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Reality Check: The World at December 2014; Status of the Battle to Bring Climate Change under Control.

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How are we doing on the existential struggle of our time, the one to rein in our emissions of CO2? The end of a year seems a good time to take a reality check, especially since we have just concluded yet another in that long string of climate conferences. I’ll start with the bad news, and end on a positive note.

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues its seemingly inexorable rise. At the Mauna Loa Observatory the CO2 concentration stood at 397.11 ppm in November, having been above 400 ppm for 3 months earlier in the year. The corrected trend (with seasonal cycle removed) sits at 399.5 ppm, and should cross 400 ppm sometime in February or March of 2015. The upward trend does not show any sign of slowing.

Atmospheric CO2 continues to rise because the global economy continues to increase the amount of energy used, and continues to use fossil fuels predominantly. According to the IEA, the global energy supply in 2012 was 13,371 Mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent, in other words if all the energy came from oil, we’d require 13.3 billion tonnes of oil). Of this total, 81.7% was derived from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), while less than 20% came from use of other fuels. The total was up 258 Mtoe from the year before. The trend is distressingly uniform except for the dip during the 2008 recession, as shown in the following graph (using slightly lower estimates provided by BP).
Global energy trend bp1

Trend in global energy from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy for 2014. BP’s caption emphasizes that the growth rate has slowed, but energy use is still growing and over 80% of energy comes from fossil fuels. Graph © British Petroleum.

The growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has led to a continued warming of the planet. Data for December 2014 are not yet in, but it is virtually certain at this stage that 2014 will rank as the warmest year ever recorded, surpassing the record set in 2010. The long-term trend in the following graph, taken from NOAA data, is impossible to dismiss. The IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, released earlier this year, stated:

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.

Climate has warmed markedly since 1880, and it has warmed because of our activities.
NOAA-graphic global temp trend 2014

In this graph, global mean annual temperature is shown as its departure from the average climate of the 20th century. It’s been a long time since global annual temperature was below average.
Graph courtesy of NOAA.

When it comes to future climate change, the IPCC 5th Assessment Report is equally explicit:

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.

Whether we look at CO2 concentrations, at energy use, or at global temperature trends, the data suggest that despite all the meetings and discussion, we are making little if any progress in wrestling climate change to the ground. Instead, the data shout out that we are heading for a 4o, a 5o, or even a 6o warmer planet by 2100. And yet, I am becoming more optimistic about this epic struggle. How is this possible?

Maybe it’s simply because I always get optimistic about this time of year. We have reached the longest night of the year, and the days are starting to get longer! Then again, I just traded down to a smaller car, and replaced 8 Halogen Par 50 bulbs in my kitchen ceiling with 8 LED equivalents – reducing my footprint and almost eliminating the need to ever stand on a stool in the kitchen again. But there are other reasons for my optimism that I categorize as technological, sociological, and political.

Technological advances

While our growth in use of energy continues, our improvement in energy efficiency (or more particularly the carbon efficiency of our activities) also continues. Year by year, humanity is emitting less CO2 per unit of GDP. The downward trend is modest, and could be a lot more, but at least the trend is downward. By making our processes more energy efficient, by using non-polluting energy sources, and by producing less energy dependent goods and services, the global economy is becoming gradually decoupled from carbon pollution.

emissions vs carbon intensity

Although emissions of CO2 continue to rise as the global economy grows (left axis, blue line), the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of global GDP is falling.
Figure © Carbon Brief, data from US EIA and World Bank.

This is certainly true in China. Since 2005, China has been ramping up the amount invested annually in developing renewable energy and now is investing substantially more than either the US or Europe. In the US-China climate accord announced in November, China indicated it will continue that process so that CO2 emissions will peak by 2030 and then begin to fall. To achieve this, China will be deploying an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States. It will then get 20% of its total energy needs from zero-emission sources. This represents a major transformation of the Chinese energy sector and a real shift in energy efficiency. It will likely facilitate similar transformations in other countries as Chinese activity alters the relative cost differentials among types of energy generation.

Renewables investment trends China US EU

Relative amounts of investment in renewable energy by US, Europe and China since 2005. China’s effort now exceeds that of both US and Europe, and is set to go even higher as China implements its energy strategy through to 2030. Graph © Quartz.

While we are talking about renewables, another technological advance concerns the relative cost of different sources of energy. Apart from the recent collapse in the oil price, there have been dramatic changes in the cost of renewables, particularly solar, so that the differential in cost of energy from different sources had been approaching parity. Solar costs have fallen about 70% in the US Southwest since 2008, and wind energy costs have also fallen dramatically. While government subsidies are partly responsible, these are being phased out and the low prices are holding, because the maturation of the industry and scaling up bring cost benefits. If we think forward to a time when carbon pollution will incur costs, it is clear that there is no longer a financial reason to avoid many alternative energy sources.

Lots of smaller technological changes provided little sparkles of good news over the past year. Plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars are increasingly available, and Nissan has indicated it sees the Leaf or a similar small, all-electric vehicle becoming a major product in the Asian market (the Chinese market for new cars will soon be larger than that of North America and Europe combined). Tesla has demonstrated that, if you have the money an all-electric car can be downright sexy as well. The IEA report, Global EV Outlook, published in 2013 reports plans in 9 countries, including the US and China, for substantial growth in numbers of electric vehicles over the next few years. While plans do not guarantee development, the fact that governments and industry both see electrification as a major way for the transport sector to decarbonize, and the growing number of electric vehicles available in the market suggests this growth will occur.

growth in zero-emission vehicles

Graph showing the planned growth in number of all-electric passenger cars (not including buses, etc) on the road in 9 countries including the major markets for such vehicles.
Graph © International Energy Agency

Finally, the concept of the energy-neutral house is beginning to be put into practice in otherwise conventional housing developments. No longer the stuff of futurist, one-off, dream home design, the net-zero home uses a combination of insulation, passive solar design, and roof-top solar panels to feed as much or more energy into the grid as it uses to maintain a comfortable indoor climate and operate major appliances. Small subdivisions of such homes are being built across North America and Europe, including as far north as Edmonton, Alberta. There seems no reason for this type of building not to grow, making a major dent in CO2 emissions in a community. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, they are experimenting with a solar road – a road which generates solar electricity to feed into the grid, or perhaps, to power vehicles.

Sociological advances

Here I include such things as the positive reception that the books by Thomas Pikkety and Naomi Klein received in North America. Pikkety’s Capital in the 21st Century details how capital becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, unless societies have in place taxes, inheritance duties, or similar procedures to prevent this. Coinciding with the interest in The 1%, the very small number of extremely wealthy people in countries such as the US, who have become ever more distanced from the rest of society in recent decades, his book achieved considerable profile despite being a very think economics text. It helped alert people to the growing extent to which a tiny number of individuals hold nearly all the wealth and nearly all the power in ostensibly democratic countries. Dealing with climate change will necessarily require that interests vested in our carbon-based economy choose or are required to redirect their wealth to more environment-friendly activities, so the heightened awareness of the growing concentration of wealth is acting as a valuable wake-up call to those who want to see climate change dealt with appropriately. It’s good to know the strength of potential enemies.

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Every Thing provided a well-researched account of the strategies used by those with a vested interest in the status quo, to create confusion around the issue of climate change. In Klein’s view, these vested interests are so powerful that climate change is going to be addressed only once a significant popular movement within each country demands it. Reason and polite negotiations will not get the world to where it needs to be. Again, this book, widely read and discussed, has created much more awareness concerning how climate change denial works. It’s always better to hear such stories from a skilled, main-stream journalist who documents her sources well, although NGOs such as Greenpeace had already done a creditable job of documenting denialism in their 2013 pamphlet, Dealing in Doubt.

Here in Canada, the continued refusal of the Harper government to tackle the climate problem in any meaningful way, coupled with increasingly strident government statements that suggested Canada was doing its fair share, have been widely reported. The visit to Canada by Australian PM Tony Abbott, and the joint press conference in which Abbott and Harper both stated that they were more concerned to protect their economies and ensure jobs in their respective countries than to take any action to address climate, and the performances of both countries at successive climate conferences, also raised awareness among concerned citizens of the difficulties in bringing about real action on climate change. Not good that the two senior governmental officials were so belligerently opposed to dealing with climate, but a good lesson to their people who know more clearly than they might have before what a big hurdle they have to jump over. Once the COP20 conference in Lima came around, it was no surprise that Australia got the major fossil award. Having cancelled Australia’s progressive carbon tax, and vigorously promoted massive new port developments that would damage the Great Barrier Reef simply to export more coal more quickly to China, the Abbott government was clearly moving backwards while the Harper government was simply stuck in the tar sands.

Friday July 18, 2014

Meeting of minds, June 2014. Tony Abbott of Australia and Stephen Harper of Canada have turned out to be the Bobbsey Twins of Fossil Fuels. Cartoon © Graeme MacKay, Hamilton Spectator

While my ‘sociological advances’ may sound more like ‘retreats’ to some readers, I think awareness of the extent of the climate problem is greater now than it was a year ago. I am not surprised to learn that the phrase “climate change is a hoax” won PolitiFact’s 2014 readers’ poll for “Lie of the Year” with 31.8% of the vote. Progress is being made!

Also notable is how the string of extreme weather events during 2014, from California’s drought, to mega-storm Hagupit in the Philippines and disastrous floods here and there, has been reported in ways that make the link between an increasing frequency of extreme weather and climate change. Weather reports were routinely explaining the savage winter of 2013-14 in eastern North America as due to the behavior of the polar vortex, a vortex understood as being influenced by the warming Arctic; people were beginning to grasp how climate change will affect them in future years. (In my home town, I found considerable acceptance of the idea that our cold winter was part of climate change, and not incompatible with the fact that 2014 was on average the warmest year on record.) Members of the public who are open to believing that climate is changing are now far more aware than they were a year or so ago of the real consequences in altered living conditions that changes in global mean temperature of a degree or two can bring. Climate change, that mysterious, far-off change that may happen in decades, is now seen as that alarming set of savage floods, droughts, forest fires, and coastal destruction that is happening now, and everywhere. People, equipped by evolution to be much better at jumping out of the way of a charging sabre toothed cat than an advancing glacier, finally are seeing a glimpse of that cat in our day-to-day weather events. This too is progress.

Political advances

While there have been notable retreats, such as Australia’s cancelling of its carbon tax, there have been plenty of advances, mostly at the local or regional level. In countries like Canada, any advances made on the climate front have been by Provinces or communities. In Canada’s case, these have been significant. Ontario has completely phased out all use of coal for electricity generation, and its FIT and MicroFIT feed-in tariff programs, in place since 2009, have enabled the development of renewable energy projects from a few solar panels on a single house to a commercial solar- or wind-farm, or small hydro project with guaranteed rates for electricity fed into the grid over a 20 year period (40 years for small hydro). Quebec has continued its efforts to expand use of wind energy, and along with British Columbia and California is a part of the Western Climate Initiative, a joint cap and trade program for greenhouse gas emissions. Quebec is also extending its moratorium on fracking. British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008 and progressively increased it to $30 per tonne CO2 in 2012. The tax, which is revenue-neutral, is expected to reduce GHG emissions by 3 million tonnes by 2020. The highest tax on carbon in North America, its introduction has had no measurable impact on the strength of the BC economy. The Suzuki Foundation has recently released a report suggesting that if Canada as a whole adopted the best practices already introduced by some of its Provinces, Canada would come close to meeting its 2020 Copenhagen target – the one we have no hope of coming close to if we continue to wander amongst the tar sands.

wind and solar entrustenergy

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, as well as hydropower, and geothermal power are of small but growing importance globally. Nuclear power also has an important future role. Photo © Entrust Energy

The US – China climate accord announced last month was perhaps the most important political advance this year. Each in its own way, the two largest emitters of GHG emissions on the planet have announced commitments for very substantial improvements by 2030. I noted China’s commitment at the start. The US commitment was to reduce emissions of carbon between 26 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 – a promise that will require a doubling of the rate of reduction previously set to 2020. Many of the changes necessary to achieve this are already in place, including the new regulations on power plant emissions, and the new regulations on automobile fuel efficiency. President Obama has demonstrated that he will use his executive authority to implement changes under existing law, recognizing that he has little chance of legislative changes in the current Congress.

One unexpected political advance lies in the dramatic fall in oil prices in the last few months. Nobody could have predicted this because it arose from the confluence of the surge in production due to fracking, the continuing sluggishness in the world economy, and the decision by OPEC that now might be a good time to squeeze some high-cost producers out of the market. There are concerns that the low prices are going to slow the move away from fossil fuels and that may be true. I believe, however, that these low prices, provided they last for several more months, provide a wonderful opportunity for governments to take the politically difficult decision to introduce carbon pricing. When people have more money in their pockets they are more accepting of new governmental charges, and this opens the opportunity to introduce a tax which is not completely revenue neutral. Maybe half the tax could be offset by a reduction in income taxes targeted mainly to the less well off, while the revenue generated from the other half could be used to promote (subsidize) green initiatives such as a switch to renewables, or renovations to make homes more energy efficient. Maria Van der Hoeven, Head of IEA, agrees with me!  She said as much in Huffington Post on 11th December, throwing out an additional possibility – the sudden drop in prices also provides a window of opportunity to cut the government subsidies (estimated to be worth $550 billion per year globally) that support production and use of fossil fuels. These subsidies have always been wrong, but getting rid of a government perk is always difficult. Now could be the right time.

climate-6-16-11-color Horsey 2011

We may not have made a lot of progress on combating climate change yet, but we have become a lot more aware of the impediments to making needed changes. Cartoon © Horsey/Hearst

On to Lima and the COP20

And so the world assembled at the COP20 climate conference in Lima, Peru in early December. Given the results of previous climate conferences, few expected earth-shattering progress. Those who did were once again disappointed. Running many hours late, the conference eventually wrapped with the approval of a decidedly weak text. The crucial point is set out in clauses 9 and 13 of the five-page text:

9. Reiterates its invitation to each Party to communicate to the secretariat its intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2
13. Reiterates its invitation to all Parties to communicate their intended nationally determined contributions well in advance of the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (by the first quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so) in a manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended nationally determined contributions

Sounds so impressive, doesn’t it? And delightfully vague. What this frothy UN-speak says is that each country is asked to notify the UN of what contribution it intends to make towards mitigating climate change, in terms of steps it will put in place by 2020. Each country is also asked to provide this (and some other) information by the end of March 2015, if it is ready to do so. Not exactly a firm requirement. I can picture Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announcing Canada’s contribution now, complete with the standard, Harper-government, ‘how-big-are-my-lies’ hand signals, and with little reference to real data or real intentions.

Aglukkuq by Fred Chartrand CP Montreal Gazette

My favorite Minister for Environment, not reading the newspaper, but not speaking truth either. Photo © Fred Chartrand/CP

The unfortunate fact is that the global community is managing a commons. There is no ability to require a specific commitment from each sovereign nation, and no ability to penalize any nation that commits and then fails to deliver. Everybody has known that all along, and countries like Canada have happily played along, dragging their feet where possible, but not worrying too much when it becomes clear they are not meeting their self-selected goals. Will things be any different this time around? Possibly not, and we will have a sense of how things are progressing by mid-year, when sufficient commitments have been announced that they can be added up to see how far short they are of where they need to be. Still, in my assessment, Lima achieved a better than expected outcome because the multinational effort has not collapsed, and countries are on notice to put their cards on the table next year.

Those cards on the table, those promised contributions, become the public promises that can be judged, commented on, or rejected by the public. We don’t need revolutions in capital cities, but we are probably going to have to create significant public pressure to force our leaders to make the right decisions, and then implement them. This past year has brought modest action to mitigate emissions, but it has also further heightened our awareness of the importance of climate change, and the many vested interests opposed to doing anything about it. We the people may finally be ready to demand more of our leaders. Idle-no-more, Occupy, Anonymous, other grass-roots movements, and caring individuals everywhere have an important role to play over the next 12 months. Enjoy the holiday season. There is work to do in 2015.


Early winter 2014, North Muskoka River. Near Bracebridge. Photo © Peter Sale

2 thoughts on “Reality Check: The World at December 2014; Status of the Battle to Bring Climate Change under Control.”

    1. Ah David, You are too critical. A tiny bit of good came out of Lima. Not worth all the plane fares and carbon emissions, I grant you.

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