need for rapid economic transformation, it also continues the “myth” that 2°C is an appropriate limit.

The 2°C target, as pointed out recently by climate activist and author David Spratt, is a “very unsafe target” and is “more appropriately considered as the boundary between dangerous and very dangerous climate change”.

Scientists and climate policy experts have been saying for this for years. For example, back in 2006, the Independent reported that dangerous climate change would be “likely to be unstoppable” if atmospheric carbon concentration exceeded 400 parts per million. In July 2014, the concentration was 399 and exceeded 400 in April this year.

Stabilisation at two degrees warming is not a policy for a safe climate. A Royal Society paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows in 2008 points out that “The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the 2 degrees C threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e [parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent] offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding 2 degrees C.”

They further point out that the 2°C limit is the result of very optimistic scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that to achieve “stabilisation” would require an unprecedented step change in the global economic model and the rapid deployment of successful CO2 scrubbing technologies”. IPCC scenarios have been criticised as systematically underestimating the pace and severity of global warming.

As Glenn Scherer wrote in 2012, we are facing unstoppable, “non-linear “light switch” moments when the climate system abruptly shifts from one paradigm to another”, where global warming becomes locked in and self-reinforcing.

The delegates to New York, and leaders around the world, must recognise the stark reality: two degrees is unacceptably and dangerously inappropriate as a mitigation and adaptation target.

Having reached the 400 parts per million threshold this year, it is clear that we are struggling to even keep within the 2°C warming limit. Most of the world, including Australia under the Abbott government, is continuing with “business as usual”. Worse, most countries are giving mere lip service to the the 2°C limit, with many national pledges limiting warming to 3°C. As George Monbiot pointed out last year, governments are collaborating “in the disaster they publicly bemoan”.

PwC is hardly a radical green organisation, yet it makes the point that the world’s nations have missed decarbonisation targets for six years in a row and that “we are way behind” avoiding even the 2°C “suicide pact” target. It states that decarbonisation must occur at a rate of 6.2 percent per year, a global rate that is unprecedented.

In Australia, to seriously and substantially contribute to avoiding 2°C in warming, we must reduce our carbon emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020. This reduction goal is the stated bi-partisan policy of both the Abbott government and the Labor party; unfortunately the ALP has caveats and the Abbott government’s “direct action” policy has no chance whatsoever of meeting even the lower bi-partisan target of 5 percent reductions.

A challenge for us all is that the 2°C target rhetoric is sabotaging policy development that would meaningfully tackle global warming.

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