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The great Zen masters would love the Global Warming Koan — [a koan is] one of those impossible questions that has no rational answer. They…
The great Zen masters would love the Global Warming Koan — [a koan is] one of those impossible questions that has no rational answer. They are used to challenge young monks training in monasteries: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
— — — Paul Farrell
The recent signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord by over 170 countries presents a perplexing question that hopefully will find a satisfactory answer: does this agreement mean that the nations of the world will now act quickly enough to keep the global climate from warming above the 2 degrees Celsius threshold generally considered the point beyond which the negative climatic, economic and social consequences of climate change are thought to become intolerably severe and potentially irreversible? The corollary to this question is to ask whether 2 degrees Celsius is in fact the correct target.
The April 22nd ceremony was justifiably a celebration of the intent of nations to address climate change. Good intentions, however, have been known to lead to places we do not wish to go. Celebrations notwithstanding, it is wise to remember that the Accord does not become binding until it is ratified by at least 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions. The agreement, therefore, is short of implementation. Whether or not it will prove short of effective depends upon what happens from here.
According to a recent BBC article [i]:
“…signatures alone will not be enough to make the Paris agreement operational. The legal requirements mean that each country (emphasis mine) will have to go through a process of ratification. For some, this will require nothing more than the assent of the political leader as in the example of the United States.
Others though, such as India and Japan, will have to take the document to their parliaments; some may need new laws. The European Union is expected to lag behind on this issue as it has not yet agreed with the 28 member states on how emissions cuts will be shared out. Each member state will also have to ratify the deal individually….
To become operational, the treaty needs at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions to complete all the steps.”
In reality, the 2015 Accord‘s ability to achieve the hoped for outcomes will depend upon the actions of just a few nations to make good on their promises. Fifty-five percent (55%) of the world’s emissions are produced by only 4 countries and 1 region: China; the USA; the EU; Brazil and India. Three of the top ten emitters are alone responsible for 45% of global emissions. (Figure 1) Given the political and economic realities confronting these top tier emitters, e.g. partisan conflicts, budgetary pressures, influential climate deniers, elections cycles, etc., it cannot be said with any certainty that either ratification or implementation of the Paris framework will go according to Hoyle. If the top-tier emitters (including Russia, Japan and Canada) do not make good on their current intentions, pressure to take more draconian steps to reduce global greenhouse gases (GHGs) will increase exponentially. The need for significantly more aggressive actions in the future could easily rend the current global coalition of countries.
Now For A Reality Check
Although Paris was markedly different than Lima, underlying tensions remain. It is not at all clear how far developed and large developing nations are able or willing to go — either to reduce their national carbon footprints and/or to provide the financial assistance required by smaller developing nations, particularly island nations. Consider, for example, that China and India are both willing to reduce their reliance on coal generated electricity in favor of solar. Both have set fairly aggressive schedules to accomplish the transition from coal to renewables. However, coal is and will likely remain a significant source of energy, e.g. +/- 25%, for at least the next 10 to 20 years. The same is true for the U.S. For as long as coal and other fossil fuels remain in the mix they will continue to contribute to global emissions.
There is a strong body of research suggesting that even should the 2015 Paris Accord be completely implemented in a timely manner — a big if — global temperatures are likely still to exceed the threshold. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the world community to assess continually the 2C degree target and to use the agreed to quinquennial climate conferences to adjust the threshold accordingly.
Despite any potential problems, the 2015 Climate Accord did make significant advances over earlier efforts, Lima, having achieved acceptance of important core precepts — principally:
· CO2 is the major cause of global warming;
· It is a long lasting greenhouse gas and about half of what has ever entered the atmosphere is still there;
· Its longevity requires that emissions be cumulatively measured and considered;
· A rise in the Earth’s temperature of 2 degrees Celsius is reasonably the line which should not be crossed; and,
· Avoiding irreversible climate change will require net carbon neutrality sooner rather than later.
Because the science of climate change is dynamic, these principles cannot be considered an end in themselves. They do, however, begin to establish an important baseline upon which to amend the current framework to account for new data and provide important metrics for evaluating progress.
There remain, however, a number of key questions in need of science based answers, including:
· How much CO2 is currently in the atmosphere;
· Can current levels be expected to dissipate before the end of this century?
· How much additional CO2 can be emitted before the tipping point is reached; and,
· Is the 2 degrees Celsius threshold an absolute?
These questions are inter-related and the subject of varying opinions by well recognized and respected climate/environmental researchers in academia, government, the private sector and NGOs. Estimates vary on the amount of CO2 that can be safely emitted by a factor of nearly 2 — ranging from 250 to 485 billion metric tons. Assuming estimates of a tipping point of between 1000 and 1200 billion metric tons are correct, then at the 250 billion metric tons estimate the threshold will be crossed in less than a decade. If the higher estimates of the “still possible CO2 to be emitted” are right, then the scales will be tipped sometime between 2035 and 2045 — depending upon what countries actually do to curb emissions and what actions outside of official channels are taken within the next thirty years, e.g. voluntary adoption of sustainable practices by the private sector and local governments.
Are We There Yet: Crossing The Threshold
The UN, in its recent Gap Report, has concluded that it seems likely that the 2C degree threshold will be crossed before the end of this century and that the world is on track to see a temperature rise of around 3.7 degrees Celsius.[ii] According to Corinne Le Quere at the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia, England: “We are nowhere near the commitments needed to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of climate change, a level that will be hard to reach for any country, including rich nations.”
The issues of “when and how much” are complicated and dependent upon a better understanding of natural systems, e.g. the ability of plants and trees to soak up CO2 , and human behavior, e.g. what motivates people to become climate conscious and willing to demand of themselves and others sustainable actions. What is not complicated or in much dispute is the continuing — albeit slowing — rise in cumulative emissions and acceptance that there is in fact a limit to how much CO2 the atmosphere can hold, without the occurrence of some serious negative consequences. This is particularly so in the face of rising global populations and diminished natural resources like arable land and potable water.
The exact consequences of going past 2C degrees are even harder to determine with certainty. Although there is ample anecdotal evidence and a growing body of scientific and peer reviewed data of more frequent and destructive storms, rising sea levels, the loss of natural habitats, a greater incidence of insect borne diseases, the loss of species and rising oceans, the fact is that much research still needs to be done. When speaking of anthropogenic activity leading to environmental disasters we are speaking of more than reliance on fossil fuel resources for power production. We are also speaking of unsustainable agricultural practices, water and land pollution, the loss of topsoil, the use of carcinogenic chemicals and building supplies, e.g. cement, runaway population growth, as well as a host of other harmful human activities.
There are those who would argue that there is some slack in the target and that warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius could be tolerated, while others contend that the danger point is closer to a rise of 1.5 degrees on the basis of their assumption that at 2 degrees there will be a substantial loss of vegetation; this will serve to slowly move the thermometer from 2 degrees to over 3 degrees Celsius as a sort of echo effect. According to the former co-chair of an IPCC science-assessment working group, Susan Soloman: “there is little by way of quantitative evidence that this represents a ‘safe’ policy target.” The target is really a function of differing assumptions. Until more definitive research is done and consistent assumptions are established the 2 degree target is more a place holder than scientific fact.
The lack of scientific certainty about exactly when the environmental balance will be tipped because of rising CO2 levels has left the door open to those who argue against the need or the efficacy of governmental action. They view uncertainty as evidence of a “cover-up.”
Increasingly, however, climate deniers are being ignored by private sector decisionmakers, who believe that enough is known to confirm the fact of global warming and are increasingly committed to reducing the environmental impact of businesses and improving the resiliency of their communities.
The absence of certainty, however, also increases the risk of division of the global community as greater pressure is put on major emitters to move more rapidly — perhaps more rapidly than their decisionmakers are willing to go. Continued scientific research, technological innovation and the creation of new financing mechanisms, including a global carbon trading market, will serve to release some of the pressures that are likely to build as more aggressive actions are required.
A Good Beginning
Climate change is not a koan; it has answers! The real question is whether or not the answers will be accepted and implemented in a timely enough manner — at sufficient scale — to keep the rise in temperatures within acceptable boundaries. Just as global warming has been a dynamic process occurring over time, so too is the implementation of solutions.
The Paris Accord provides the impetus and a working framework for future actions. It is an important example of the progress already made in recognizing climate change as a global priority. In and of itself, however, it is not the definitive answer. The framework does, however, serve several very important functions.
First, it is helping to develop a consistent concept and approach. For example, it creates a mechanism for reaching agreements on the temperature threshold — either validating 2 degrees Celsius or working to re-define it — and establishing with greater clarity what the carbon budget between now and the end of the century really is.
Second, the dialogue surrounding the framework is beginning to address and refine the status of nations. The relationship of developed and developing nations has been a continuing source of contention since the first Earth Summit in 1992. Changes have begun to occur, however. The possibility of dividing developing nations into different categories allowing for their current and potential carbon contributions is no longer dismissed out of hand. China, Brazil, India and South Africa are large developing nations whose climate impact is more akin to developed than smaller developing nations. Although large developing nations may not have been historically responsible for the bulk of past emissions, going forward they are likely to play the most important role in staying to the right side of the line. Notwithstanding the progress made to date, the divide between nations continues — particularly between small island nations and their larger developed and developing counterparts.
Third, activities around the Paris treaty are helping to develop investment/funding mechanisms in support of the adoption and deployment of sustainable energy technologies and practices in poorest countries, as well as support for resiliency initiatives. These nations are not and never will be the largest global CO2 contributors, but they suffer disproportionately from the emissions of others. Fair play seems to require richer nations to assist them in sustainable development and adaptation to the ravages climate change.
Fourth, Article 6 of the treaty has begun to lay the ground work for a global carbon trading market. However, much more needs to be done. Any program should serve as a mechanism for nations to purchase or sell carbon credits based on their emission allocations and the proceeds used to introduce clean technology into developing countries and to help communities improve their economy and resiliency to the adverse effects of climate change.
Fifth, the Paris agreement has provided a very positive example of the ability of nations to collectively address climate change. It not only has overcome the very negative Lima experience but established a 5 year calendar for the continual improvement/refinement of the terms of global cooperation.
In The Final Analysis
As important as a 2015 Paris Accord is, immediate actions by nations and within nations by the public and private sectors will ultimately drive a successful and timely response to global climate change. Policies which encourage investment in sustainable technologies and their deployment, e.g. tax credits, valuing solar, other clean energy technologies and storage in utility ratemaking decisions, supportive net metering regulations, development of disruptive technologies and practices, community clean energy projects, etc., are the real bedrock of sustainable environmental action, economic growth and socially responsible investments. The power of local action has proven the linchpin of success in the deployment of clean energy solutions — in the absence of timely and stable government actions and the reduction in the price of coal and oil — and, served as a significant impetus to the move towards price parity.
In the final analysis, reducing harmful emissions in an effort to remain below the 2 degree Celsius threshold means stopping the simultaneous support for fossil and clean energy sources. Fossil fuels are the primary source of global warming. The lack of clarity created by a dual support system is perhaps the most confusing factor of all in efforts to keep to the right side of the line. I would even go so far as to pay fossil fuel companies to NOT develop their resources. Surely paying to keep these pollutants in the ground will prove more economic in the long run than massively expensive and speculative carbon sequestration programs. After all, how better to sequester the carbon content of these resources than by not extracting them in the first place? How better to make clean energy alternatives affordable, while not harming the environment, than by wide spread application of these technologies?
i “World leaders prepare to sign Paris climate treaty,” Matt McGrath, Environment correspondent, New York, 22 April 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-36098310
ii This number differs somewhat from that in Figure 2. It reflects the variation that occurs as a result of differing assumptions and scenarios. As the science gets better, the numbers will become more consistent.