More than 50% fossil fuel reductions needed by 2050 to meet 2°C climate target


Less than a quarter of the proven fossil fuel reserves can be burnt and emitted between now and 2050, if global warming is to be limited to two degrees Celsius (2°C), says a new study published in the journal Nature today.

The study has, for the first time, calculated how much greenhouse gas emissions we can pump into the atmosphere between now and 2050, to have a reasonable chance of keeping warming lower than 2°C (above pre-industrial levels) – a goal supported by more than 100 countries (2). We can only emit 1000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) between the years 2000 and 2050. The world has already emitted one third of that in just nine years.

“If we continue burning fossil fuels as we do, we will have exhausted the carbon budget in merely 20 years, and global warming will go well beyond two degrees,” says Malte Meinshausen, lead author of the study and climate researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The three-year research project involved scientists from Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland

The study concluded that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by more than 50 percent by 2050 relative to 1990 levels, if the risk of exceeding 2°C is to be limited to 25 percent.

“Only a fast switch away from fossil fuels will give us a reasonable chance to avoid considerable warming. We shouldn’t forget that a 2°C global mean warming would take us far beyond the natural temperature variations that life on Earth has experienced since we humans have been around,” says Malte Meinshausen. (Link to full story @ Potsdamn Institute for Climate Impact Research)

“Climate change hitting entire Arctic ecosystem, says report”

arcticpic460The Guardian, 28th April 2008

Extensive climate change is now affecting every form of life in the Arctic, according to a major new assessment by international polar scientists. In the past four years, air temperatures have increased, sea ice has declined sharply, surface waters in the Arctic ocean have warmed and permafrost is in some areas rapidly thawing. In addition, says the report released today at a Norwegian government seminar, plants and trees are growing more vigorously, snow cover is decreasing 1-2% a year and glaciers are shrinking.

Scientists from Norway, Canada, Russia and the US contributed to the Arctic monitoring and assessment programme (Amap) study, which says new factors such as “black carbon” – soot – ozone and methane may now be contributing to global and arctic warming as much as carbon dioxide. “Black carbon and ozone in particular have a strong seasonal pattern that makes their impacts particularly important in the Arctic,” it says.

The report’s main findings are:


Permafrost is warming fast and at its margins thawing. Plants are growing more vigorously and densely. In northern Alaska, temperatures have been rising since the 1970s. In Russia, the tree line has advanced up hills and mountains at 10 metres a year. Nearly all glaciers are decreasing in mass, resulting in rising sea levels as the water drains to the ocean.

Summer sea ice

The most striking change in the Arctic in recent years has been the reduction in summer sea ice in 2007. This was 23% less than the previous record low of 5.6m sq kilometres in 2005, and 39% below the 1979-2000 average. New satellite data suggests the ice is much thinner than it used to be. For the first time in existing records, both the north-west and north-east passages were ice-free in summer 2008. However, the 2008 winter ice extent was near the year long-term average.


The Greenland ice sheet has continued to melt in the past four years with summer temperatures consistently above the long-term average since the mid 1990s. In 2007, the area experiencing melt was 60% greater than in 1998. Melting lasted 20 days longer than usual at sea level and 53 days longer at 2-3,000m heights.

Warmer waters

In 2007, some ice-free areas were as much as 5C warmer than the long-term average. Arctic waters appear to have warmed as a result of the influx of warmer waters from the Pacific and Atlantic. The loss of reflective, white sea ice also means that more solar radiation is absorbed by the dark water, heating surface layers further.

Black carbon

Black carbon, or soot, is emitted from inefficient burning such as in diesel engines or from the burning of crops. It is warming the Arctic by creating a haze which absorbs sunlight, and it is also deposited on snow, darkening the surface and causing more sunlight to be absorbed.

Policy changes and paradigm shifts following Copenhagen

The United Nations  climate conference in Copenhagen (which I attended ) was an excellent initiative, with some fairly interesting insights into the gulf between science and policy making. Following the conference, we were contacted by The Guardian newspaper to participate in a poll on global warming. The results are striking – almost 90% of climate scientists ‘do not believe political efforts to restrict global warming to 2C will succeed’, and that ‘an average rise of 4-5C by the end of this century is more likely’.

The poll of those who follow global warming most closely exposes a widening gulf between political rhetoric and scientific opinions on climate change. While policymakers and campaigners focus on the 2C target, 86% of the experts told the survey they did not think it would be achieved. A continued focus on an unrealistic 2C rise, which the EU defines as dangerous, could even undermine essential efforts to adapt to inevitable higher temperature rises in the coming decades, they warned.

The survey follows a scientific conference last month in Copenhagen, where a series of studies were presented that suggested global warming could strike harder and faster than realised.

The Guardian contacted all 1,756 people who registered to attend the conference and asked for their opinions on the likely course of global warming. Of 261 experts who responded, 200 were researchers in climate science and related fields. The rest were drawn from industry or worked in areas such as economics and social and political science.

The 261 respondents represented 26 countries and included dozens of senior figures, including laboratory directors, heads of university departments and authors of the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (Read more)

This sobering news isn’t helped by reports that Steven Chu, the US Secretary for Energy (who I blogged on back in February) has done a complete backflip on statement that coal as ‘his worst nightmare‘, and is now endorsing ‘clean coal‘ technologies. ‘Clean coal’ is a complete myth, and thankfully the US Environmental Protection Agency have passed a motion to deem 6 greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) as ‘dangerous to the public‘, opening up legislation to regulate powerplants and the automotive industry. It will be interesting to see exactly where the Obama administration will take the United States under the new environment and climate change policies, which aim to invest $150 billion in clean energy and renewable sources.

Geoengineering, climate change and ‘albedo flips’

As it has become increasingly clear that we are well into a period of dangerous or even catastrophic climate change, discussions about geoengineering have become more intense and public.  Now the US government is openly admitting that it too is discussing the pros and cons of geo-engineering.  This article includes some fascinating insights into these discussions.   Newly appointed White House science advisor, John Holdren, told the Associated Press, for example, that “as the global climate picture gets gloomier, geoengineering is sneaking into White House conversations”.

“It’s got to be looked at,” Holdren said. “We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.”


Percentage of diffusely reflected sun light in relation to various surface conditions of the Earth (source: Wikipedia)

Sounds to me like geoengineering is very much on the agenda! There are various aspects which contribute to the diffuse reflectivity of the planet – such as clouds, ice and snow and even vegetation.  The graph on the left shows the various contributions of different aspects of the planet to its albedo.  These various characteristics have a powerful role in determining the earth temperature.  The recent loss of summer Arctic ice is a case in point.  Calculations show that the resulting “albedo flip” from reflective ice to darker ice-free ocean will dramatically increase the energy being absorbed by the earth and drive its temperature upward by over a degree Celsius.

Various ideas have been floated about on how to increase the reflectivity of the earth – including pumping reflective particles into the outer atmosphere of the earth in order to bounce more energy back into space.  These calculations suggest that relatively small amounts of material could lower the earth’s temperature by as much as 1-2°C.  The contribution to lowering temperature such as this would certainly take some of the pressure off and buy us important time as we urgently struggle to get greenhouse emissions under control.

But there is reason for great caution. Apart from the fact that there are many uncertainties and unknowns (i.e. are we certain that we know how much of these yet-to-be-invented particles to add to the atmosphere?), there is the concern that offering this option will take the pressure off governments to act decisively on the problem of fossil fuels and their emissions.  It also has a range of legal and ethical issues.  For example, should any particular government be able to unilaterally decide whether or not to manipulate the earth’s albedo and temperature without the agreement from all?  And if manipulating temperature downward were to result in deaths from cooling temperatures or disturbances in the weather, what then?

And it is important to remember that changing the albedo of the earth will not solve all the problems associated with upwardly spiralling atmospheric carbon dioxide.  For example, decreasing the temperature of the planet will do nothing to solve the problem of ocean acidification.

Special interest groups: the enemy within?

One of the big issues discussed in relation to climate change is the relative costs of ‘acting’ versus ‘not acting’.  Basically the argument comes down to: If the cost of ‘acting’ exceeds costs associated with the impacts of ‘not acting’, then ‘not acting’ is the preferred course.

As outlined endlessly by highly credible experts such as former World Bank chief economist, Lord Nicholas Stern, the massive costs of inaction on our economic and social systems dwarf the much smaller costs of acting.  According to Stern in his report to the British government, the cumulative cost of climate inaction in 2050 will be a startling 5 percent to 20 percent of global GDP, or 5 to 20 times as much as it would cost to take action.


Estimated global macro-economic costs in 2030 for least-cost trajectories towards different long-term stabilization levels (IPCC 4th Assessment)

The conservative fourth assessment report of the IPCC came to a similar conclusion (bringing carbon dioxide equivalents to safe levels would cost <0.1% of GDP per annum growth over 50 years, IPCC 2007 – the figure below table and figure from Bert Metz, Co-chair of IPCC WG III).  The conclusion: the impact of responding to climate change, if taken across the board, will affect very few of us significantly.

And here is the Dorothy Dixer:  why is it that certain industry sectors and their media associates continue to promulgate inaccurate and misleading viewpoints on the important issue of whether or not we should act decisively on climate change?  The answer is, ‘special interest‘.

Eric Pooley, a Kalb fellow, has written a highly credible and clear account of the issues at stake in a discussion paper published through the Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.  In particular, he focuses on the role of some elements of the media in confusing and often deliberately misleading the debate.  I recommend reading his paper because it highlights the often devious nature of special interest (and its media associates) and outlines the challenges that we face in getting policymakers to adopt a rational and sensible policies with respect to the looming climate change catastrophe.


Estimated mitigation strategies illustrating the cost of numbers (IPCC 4th Assessment)

As Pooley outlines, the forces of special interest have created a hysterical atmosphere that has led with the argument that any action to reduce the current rates of climate issue would cause economic mayhem and is therefore irresponsible.  I was stunned by the numbers involved.  According to Pooley, in just one example, US$427 million was spent by the oil and coal industries on lobbying, advertising and eventually defeating the important and sensible Lieberman-Warner bill that attempted to pass through the US House of Representatives.

At the end of the day, Pooley points to where the showdown really lies.  The argument is not about whether or not climate change exists or not (it exists – that debate is over), it is challenging the deliberate and unethical inaccuracies promulgated by the fossil fuel lobby.  This lobby is bent on thwarting attempts to respond to climate change so as to protect its bottom line via any means possible. As a citizen of this wonderful planet, I personally wonder how these individuals can sleep peacefully at night knowing that they are imperilling the earth and its citizens through their irresponsible and selfish actions.

Lomborg vs Rahmstorf – are the IPCC estimates fundementally flawed?

Bjørn Lomborg: Climate change decisions should be based on science, not political activism

lomborgI pointed out that one conference participant, Stefan Rahmstorf, argues that sea level rises will be much higher than those anticipated by most researchers. Rahmstorf is a well-established, serious researcher on climate change who holds a minority view on the rise in the sea-level — the IPCC’s estimate is an 18cm to 59cm rise by the end of the century. I mentioned him to make the point that meeting with like-minded colleagues does not somehow create a new global scientific consensus.

In arguing that sea levels are rising much more than the consensus view of thousands of scientists, he makes a lot of the fact that the 1993-2003 sea level estimates were 50% higher than the IPCC’s models expected, indicating that future sea level rises would also be higher. He fails to mention that the particular decade centred on 1998 has one of the highest sea level rises, which in the past has varied dramatically over decades. The decade before, the sea level was almost not rising or possibly even dropping (as one can see on p413 of IPCC’s first report). One cannot pick the timeframes to fit the argument. (Read more)

Stefan Rahmstorf: Climate sceptics confuse the public by focusing on short-term fluctuations

rahmstorfLomborg argues that 18 years could be too short for a robust trend comparison because of decadal variations in trend – but the 42-year period analysed by IPCC yields the same result. And it is telling that he then goes on to draw an “inescapable” conclusion about a slow-down of sea level rise from just four years of data. This is another well-worn debating trick: confuse the public about the underlying trend by focusing on short-term fluctuations. It’s like claiming spring won’t come if there is a brief cold snap in April.

Why does Lomborg cite the trend since 2005? Last October, he cited that of the previous two years. Why now four years? Because the trend of the past two years (2007-2008) is now + 3.7 mm/year? It is even worse. The trend since the beginning of any year of the data series varies between 1.6 mm/year and 9.0 mm/year, depending on the start year chosen. Using 2005, Lomborg cherry-picked the by far lowest. He’s done this before, see for example his recent claim that the globe is cooling. (Read More)

“Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs”

“The choice to continue emitting carbon dioxide means that we will be an agent of biological change of a force and magnitude exceeded only by the causes of the great mass extinction events. If we do not cut carbon dioxide emissions deeply and soon, the consequences of ocean acidification will stand out against the broad reaches of geologic time. Those consequences will remain embedded in the geologic record as testimony from a civilisation that had the wisdom to develop high technology, but did not develop the wisdom to use it wisely.” – Ken Caldiera (10.03.08)

James Hansen: Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them

The Observer, Sunday 15th February:

A year ago, I wrote to Gordon Brown asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and other leaders. The reason is this – coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet.

The climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear and there is a potential for explosive changes, effects that would be irreversible, if we do not rapidly slow fossil-fuel emissions over the next few decades. As Arctic sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs more sunlight and speeds melting. As the tundra melts, methane, a strong greenhouse gas, is released, causing more warming. As species are exterminated by shifting climate zones, ecosystems can collapse, destroying more species.

The public, buffeted by weather fluctuations and economic turmoil, has little time to analyse decadal changes. How can people be expected to evaluate and filter out advice emanating from those pushing special interests? How can people distinguish between top-notch science and pseudo-science?

Those who lead us have no excuse – they are elected to guide, to protect the public and its best interests. They have at their disposal the best scientific organisations in the world, such as the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences. Only in the past few years did the science crystallise, revealing the urgency. Our planet is in peril. If we do not change course, we’ll hand our children a situation that is out of their control. One ecological collapse will lead to another, in amplifying feedbacks.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has already risen to a dangerous level. The pre-industrial carbon dioxide amount was 280 parts per million (ppm). Humans, by burning coal, oil and gas, have increased this to 385 ppm; it continues to grow by about 2 ppm per year.

Earth, with its four-kilometre-deep oceans, responds only slowly to changes of carbon dioxide. So the climate will continue to change, even if we make maximum effort to slow the growth of carbon dioxide. Arctic sea ice will melt away in the summer season within the next few decades. Mountain glaciers, providing fresh water for rivers that supply hundreds of millions of people, will disappear – practically all of the glaciers could be gone within 50 years – if carbon dioxide continues to increase at current rates. Coral reefs, harbouring a quarter of ocean species, are threatened.

The greatest danger hanging over our children and grandchildren is initiation of changes that will be irreversible on any time scale that humans can imagine. If coastal ice shelves buttressing the west Antarctic ice sheet continue to disintegrate, the sheet could disgorge into the ocean, raising sea levels by several metres in a century. Such rates of sea level change have occurred many times in Earth’s history in response to global warming rates no higher than those of the past 30 years. Almost half of the world’s great cities are located on coastlines.

The most threatening change, from my perspective, is extermination of species. Several times in Earth’s history, rapid global warming occurred, apparently spurred by amplifying feedbacks. In each case, more than half of plant and animal species became extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellow species to extinction, we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world we inherited from our elders.

Clearly, if we burn all fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet we know. Carbon dioxide would increase to 500 ppm or more. We would set the planet on a course to the ice-free state, with sea level 75 metres higher. Climatic disasters would occur continually. The tragedy of the situation, if we do not wake up in time, is that the changes that must be made to stabilise the atmosphere and climate make sense for other reasons. They would produce a healthier atmosphere, improved agricultural productivity, clean water and an ocean providing fish that are safe to eat. (Read more)

Obama’s energy secretary outlines dire climate change scenario – The Guardian

The Guardian has a fascinating article on Steve Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist appointed as the Secretary for Energy under the Obama administration. Chu has been a long time advocate for alternative energy sources and nuclear power, and is a member of the Copenhagen Climate Council, established to help promote global awareness of the upcoming UN climate summit in Copenhagen later this year. Listen to the audio discussion below by Suzanne Goldberg, or click below the jump for the full article.


Steve Chu’s warning the clearest sign to date of the greening of America’s political class under Obama:

Unless there is timely action on climate change, California’s agricultural bounty could be reduced to a dust bowl and its cities disappear, Barack Obama’s energy secretary said yesterday.

The apocalyptic scenario sketched out by Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate appointed as energy secretary, was the clearest sign to date of the greening of America’s political class under the new president.

In blunt language, Chu said Americans had yet to fully understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he told the Los Angeles Times in his first interview since taking the post. “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.”

Chu’s doomsday descriptions were seen yesterday as further evidence that, after eight years of denial under George Bush, the Obama White House recognises the severity of climate change. (Read more)

Long lasting impacts of climate change

Long Droughts, Rising Seas Predicted Despite Future CO2 Curbs

Washington Post (27th Jan) – Greenhouse gas levels currently expected by mid-century will produce devastating long-term droughts and a sea-level rise that will persist for 1,000 years regardless of how well the world curbs future emissions of carbon dioxide, an international team of scientists reported yesterday.

Top climate researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Switzerland and France said their analysis shows that carbon dioxide will remain near peak levels in the atmosphere far longer than other greenhouse gases, which dissipate relatively quickly.

“I think you have to think about this stuff as more like nuclear waste than acid rain: The more we add, the worse off we’ll be,” NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon told reporters in a conference call. “The more time that we take to make decisions about carbon dioxide, the more irreversible climate change we’ll be locked into.” (Read More)

Report: Some climate damage already irreversible

Associated Press (27th Jan)–  Many damaging effects of climate change are already basically irreversible, researchers declared Monday, warning that even if carbon emissions can somehow be halted temperatures around the globe will remain high until at least the year 3000.

“People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide the climate would go back to normal in 100 years, 200 years; that’s not true,” climate researcher Susan Solomon said in a teleconference.

Solomon, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., is lead author of an international team’s paper reporting irreversible damage from climate change, being published in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Read More)