Monday, 1 April 2013

Our Choice: Rocket to a Warming Catastrophe or Turn Down the Jets?


The Future is Certain, Unless...

We live in an astonishing times.  We can predict the future.  In one ever-increasingly certain area of knowledge – the overall global trend of climate and its relation to carbon emissions – we now know what is happening and where we are headed.  More emissions will lead to more global warming, a warming to temperatures beyond anything humans have experienced in our species' entire existence.

What is more, the most up-to-the-minute science, reconstructing the Earth's average surface temperature over the past 20,000 years, shows how massively humanity's recent intensive use of fossil fuels has disturbed the world's climate.

If we do act fast to lower global emissions radically, by beginning massive and immediate actions now, by altering personal behaviour, and rapidly decarbonising energy, goods and services, we really can have a limiting effect on future temperatures.  If humanity does not act and emissions continue unabated, the climate will pass through temperature level "trapdoors" that will be irreversible for a thousand years or more.

The Past as Guide to the Future

Marcott et al, authors of the most recent past temperature reconstruction, in summarising their results, state:
[T]he decade 2000-2009 has probably not exceeded the warmest temperatures of the early Holocene, but is warmer than ~75% of all temperatures during the Holocene. In contrast, the decade 1900-1909 was cooler than~95% of the Holocene. Therefore, we conclude that global temperature has risen from near the coldest to the warmest levels of the Holocene in the past century.

Jos Hagelaars, here, has combined temperature reconstructions for the past 22,000 years, including the recent one from Marcott et al., with temperature records for the past 120 years, and with the emission path that humanity is now following – which is tracking the very worst emissions scenario envisaged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

Holgaars' presentation is as below and makes the recent century's change compared to the past very clear indeed.  The extraordinary rate of change now being seen is unprecedented in tens of thousands of years of human history and pre-history.


Jos Holgaars' presentation of temperature reconstructions, recent temperature, and IPCC forecast.

After a long slow cooling in temperature from about five thousand years ago, the recent increased use of fossil fuels, especially from 1900 onward, has launched global temperature upward at an unprecedented rate (as shown at the most recent part of the blue line), a rate that will continue (as shown in red) if emissions continue.  This warming will not be continuous and warming will not occur evenly around the world, but it will happen.  It has already begun to show the first damaging effects in the increasing weather extremes and weather event intensities.

To give a sense of where humanity's rocket launch into higher temperatures is taking us we can look to the past.  In the Permian extinction of 251 million years ago, 95% of all species on Earth were eliminated due to a global warming of 6ºC, in that case naturally caused, probably by volcanic eruptions.  Corresponding to the currently forecast 'business-as-usual' emissions, our current path, the resultant amount of warming by the end of this century is very likely to be around 6ºC in only ninety years from now.  This warming is a result of human interference in Earth's biosphere, the sudden addition of massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane from burning of fossil fuels with additions from agriculture and clearing forests.  

If ever there was a time for precautionary action it is now,  while it is still possible to act.  Science also shows that urgent reductions in emissions could limit warming to a far safer, though still dangerous, level of 2º to 3ºC.  "Dangerous" is far preferable to catastrophic.

Only the choices we, as an intelligent species, make right now in the light of this information, will determine the level at which warming stops.  Humanity, collectively, will have to act fast but it is still possible to limit the warming, if and only if we can reduce emissions very rapidly.  Mitigating (reducing) emissions is a far safer and more certain course than geoengineering which has very unpredictable and very uncertain, often short-lived outcomes.

Below, I have added temperature bands to Holgaars' temperature anomaly versus time graph, to emphasise how different the future is likely to be compared to the past.  I have added date markers for agriculture to show how all of recent human history has occurred within a very narrow temperature (with a constant CO2 level close to 280 ppm).  By the end of this century the CO2 level is likely to be three times as great pushing temperatures ever upward.

The Choice: Delay Action or Act Now

We are heading up to higher temperatures than mankind has ever experienced as a species or as a global civilisation.  We now know this with certainty.  In sum, the remaining uncertainties are not reassuring and many of them such as methane from melting permafrost are likely to add to the warming once they begin in earnest as global temperatures reach tipping points.  Therefore, the humans who live now, we ourselves, can choose to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, at current, large and also increasing future rates, thereby knowingly choosing an apocalyptic future of climate extremes outside anything we have known before.  Or we can choose to act.

Either way, humanity and we individually are making a decision right now by our actions: to do nothing or to do something.  To date, despite much talk, nothing has been achieved.  Global emissions have doubled since 1990 and they continue to increase because nation states have not peaked emissions, quite the reverse.  They have been dishonest brokers in addressing the problem (see previous post).  

Starting this year every nation has to start by being honest about the warning our science is giving us.  At this point we have to peak emissions urgently, even if it costs economic growth.  Whatever fossil fuelled, economic growth could be achieved over the next few decades will be undermined by economic decay and possible collapse due to climate damage caused by fossil fuelled, economic growth that could be achieved over the next few decades.  We are loading the dice and nature will keep on rolling them.

Apologies for the necessary shouting on the next line:
WE HAVE TO ACT NOW!
It is our emissions now that are adding to warming.  By lowering emissions now – rapidly, globally, politically, corporately, nationally, regionally, locally, personally – we can still change the future to limit warming. Anyone unaware of this needs to become aware of it.  Anyone aware of the warnings needs to act on them.

Currently, rich nations, businesses and individuals are acting as though their own future is not in doubt and that 'business as usual' is possible into the far future.  The rich need to finally realise that we really are all in this together.  The futures of their nations, their businesses, their shareholdings, and their children are also in doubt if they do not choose to act for a safer long-term outcome by lowering emissions urgently and radically.

We really do have a choice.  We can still make the right one.




Saturday, 30 March 2013

How Could an Effective Climate Financial Mechanism Work? A Cunning Plan!

Much Said, Nothing Done

Contrary to all advice that they must not, and contrary to the declared intentions of the world's nations, world emissions continue to escalate.  The scientific advice is strong: emissions must peak by 2015 if possible and by 2020 at the absolute latest, yet all countries want to see economic growth.  Do any countries actually plan to peak emissions?  I don't think so.

The sad fact though is that economic growth continues to be largely dependent on activities that lead to carbon emissions.  How then can growth be decoupled from emissions and how can poorer countries continue development for the poorest?

Another major problem is dishonesty.  The richest countries particularly are cheating by not counting the emissions due to their consumption, aviation and shipping.  For example, in net terms around 40% of China's emissions belong to industrialised countries through imports.  Aviation and shipping emissions are not even counted in the figures.  In the UK, Dieter Helm, and Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, have researched and exposed the huge level of accounting problems and difficulties.

Meanwhile talks in the UNFCCC appear to be endlessly bogged down in complexity. 

A Cunning Plan: Money = Emissions

What's needed is a cunning plan.  This post imagines a possible simple regime to illustrate how linking the responsibility-cost for emissions with the need for decarbonisation and development could be managed, especially with regard to equity of development. 

The key element of this imagined regime is to avoid complexity and keep it simple.  To start, this regime ignores the developed countries' past emissions, letting them off the hook, and instead focuses on emissions from now on.  Any regime needs to penalise the hidden damages of greenhouse gas pollution by charging the consumers of the goods and services that caused them, and then needs to transfer funds to decarbonisation and development (especially in poorer countries).

We know from global statistics and from personal experience that money enables us to consume goods and services and therefore to cause GHG emissions.  CO2 emissions and total economic output (GDP) are strongly related.  A country is free to spend its income on more emissions.  Personally the situation is similar, if we save hundreds of euro in fuel costs after we insulate our house we might well decide to spend the savings on a holiday flight, burning even more CO2 than had been saved.  Without charging for these emissions there can be no doubt that emissions will continue to escalate as national and average incomes increase.

Money enables the holder to buy the right to create emissions.  However, the damage caused by emissions is global no matter where the emissions are created.  Therefore the imagined simple regime might charge for emissions on the basis of GDP and distribute the collected monies according to population to balance equity in development.  

The cost of GHG pollution could be set at the social cost of carbon (the SCC), for which the Stern Review used an estimate of $30 per tCO2 although many authorities consider it to be much higher, in the range of $100/tCO2.  Global emissions in 2011 were 34 billion tons of CO2.  Therefore with an SCC of $30/tCO2 the cost of all emissions would have been $1,020 billion and at $100/tCO2 the cost of all emissions would have been $3,400 billion.

So how does this work in practice.  Every country pays a fee for carbon emissions based on its GDP as a proportion of world GDP multiplied by the cost of all global emissions.  Every country receives a dividend, to be spent only on decarbonisation or development, based on its population.  The net amount would be paid to or received from the fund.

So in summary:
Pollution Fee = (National GDP / World GDP) x (Total world tCO2 x SCC) 
Low-Carbon Dividend = (National population / World population) x (Total world tCO2 x SCC)

'Keeping it simple stupid' like this might spare us all the time wasting and cheating.  It also addresses the problem in line with the science and respects equity in the carbon budget.  

Running the Numbers

The key outcome of this thought experiment is to illustrate the implications of action, and yes the fact that it would cost rich countries money (as it should).  Running the numbers gives some surprising results though regarding the level of fees and dividends, especially when given as a percentage of GDP.  All the data used comes from the World Bank excel sheets for GDP, population and global total carbon emissions.  The following is based on 2009, the most recent year with data.  The entire Excel spreadsheet I made is here with every country and region covered from 1964 to 2009.  

The total social cost of all emissions at $30/tCO2 would have been $961 billion [or $3,204billion for $100/tCO2].

Let's start with the USA with SCC set at $30/tCO2, [or $100/tCO2]:
Pollution Fee = $230 billion  [$768 billion] 
Low-Carbon Dividend = $43 billion  [$144 billion]
Net =  $187 billion [$624billion] paid to fund.  A cost of 1% of GDP [4%]

Now China:
Pollution fee = $83billion  [$277 billion] 
Low-Carbon Dividend = $188 billion  [$626 billion] 
Net  =  $105billion [$350 billion] received from fund.  A development dividend equal to 2% [7%]of GDP

Bangladesh
Pollution Fee = $1.5billion  [$5 billion] 
Low-Carbon Dividend = $21billion  [$70 billion] 
Net  =  $19billion [$65 billion]  received from fund.  A development dividend equal to adding 22% [72%] of GDP

Congo Dem. Republic
Pollution fee = $186 million  [$619 million] 
Low-Carbon Dividend = $9.1billion  [$30.1 billion] 
Net  =  $8.9billion [$29.5 billion] received from fund.  A development dividend equal to 79% [264%] of GDP 

Ireland:
Pollution fee = $3.7billion  [$12.3 billion] 
Low-Carbon Dividend = $629 million  [$2.1 billion] 
Net  =  $3billion [$10.2 billion] received from fund.  A cost of 1% [4%] of GDP

UK
Pollution fee = $36billion  [$120 billion] 
Low-Carbon Dividend = $8.7 billion  [$29 billion] 
Net  =  $27.4billion [$91 billion] received from fund.  A cost of 1% [4%] of GDP

Overall, the annual transfer from high income countries (almost all from OECD nations) would be $526billion [$1,755billion] or less than 1% [4%] of GDP.  Poorer countries would receive the equivalent of 27% [90%] of GDP in annual development aid.  

There now, doesn't this plan spare us all these tedious UNFCCC meetings.  Do I hear yowls of protest? Nope, I can't hear anything.  Excellent.  Motion carried! 

Climate Damage: Pay Now Or Pay Much More Later

The above details a simplistic regime but nonetheless the simplicity illuminates two very serious points:

First, any regime is entirely is dependent on big assumptions in the social cost of carbon.  If the SCC is $30/tCO2 then the annual damage is one trillion dollars our of a total GDP of $70trillion, about 1.4% per year.  Or this rises to about 4.5% of GDP for $100/tCO2.  

However, currently developed countries have only 'pledged' to 'mobilise' $100billion per year for developing countries, about a tenth of the $1 trillion per year (at $30/tCO2 SCC) cost of global emissions.  One could say that the developed countries have priced the SCC at $3/tCO2.  The difference between these values might be termed greed.  Meanwhile fossil fuels subsidies are estimated by the IMF to total $1.9 trillion.  

Of course, if global warming were thought likely to cause total economic collapse to say a world GDP of $10 trillion per year for a hundred years after 2100 (a total loss of $6,000 trillion  over the century, compared to current GDP) then for the sake of continuing civilisation, it might be worth spending pretty well all of GDP ($6,000 trillion divided by 90 years is $66 trillion per year) to mitigate against that eventuality.  Can the economists please guarantee this is not a real risk?  It would be interesting to see their risk analyses.

Second, the difficulties involved in administering, and especially in spending, the monies effectively, ringfenced to spending on decarbonisation and low-carbon development, can well be imagined.  But how can a real global policy be effective at all without a serious scale of commitment from those countries who benefit most from the goods and services that cause emissions.

And the alternatives?  If, as all of the recent major reports acknowledge, it is necessary to leave 80% of all proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground, the simplest solution would be to ensure that is what happens.  Does anyone want a military taskforce to control all mines and wells, and dole out the allowed per-capita ration of carbon-bearing fuel?  Might be the cheapest option?  Thought not.

The fact that the IEA and the World Bank, and governments of course, do not follow carbon budget logic through in their energy and GDP forecasts tells us all we need to know about how seriously policy analysts and governments treat the science.  It seems increasingly likely that future generations, including our children, will pay the costs that rich nations, companies and individuals today are so keen to avoid currently.




Wednesday, 27 March 2013

One Simple Fact: Ireland's Climate Bill and Policy Denies the Fundamental Climate Threat to Ireland's Future Security

Emissions Equal Warming

The basis of global climate reality is that the science of climate change has revealed one simple fact, a fact that continues to be ignored by Irish and most international policy: 

The cumulative total of humanity's greenhouse emissions – those already released, those we emit right now, and those emitted in the very near future – will determine the very survival of global human civilisation and of much of the Earth's ecosystem.  

The final extent of global warming and the resultant climate change damage will depend on the total future carbon emissions 'budget' emitted globally, a budget that has to be divided on some equitable basis, between all the countries of the world and with twenty or more future generations of the entire world population, including our own children.  

We in Ireland have to take responsibility for our part in staying within our carbon budget by not displaying in our policies, as now, a complete ignorance of this fundamental finding of climate science.  This is the critical basis of any climate policy.  Even NGOs and opposition proposals display their lack of basic understanding by concentrating on misleading and effectively meaningless 'date-rate' targets such as '90% decrease in emissions by 2050.  Only the total accumulated carbon budget stock of emissions is important, the rate at any particular time is not unless the date-rates are explicitly linked to a carbon budget and corresponding emissions path.

Currently, for a (still very dangerous) 'safe' warming of 2ºC in average global surface temperature, we will easily exhaust our 500 year global budget within the next fifteen years.  An average warming of 4º to 6ºC with catastrophic effects, within the lifetime of children being born now, is entirely plausible.  Only by adopting a 'safe' emissions path within the carbon budget is it likely that the world can avoid economic, environmental and societal collapse.  If not avoided, the global as well as the local results will deeply affect Ireland and its people – how could they not?  

A far safer course is still possible but time is running out very fast.  And even if we cannot now avoid more than 2ºC of warming it then becomes even more important to avoid 3ºC by acting even more strongly now to peak emissions.

Ireland Must Face the Future Honestly


Every country must therefore follow an emissions path to safety and Ireland can be no exception.  To argue that Ireland is 'too small to make a difference' or that 'other countries are more responsible' is simply immoral, these are justifications for insular and short-term greed to allow us to take more of the available carbon budget for ourselves now at the expense of others elsewhere or in the future.

Ireland's government and administration continue to be in a state of denial regarding the 'one simple fact'.  The Heads of Bill for our proposed climate legislation and the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) Secretariat's recent Report both entirely ignore the requirement for a global carbon budget, and the consequent moral necessity of following the safest possible emissions path, one that sums to Ireland's share of that global carbon budget.  

Economists repeatedly practice the same denial, even though you might imagine they would be able to grasp the simple concept of a budget.  What happens as world economic growth becomes impossible over the next decades due to food shortages, population migration and extreme weather events due to climate change?  What price human civilisation?  

Most economists do not seem to understand that 'time discounting' does not apply to a sustainable global civilisation.  The price worth paying to preserve it has to be worth paying and it is the wealthiest countries, corporations and individuals that are going to have to pay most of it as they bear the most 'emissions responsibility'.  This of course is the real problem: they don't want to.

Economists and our own Department of Finance need to wake up and smell the coffee.  If they do not help us to develop an economy that can work within our carbon budget they are ignoring the 'one simple fact' and imperilling our futures.

Instead of seeing the global external risks from climate change, which threaten our food, property and security, our leaders and 'experts', and often we ourselves, try to concentrate on the short-term Irish and the local to Ireland (relatively benign) effects of global warming.  This is promoting collective denial of the growing extreme danger that lies ahead and is becoming evident now.  It is our own high emissions now that are further compromising the futures of our children and, especially, the near future of those countries most vulnerable to climate change damage.  

Unless our politicians and advisors, and most of all ourselves, finally come to terms with the 'one simple fact' of global warming and its implications, we will continue on a highway of intensifying risk.  We would all prefer to delay difficult actions into the future but sadly the best advice available and the, already apparent, damage effects of global warming show that we cannot.  Every year of high emissions that goes by increases the amount of regulatory or other action that will be needed – ironically the very opposite outcome wished for by those who are acting to delay action.  They are increasing the potential for greater difficulties.

We have now have no option but to act urgently by massive and rapid decarbonisation of our energy supply and by cuts in our own consumption and in types of agriculture that cause emissions.  To do this equitably so that the poorest do not suffer is the real challenge for governments and economists.  They and we will have to decide whether ideologies and rhetoric are effective in addressing climate reality.  So far they are ignoring reality – at great cost to our future.

Heeding the Science Gives Us Hope


The science says we have to peak emissions by 2015 and decarbonise very rapidly thereafter.  Every year of delay in peaking and acting greatly compounds the danger.  Our proposed policy is to grow emissions.  This is Ireland's vote for humanity's self-generated collapse.  

It is now our collective responsibility to choose the safest carbon emissions path.  To be informed we as citizens need to know we are choosing between: the safest, most conservative course; and the our present dangerous course that risks immense damage to Ireland's security and our children's future.  It is our choice.  And now is when we must act.

Those who are not alarmed by the 'One Simple Fact' are not paying attention.  If you are alarmed, or even just concerned, let your Dáil TDs know it.  Our voices really can make a difference especially if we phone our TD or state our concerns in person to them.  Ultimately, it is politicians who have to make these difficult choices and they need your strong support to make them. 

This would be a good time to encourage TDs to ensure that our legislation at least acknowledges the need for a carbon budget approach.  If we cannot even begin to be honest about even the most basic fact of global warming – our own responsibility in choosing or at least acknowledging our future carbon budget – we have a big problem.  Right now the real threat to our long term future security lies in choosing to follow the stated policy that ignores the most basic fact shown by climate science.  Ignorance may be bliss but it cannot be a excuse.

Without such urgently needed honesty, regarding the scale and immediacy of the challenge we face, the proposed legislation is literally hopeless.  It would make a change to see some signs of hope in a more honest acceptance of our choices.  



Sunday, 24 March 2013

Climate | Policy: Holding The Line, Bridging the Gap

Why worry?

This blog aims to look at why we, as citizens and residents of Ireland, might want to start paying far more attention to climate change.

All too often the challenge created by global warming is portrayed as only an environmental problem.  It is not.  It is a potentially deadly challenge to our future economic security and societal safety.  Yet we can definitely affect outcome by our collective and individual decisions right now to reduce greenhouse emissions urgently and immediately.  Climate change adds extraordinary danger and increasing risk to all of the future challenges we face if we do not act soon.

We might want to start talking with each other about what we can do now to limit its effects and also make our political and business leaders aware of our concerns.  One area of strong agreement is that acting early to limit the problem will be a great deal cheaper and easier than dealing with the problem down the line.

The focus in these posts may wander, but it will concentrate on 'evidence' and 'response': on how to hold the line between these non-identical twins where they seem tangled; and also, on how to bridge the gap between science and policy when they appear to have drifted apart – creating misunderstandings and confusion.  

To make good decisions we need strong evidence from independent science, and to respond we need expertise from all fields and input from all citizens to create the policies that will truly address the scale of the challenge that is being revealed.  


Climate Rhetoric vs. Climate Reality

So far internationally and here in Ireland, despite all the rhetoric and talk of action, the result has been the opposite of the supposed intention.  Emissions have continued to increase massively, most of all due to consumption by the richest countries, people and businesses, especially in the developed nations.  Ireland's emissions per person are amongst the highest in Europe.

The brutal reality of climate change is simply that the climate does not care about our wishes for economic growth or delays in action.  The atmosphere simply and implacably responds to the amount of greenhouse gases we throw into the air and oceans.  We cannot negotiate with the atmosphere for a better rate or for extra time, much as we might wish otherwise.  Smoking 'hopium' is not a good plan.

Do we speak up in support of real action or do we continue to add to future problems for our children?  Do we protect their property rights and human rights or do we contribute to taking them away?  

It is striking that climate change turns politics inside out.  To be conservative we must act to limit the damage we create; to be revolutionary, all we have to do is not act so that the problem gets worse far faster.

It is up to us then, here and now to make some hard choices: do nothing and steal from our children or act at a cost to ourselves.  Here in Ireland we could start by being honest about the climate challenge we face and encourage each other and other nations to do the same.  

We can begin to do this by ensuring that the evidence provided by a 'science advisory expert body' is openly available, internationally reviewed, and kept completely separate from political or government influence.  Our scientific advisory body must be entirely independent of government to ensure that real data and research is not obscured by economic or political preferences.  Its reports need to be open to the public just as to government.  

Any policy response by expert advisors and government can then be acted on and judged against the publicly-available, best evidence from data and scientific research.

As currently formulated the proposed climate bill for Ireland combines the science advisory with the economic and development policy advisors.  This is a serious and dangerous error.  It is a policy amounting to dishonesty, easily allowing policies for short-term, local gain to compromise real actions that would contribute to a global solution of this long-term problem.  


A Good Time for Climate Honesty in Climate Policy

To show we are serious about reducing the risks we have to keep science and policy completely separate

This needs to be our basis to face climate reality squarely and honestly.  Even if we decide to do little or nothing let's not set up an advisory that helps us to lie to ourselves.  It may be difficult to face the truth but any other course increases risks to Ireland's future security and prosperity. 

Climate science says failure is not a smart option.  We probably cannot adapt to what is coming, even during the lifetime of those born today the damages may overwhelm society.  Optimistically though, we really can get off the current road to despair and onto a course for hope provided we do not continue to confuse ourselves by believing in rhetoric rather than looking hard at reality.  The trouble is that we are running out of road. 

Honesty, in acknowledging the mounting danger that the evidence clearly shows we now face, is a vital first step that we all need to take.