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Climate Change Update: Where we are in early 2020


As I write this, Covid-19 is extending its impacts around the world, cruise ships are being quarantined, global stock markets are in a tailspin and the price of oil is collapsing.  The new Coronavirus is going to have some major impacts on our world, including a likely drop in CO2 emissions in 2020.  Whether it will substantially alter the grim forecast I close with remains to be determined.  But it could.  We do live in interesting times.

It seems appropriate, now that Winter might be giving way to Spring, to take stock of where we are in this great battle we claim to be engaged in to shut down climate change.  You’ll remember, back in the heady days of late 2015, when the world seemed likely to become a better place, at the Paris Climate Meeting, COP21, the nations of the world agreed to hold

the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and [pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”

If I remember correctly, Canada played a leading role in getting that bit about 1.5oC into the agreement.  Canada had just elected the first Justin Trudeau government and we were bringing Sunny Ways to the world community.  Oh Happy Day.

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The fact is, of course, that climate science had long pointed to the need to contain climate change if we wanted to continue to enjoy the kind of world in which human civilization had developed, and 2.0oC was going to be too much warming to permit that.  That 2.0oC target had been the result of an earlier (COP15, Copenhagen, 2009) political compromise between a target of 1.0oC recommended by scientists and doing nothing.  The politicians felt 1.0o was way too hard a task, so why not just ease the task by doubling the goal and declaring victory?  After all, that is how politics is done – seek middle ground.  Such was the origin of the primrose path we’d been happily following, until Sunny Ways arrived in Paris and we all nodded wisely and embarked on the quest for 1.5oC.  Or at least, that’s what we all like to believe, and that’s what we keep telling ourselves  Every nation which has ratified the Paris Agreement has signed on to doing its share to keep the extent of climate warming well below 2.0o and preferably close to 1.5oC.  We all claim to be doing so.

And we have continued increasing our annual contributions of greenhouse gas emissions, year after year, all while “putting in place stringent measures” to stop doing this.  As we add emissions, the atmosphere traps more heat and the planet warms.  We already see the consequences of that warming in warmer temperatures, more erratic weather, more storms, floods, droughts and wildfire, more retreating glaciers and incremental rises in sea level.  The warming we have already caused has set in progress a melting of ice and raising of sea levels that is going to continue for 2000 years.  The changes to weather have been sufficiently profound that the overwhelming majority of people finally believe that something strange is happening to our climate.  Current projections indicate we are nowhere near limiting warming to +1.5oC, and that 3, 4, or 5oC is far more likely. Yet we are not yet reducing emissions.

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In 2017, scientists were projecting warming of anywhere from 2o to 6oC by 2100, depending on what humanity decides to do.  The 2o futures are achieved in scenarios that involve significant removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, not just reductions in emissions.  Technologies for massive CO2 removals do not yet exist except in pilot projects and there is no certainty they will be feasible.  Image © Global Carbon Project.

While most of us accept that we are changing the climate, few of us grasp the extent of the changes being set in motion or the seriousness of what is happening to the world we live in.  There are many reasons for this disconnect, which I won’t go into here.  This problem of our changing climate is far and away the biggest problem humanity currently faces, and yet it is not the only problem confronting us in 2020.

The global environmental crisis includes lots of problems, not just a warming climate

Late in 2019, a team led by Bill Ripple of Oregon State University published an opinion piece in BioScience (it appeared on-line in November 2019, and in print in January 2020.  Titled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency”, it was signed onto by over 11,000 environmental and climate scientists from around the world.  In their warning (more on that in a moment), the authors took pains to draw attention to a number of other troubling trends now in place.  These included the continued rapid growth of the human population, the concurrent growth in global GDP, the growth in numbers of our cattle, sheep and goats, and a concomitant growth in the rate at which forest cover is being lost.  Our population is now growing at about 15% per decade, although growth continues to slow and a peak is anticipated around the end of the century.  Our economy is growing at about 80% per decade, and the size of our livestock herds is growing at nearly 9% per decade.  Ripple and colleagues could have chosen a number of other concerning trends to highlight – our use of water and of fertilizers, the amount of land used by agriculture, the delivery of nitrogen pollution to coastal zones, and the rate of loss of biodiversity are all increasing rapidly.  These changes pose many problems for ecosystem functioning and for our ability to continue to feed ourselves and provide potable water.  They also interact with each other in various ways that make the overall impacts on the planet more complex and also more severe from the perspective of organisms like us.

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A set of disturbing trends documented in the World Scientists’ Warning.  Reductions in fertility and in Amazon deforestation (but not total forest cover), and the increase in the funds divested from fossil fuel industry are what I’d call positive trends.  All the rest are downright alarming.  Image © Alliance of World Scientists.

Many of these trends are clearly related to, or caused by, the warming we have induced, but others are unrelated to climate change.  Together, the rapid changes in condition that we have forced upon the global biosphere are the global environmental crisis, a multifaceted problem that is talked about not nearly often enough.  Climate change is the most obvious, ugly core of this crisis.

Where is the Climate Right Now?

During the week ending 24th February 2020, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa was 414 ppm.  The rate of growth in atmospheric CO2 continues to accelerate, due to a growing rate of emissions from extraction and use of fossil fuels, cement manufacture, and land use changes.  Of these the fossil fuel contribution is by far the greatest.  Other greenhouse gases, particularly methane show similar trends.  On 19th February 2020, it was reported in Nature by Benjamin Hmiel, University of Rochester, and colleagues, that the ‘fugitive’ emissions of methane in the gas and oil industry are almost double what has been reported. 

I know the word ‘fugitive’ sounds like these emissions are secretive, unnoticed, nothing to do with the people doing the extraction and refining, but most of them are from deliberate flaring of unwanted gas, plus a certain amount of wellhead leakage – a factor which is closely monitored because of the potential for explosions.  The industry, not wanting to pay the cost of not releasing these gases, finds ways to not notice them.

Specifically, Hmiel and colleagues used an isotopic analysis of carbon in methane molecules to partition atmospheric methane into natural and anthropogenic.  They show that while reported anthropogenic methane emissions are 40 to 60 Teragrams per year (that’s 40 to 60 million tonnes of CH4 per year), that is an underestimate of from 38 to 58 Teragrams CH4 per year.  In other words, industry has been underreporting by somewhere between 25% and 40%.  In other words, our total emissions of greenhouse gases are even worse than we imagined.

Looking specifically at CO2, our accumulated emissions since 1850 are a bit over 2.3 Trillion tonnes CO2.  Annual emissions due to extraction and use of fossil fuels account for the great majority of this amount and have increased virtually every year in recent decades.  The emissions due to extraction and use of fossil fuels for 2019 are currently estimated as 36.8 Gt CO2 (Gigatonnes = Billion tonnes).  This trend is shown nicely in this graph.

Annual emissions of CO2 from extraction and use of fossil fuels are shown from 1955 to 2019.  Emissions have increased almost every year since 1955, and there is little evidence that climate change policies are yet bringing about a peak, followed by a rapid decline. 
Animation © FutureEarth and Global Carbon Project.

Needless to say, the consequence of steadily increasing emissions is a steadily warming world.  All the major climate science institutes which monitor global temperature agree on what is happening.  While it was not the case a few years ago, few people now dispute the validity of such data (although some continue to spin intriguing stories to avoid admitting that our emissions are the root cause).

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Temperature data showing rapid warming in the past few decades, the latest data going up to 2019. According to NASA data, 2016 was the warmest year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures. The 10 warmest years in the 140-year record all have occurred since 2005, with the six warmest years being the six most recent years. Image courtesy NASA/NOAA.

As a consequence of the warming, we are seeing a broad range of environmental changes.  These include more extreme storms, rapidly melting glaciers and concomitant sea level rise, more extreme wildfires. 

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Three major storms at one time! Katia, Irma, and José (west to east) are seen in this satellite image taken 7th September, 2017.  Image courtesy NASA.

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Polar bear photographed from the deck of the Canadian Coast Guard ship, Louis S. St-Laurent, in Franklin Strait in 2013.  Photo © Adrienne Tivy.

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Alberta wildfire in 2017.  Photo © Cameron Strandberg/Flickr

The severity of droughts and floods is likely also increasing, growing seasons are lengthening, and plant growth zones are shifting poleward.  Each of these trends appears to be more rapid than at any previous time during the 8000 years of human history, so the impacts on our cultures, or lifestyles, and particularly on our agriculture are likely to be profound.

A carbon budget

Since our emissions cause the warming, it is possible to visualize a budget of emissions that if released will cause a given amount of warming.  The world used a budget of 2.3 Trillion tonnes of CO2 to achieve the approximately 1oC of warming that has occurred between 1850 and today.   A somewhat smaller quantity of CO2 will be sufficient to add the 0.5oC of warming to meet the Paris Agreement goal.  This currently available budget for releases of CO2 by the fossil fuel industry is generally estimated to be about 650 Gt CO2

(Why this is only 650 Gt and not 1150 Gt – half of 2.3 trillion – is because the warming effects of the 2.3 trillion tonnes already released are still being felt over the next several years.  In other words, the 2.3 trillion tonnes will ultimately achieve more than 1o of warming and our remaining budget is all that is required to top that total ‘committed warming’ up to 1.5oC.)

Think of the budget as emissions poured into a bucket of a certain size by the various countries as they emit their CO2. Turns out, our bucket, which we started filling in 1850, is now almost full. Given that humanity is currently emitting about 36.8 Gt CO2 per year, our available budget if we intend to keep warming to 1.5o, works out to a bit over 17 years at current rates.  That is why climate scientists talk about the urgency of acting to reduce emissions.

In fact, by thinking about the allowable budget, it’s easy to understand why we need to have been acting far more strongly than we have.  The global budget allows for continued emissions at the present rate for 17 years, or a linear ramp down to zero over 34 years.  But if we sit around and think about acting for a few years, as we have been doing, the task becomes a lot more difficult.  An appropriate rate of ramp-down today (one that remains within budget) is no longer appropriate if we procrastinate for a few years more – we have to use a steeper rate, much more difficult to do.

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This diagram shows how delaying action requires much more stringent action subsequently if the world is to remain within the agreed budget.  The diagram uses either a 600 Gt or an 800 Gt CO2 allowable budget at 2016.  It also shows how its possible to delay action (from 2016 to 2020) and still have a gradual decline in emissions, but only by increasing the allowable budget and therefore the amount of warming.  Image © Global Climate Project.

Fairly Partitioning the Budget

This 650 Gt CO2 budget is a global budget.  It is being shared by all countries, which means we also need to think about fair ways of sharing – how much of the budget should be available to each country?  Not a ‘nice’ topic to talk about when we realize that some of the countries are led by men who probably think they are entitled to use as much as they want.  But without a fair plan for sharing, we are never going to be able to stick within the budget available.

Canadians, being such fair people, should be able to relate to this task.  So, let’s think about Canada’s fair share of the global allowable budget.  Perhaps the fairest way to do it is to assume every human is entitled to an equal share of remaining emissions.  Then, given the present population, Canada deserves a 0.48% share, or 3.1 Gt of the 650 Gt CO2 we are working with. 

Or maybe the emissions should be allocated according to area of each country.  That would give Canada a much larger share (I don’t have the area data to make the calculation). 

Maybe we should apportion budgets according to the relative sizes of national emissions today.  That would give Canada 1.8% of the remaining budget, or about 11.7 Gt CO2, because our current emissions are 1.8% of the global total.  That’s substantially better (= larger) than a per capita distribution, but less than a distribution based on area. 

Or maybe we should not just be sharing out the allowable budget now remaining but should be apportioning the total budget allowable at 1850.  That becomes complex because populations have changed greatly over that time and it’s unclear how best to apportion.  Still that approach would likely leave Canada worse off (a smaller share of the remaining budget because we have used so much already) than either of these other approaches. 

Creative people will be able to think of other ways to apportion the emissions budget fairly.  My point is that different formulations will favor different countries so deciding which formula to adopt will not be an easy negotiation. 

Just imagine the United States magnanimously agreeing to a per capita share – even with a rational President at the helm, that would be a tall hill to climb. 

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Tom Toles’ cartoons on climate change have a habit of hitting the nail on the head!
Figure © Tom Toles/Washington Post.

Yet, if there is no agreement on how to apportion the budget, how will it be possible to tell if countries are ‘doing their fair share’ in the effort to reduce emissions and rein in warming?  Our decades of failing to act have made the task of reducing emissions to reach a 1.5o or even a 2.0o target far more difficult than it might have been and therefore made the challenge of agreeing to a fair apportionment far more difficult. These facts conspire to make it appear likely that we will fail to reach the target we have all signed onto in the Paris Agreement.

I find it fascinating that none of the politicians in any country seem to be spelling out these difficult problems.  In fact, to listen to politicians speaking we are all well on the way to solving the climate problem.  It’s time to get real.

What Does Canada Have to Do to Meet its Paris Commitment?

Canada is in a particularly difficult position.  We are a high emissions country, with the third highest per capita rate of emissions among developed nations (we lag the USA and Australia in that race to be bad).  If we decide fairness means a per capita apportionment of the budget, Canada only has a bit over 4 years at our current emissions rate available.  A linear ramp-down to zero over 8.8 years means decarbonizing at a rate of 11% per year, when we have been slowly increasing emissions year after year for decades.  Do you see any signs around Ottawa or Edmonton that we are about to begin this 11% per year climb-down?

Justin Trudeau, who likes to portray himself as compromiser-in-chief, a thoroughly reasonable, fair-minded leader, has suggested that Canada must act responsibly on climate, and must take care to ensure that doing so does not hurt the western Canadian, chiefly Alberta, economy in the process.  As if this challenge was insufficient for his skills, he has also decided that major industrial projects like new oil mines or pipelines must be undertaken only after full and meaningful consultation with all affected parties, and has managed to wrap that undertaking up in a commitment to genuine reconciliation with First Nations and other indigenous communities.

I cannot fault his logic, but I do worry about the ambition.  Is this remotely possible politically?  When members of an indigenous community, perhaps one of the many indigenous nations who never entered into any treaties with us immigrant Canadians, have deeply imbedded beliefs that they are of their land, meaning literally a part of the life on their land, it is not possible to simply wave away this belief with an assumption that all that is needed is a rational, respectful conversation followed by some exchange of money or sustained income.  Being of the land is not simply another way of saying, I own this land.  In fact, we’d all be a lot better off if more of us had the sense of belonging to place that many indigenous persons do, because it is a very different, far more respectful attitude to place than us immigrant Canadians tend to hold.  And that’s just the bit about consultation with all parties.

What about the idea that we can act responsibly on climate and still sustain the oil and gas economy of Alberta particularly, but also British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland.?  That is going to be extremely challenging for quite a different reason.  When Canada’s current emissions are divided among economic sectors, the gas and oil industry accounts for 27% and the transportation sector (which also transports some gas and oil) accounts for 25%.  Transportation, at present, is heavily dependent on oil and gas as the fuel, and the extraction and refining of oil and gas are activities that generate lots of CO2 emissions.

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Canada’s total emissions, and emissions by sector have changed only marginally over the last 30 years.  The most noticeable trends have been the growth in emission by the transportation and the oil and gas sectors.  Together these now comprise 52% of our total.  Ramping total emissions down to zero in 8.8 years is an enormous challenge and there is no sign that we have begun to make this transition.  Image © Environment Canada.

Talk to your average Albertan, and a good many other Canadians, and you’ll hear that not only should the gas and oil industry continue as a major component of Canada’s economy, it should be a growing component.  Indeed, there are many among us who believe that we Canadians have almost a moral obligation to exploit the resources provided for us beneath our land.  (The difference between this perspective and the indigenous belief in being of the land is vast, and a major hurdle to overcome by anyone interested in a rational discussion leading to appropriate, respectful decisions.)

Let’s make a compromise.  Let’s agree that the oil and gas industry should be allowed to continue at its current level of emissions, while the rest of the economy takes on the task of ramping total emissions down at 11% per year.  (This even permits an increase in oil and gas production, if the per barrel emissions can be reduced!)  I’m not even sure people around Fort McMurray would agree to this compromise, but let’s assume they will.

If the 11% per year ramp-down is to be put in place, but with the sector responsible for 27% of emissions to continue unaffected, the rest of the economy will have to ramp down at 16% per year.  And in just 6.6 years, all emissions in Canada will come from the oil and gas sector. 

Whoops, what happens then?  Then the oil and gas sector has to ramp down and cease all emissions in just 2.2 years.  If I thought that Albertans might not be too keen on a compromise that said, continue operating but no growth, I’m damn sure they’d complain once they understood that that was for only 6.6 years!

To put it bluntly – something the politicians seem incapable of doing – Canada cannot live up to its obligation to the Paris Agreement (keeping to close to 1.5oC or warming) and continue to have a major oil and gas industry indefinitely into the future.  It’s impossible.  The decarbonization required of it as a fair proportion of the overall global decarbonization means at best that oil and gas production have to be totally decarbonized in 8.8 years.  From right now.  Or sooner.

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Justin Trudeau speaking at the Prospectors and Developers Association, 2nd March 2020, and stating that Canada has to get to carbon neutrality by 2050.  It’s a start, but he was not very clear on how we’d get there while still having an oil and gas industry.  Image © Fred Lum/Globe & Mail.

It’s time for some honest talk about what we do want to accomplish, and how to go about doing that – both within Canada and in the global community, because Canada is not the only country that has been pretending.

This situation frustrates me deeply, because we could have easily dealt with climate change if the world had listened to the advice and taken timely action back in the 1990s.  Now we have a snowball’s chance to stay within 1.5oC, and no sign that we are taking even that slim chance seriously.  Frankly, we’d all be better off if global leaders would agree on a goal they were prepared to reach, explain that goal to the rest of us, and let us then figure out how we will deal with the huge difficulties a 3o or 5o target would bring us.  The leadership needed for this is sadly lacking.

What I Fear Is Happening – The Anthropocene We Are Going to Get

While the political rhetoric at present is all about how we are tackling climate change, the reality is that the world is largely frozen (and I don’t mean cooling down).  There are impressive advances being made in provision of solar and wind power, in moving towards energy-neutral buildings, and in development and sale of hybrid and electric vehicles.  But these positive trends are not reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases, because the growing global economy still needs as much or more oil, gas, and coal as it did last year.

News worth celebrating!  Image © CBC

The impressive strides deserve to be talked about.  They are good signs.  But they are not good enough.  On the political front, there seems a growing tendency to announce new climate initiatives, suggest these are part of an overall plan that a government is rolling out over time, and then stand about, patting each other on the back. And lots of time being wasted in meetings that achieve no results.

There have been four global climate conferences since Paris: COP22, 2016, in Marrakech, Morocco; COP23, 2017, in Bonn, Germany; COP24, 2018, in Katowice, Poland; and COP25, 2019, in Madrid, Spain.  COP22 had the unfortunate fate of coinciding with Donald Trump’s election and accomplished effectively nothing.  Attendees at COP23 experienced the surreal presence of an American delegation despite Trump’s having signaled his intention to withdraw from the climate effort.  Sometimes this delegation behaved responsibly, sometimes not.  Again, there was little real progress, but plenty of talk about future goals and actions, lots of planning, little sign that countries recognized the urgency.

COP24, held in the heart of Polish coal country, got off to a rocky start with countries disagreeing over whether or not to ‘welcome’ the recently completed IPCC report on a 1.5oC world.  The report had been requested at a previous COP, but some countries, including the USA, only wanted to ‘note’ it.  Such are the subtleties of international climate diplomacy. 

Otherwise COP24 was relatively successful, approving most of the rules under which national performance towards the Paris commitments will be evaluated.  COP25, the longest climate negotiation on record, was a dismal failure.  Even UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was “disappointed” with the results of COP25 and that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.”  The conference failed to finalize the Paris rulebook, and provided little that would encourage a belief that countries are stepping up to the task before us.

Both at international conferences and within nations, what appears to be happening is political stasis, masked by lots of vague promises about what will be done soon, or next year, or over the next decade.  Meanwhile a growing economy is increasing demand for fossil fuels (except for coal) despite the enormous growth in alternative sources of energy.  And global temperatures are continuing to rise.

If this situation continues, and I see no signs that it won’t, it really is time for us to start discussing the Anthropocene we are going to have, rather than the one we hoped for – that ‘nice’ Anthropocene with temperatures 1.5 – 2.0oC warmer than in the preindustrial past.  So here goes.

Average global temperatures will continue to rise, reaching 3o or 5oC by the end of this century and continuing to rise after that.  Scientific discoveries will continue and will demonstrate that climate is changing more rapidly than anticipated and in many ways.  Glacier melt and sea level rise may be the aspects that surprise us the most.  The releases of methane as permafrost melts may also provide unpleasant surprises.  Extreme weather of many kinds will be the new normal and will keep getting more extreme year after year.  Dramatic changes will occur in the structure and functioning of ecosystems that actually matter to us.

Some parts of the planet are going to be impacted more seriously and sooner while others, including the southern half of Canada, will suffer less extreme impacts.  This differentiation among parts of the world, already starting to be apparent, will become more pronounced and, unfortunately, it will be parts of the developing world that are most savagely dealt with.  In parts of South Asia and the Middle East, lethal temperatures will occur and kill substantial numbers of people during heat waves ( I am not exaggerating – temperatures too hot for humans to survive).

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These maps plot wet bulb temperatures in the recent past, and under a moderately successful and an unsuccessful ‘business-as-usual’ battle against climate change.  Wet bulb 35oC is lethal for humans.  Image © I. Eun-Soon and colleagues, Science Advances.

Politicians in developed countries who have not already learned, will discover that there is an art to providing a semblance of progress on climate change while not really doing anything too grand.  Bad news due to extreme events will be attributed to anything other than inexorable warming – ‘the loss of life was due to a flood, for god’s sake, not to climate change’; or, ‘agriculture is a difficult business and crop failures happen from time to time.’  (Australian politicians have already proved themselves masters of this tactic.)  Fossil fuel producers, such as Canada, will struggle to prop up the faltering fossil fuel industry, keeping it alive long after it should have been put to rest, and emissions will continue to soar.

The trend towards increasing nationalism, isolationism and xenophobia will continue, and wealthy, powerful communities will find ways to ensure they are protected from the effects of climate change.  The world will devolve into a small number of well-defended, isolationist communities, surrounded by a wasteland of failing agriculture, lack of water, disintegration of societal structures, suffering and mortality.

In a book I wrote in 2011, I described four possible futures that might be brought about by our efforts, or not, to deal with the global environmental crisis.  What I have just described is the Mad Max world I called Belvedere, because of the luxurious but superficial lives of the better-off minority in their defended enclaves.  It’s the future I least wanted to see.  It’s the future that would arise if we allowed our basest instincts to prevail.  Unfortunately, it now seems to be to be the world we are blindly drifting towards.

It is time to demand of our political leaders that they actually lead.  Time to demand that they tell us the truth.  A 3o or a 4oC world will not be impossible to live in.  But the overall quality of life in that world will be far better if nations plan for it and implement actions to minimize its consequences.  The path we seem now to be on is one of selfish looking out for me that will make that world politically, socially, culturally far more dystopian than it needs to be.

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Movies are full of dystopian images of possible futures, many including such climate impacts as blighted desert lands.  Image © Mad Max: Fury Road/Warner Bros.