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Room for a little #OceanOptimism on Earth Day?


Earth Day is upon us once more and with it the international March for Science.  I wasn’t sure whether to blog or march, but figure I will leave the marching to the scientists still in harness.  I’ll be there in spirit, because the failure of vast numbers of the public to even understand what science is has become a substantial problem for the planet.  Our slow realization of the seriousness of what is happening to coral reefs is in part due to lack of attention to what science tells us.  It’s also because not enough of us have embraced reefs and both respect and care for them.

What was I doing a year ago?  On 25th April 2016, shortly after Earth Day, I was celebrating the ceremonial signing of the Paris Accord by 175 of the 195 participating countries at the United Nations on Earth Day 2016.  It has now been signed by all 195, and 143 have formally ratified it.  However, I was clearly coming down from the high induced by Paris 2015, because the bulk of my post was a review of the status of such things as atmospheric CO2, coral reef bleaching, Arctic ice melt and so on, and consideration of the possibility that we might already be at a tipping point from which we could not recover.  Not a cheerful thought, nor an optimistic tone.

Today, my assessment is that the world has been treading water for the past year as political events swirled about and we tried to figure out where major nations might be headed.  That swirling continues, and that thought is not an optimistic one either.  While it is true that Trump, as an individual, even though he is President of the USA, is not powerful enough to stop all progress on climate around the world, it is also clear that his presence has slowed any momentum that may have been building, and diverted attention to other matters.

Where are we on reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

So where do we stand in our fight with climate change?  Despite all the announcements by governments and corporations working to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere continues to rise, and the rate of increase is also still increasing.  On April 18th, CO2 atop Mauna Kea was measured at 410.28 ppm, the first time it had ever risen above 410 ppm in the 59 years that continuous records have been made, and the first time it has been that high in millions of years (based on the various proxies for direct measurement).  Furthermore, 2015 and 2016 were the first years in which the cumulative annual growth in concentration of CO2, its rate of growth, was more than 3 ppm.  (In fact, 2016 came in 0.03 ppm lower than 2015, but it’s way too soon to interpret that as the beginning of a slow-down.)

Not only are we unlikely to have a month when CO2 concentrations fall back below 400 ppm any time soon, the annual rate at which concentrations are increasing has now exceeded 3 ppm two years in a row. Graph © Climate Central.

Not surprisingly, the warming of the planet also continues, as does the bleaching of reefs, melting of glaciers, and all the other environmental impacts of this savage pollution of our atmosphere.  If we take the mean global temperature each month during the period 1881 to 1910 as our ‘pre-industrial’ baseline temperature, it turns out that nobody born after 1964 has ever experienced a month of below-average temperatures.  Global mean temperature for every month since then has been warmer than average.  March 2017 was 1.3oC above this pre-industrial average.  That is very close to the 1.5oC increase the Paris Accord set as the aspirational goal for the world, and 65% of the way towards the 2oC increase countries have pledged not to exceed.

The rates of increase in global mean temperature and in CO2concentration above Mauna Kea both continue to increase, at what appears to be still increasing rates.  We have not yet succeeded in putting on the brakes.  Graph © Climate Central.

In a 2017 joint report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), there is a stark description of the enormity of the task before us if we want to achieve the 2oC objective, let alone the 1.5oC one.  The report was produced at the request of Germany for use in the G20.  In it, IEA and IRENA independently assessed the current state of energy use and outline an energy sector transition that would be consistent with limiting the rise in global temperature to below 2oC.  In their report IEA and IRENA assumed that complying with Paris was equivalent to keeping temperatures below 2oC throughout this century and into the future, with no initial overshoot, and they accepted a criterion of achieving this with a 66% probability of success as satisfactory (that is, they accepted a 33% risk of exceeding 2oC – I point this out to emphasize that the agencies have operated conservatively: how much needs to be done to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2oC, rather than, let’s put forward a scenario that guarantees staying well below 2oC).

The report is principally focused on the technical challenges of progressively integrating different forms of renewable energy into a multi-source energy grid at regional or national scale, and doing so while ensuring continued reliability of supply in a real-life fluctuating-demand situation.  It is also quite technical in style.  Here I am focusing only on the overall magnitude of the challenge.

IEA and IRENA used the concept of the global CO2 budget that is available to be released to the atmosphere within this century without exceeding the “2o with 66% likelihood” goal.  By their calculation that is 790 Gt CO2 (790 Billion tonnes CO2, a broadly accepted estimate) for the energy sector and a further 90 Gt for other industrial sectors and land use changes.  Now, 790 Gt CO2 is a large amount, but if the global economy performs as expected, and if all the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) that countries have proposed under Paris are put into effect as planned, the energy sector will emit 1260 Gt CO2 between now and 2100 – 60% more than the budget available!  IEA and IRENA looked independently on what needed to be done to keep within that budget.  Here I am reporting IEA findings:

To achieve the 2oC goal will require a transition off fossil fuels of “exceptional scope, depth and speed”.  Emissions would need to peak by 2020, and fall by 70% from today’s rates by 2050, and the share of energy derived from fossil fuels would have to halve by 2050.  To do this would require an

“unparalleled ramp-up of all low-carbon technologies in all countries.  An ambitious set of policy measures, including the rapid phase out of fossil fuel subsidies, CO2 prices rising to unprecedented levels, extensive energy market reforms, and stringent low-carbon and energy efficiency mandates would be needed to achieve this transition.  Such policies would need to be introduced immediately and comprehensively across all countries in order to achieve the [goal], with CO2 prices reaching up to US$190 per tonne of CO2.”

Needless to say, countries have not yet bought in to this aggressive decarbonization.  In the following chart, note that with only the already declared NDCs, our emissions per year of CO2 continues to rise – the commitments are insufficient to counter the growth in energy demand as our population and economy grow!

 In this chart the ‘new policies scenario’ (blue line) refers to the trend in CO2 emissions if all country NDCs are fulfilled, while the ‘66% 2oC Scenario’ (green line) refers to the global trend in CO2 emissions needed if the world is to meet the target 2oC agreed to at Paris.

In addition, IEA says that aggressive efficiency measures would be needed to lower the energy intensity of the global economy by at least 2.5% per year from now to 2050, a rate that is three and a half times greater than the rate achieved during the last 15 years.   IEA predicts that by 2050, success in reaching the 2oC goal would require that nearly 95% of electricity would be low-carbon, 70% of new cars would be electric, the entire existing building stock would have been retrofitted, and the CO2 intensity of the industrial sector would be 80% lower than today.  IEA calculates the 2oC goal requires a fundamental reorientation of investment in energy production coupled with a rapid escalation in the investments made by energy consumers to make use of low carbon energy sources.  By IEA estimates, “the additional net total investment, relative to the trends that emerge from current climate pledges, would be equivalent to 0.3% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050.”

As I read the document, we have a period of very heavy lifting ahead of us, and should have started already.  What has been accomplished since Paris is not nearly enough.  Not nearly.  There should be more urgency apparent.  And this is just to deal with climate; what about all the other ways in which we are despoiling this planet.

Later that same day

So I finished writing the first part of this commentary, paused, and began to feel damned depressed about the whole situation.  We do not seem to be paying nearly enough attention to climate change, or indeed, to any other of the myriad ways we are damaging our only home.

Reading Bill McKibben’s recent op-ed in the Guardian in which he refers to Canada’s PM Trudeau as a “disaster for the planet” did not help my mood.  In fact, it made me angry.  At McKibben.  One telling sentence that captures his tone: “Trump is a creep and a danger and unpleasant to look at, but at least he’s not a stunning hypocrite.”  While I too am critical of Trudeau’s reluctance to dump the resources sector completely, I recognize that he is trying to walk a path which will move Canada from climate denial to climate action, and this requires not completely pissing off everybody who does not already agree.  In Ontario, we are now paying about $1.10 per litre for gasoline.  The price spiked recently about ten cents when the new carbon tax kicked in.  What does McKibben pay for gas in the USA?  What McKibben should have done while criticizing Trudeau is articulate why Canada’s efforts on climate as yet are insufficient.  Instead he wasted an op-ed to throw epithets about.  Plus, he might do something back home to ensure the dangerous, creepy, difficult to look at Unpresident has as short a reign as possible.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau has a difficult challenge, but at least he is trying to do something about environment.  Not so his neighbor to the south.
© David Parkins/Globe & Mail.

Time for some optimism

But then I looked at the latest issues of Nature and Science.  Out just a couple of days before Earth Day, Nature had an editorial by marine scientist, Nancy Knowlton, on the need to be optimistic in presenting environmental stories.  In addition, there were two more reports concerning how Antarctic glaciers are behaving – plenty to digest there although the only optimistic note is that the glaciologists are getting a lot closer to understanding how this system works.

While Nature has a history recently of consistently reporting important environmental stories, Science, which appears to have been giving less attention to this field, surprised me with a whole special issue on environment.  In addition to an editorial, by Knowlton and Andrew Balmford, also extolling the value of a positive approach to presenting environmental issues, they had several reviews and reports on environmental topics.  There was an essay on the need to live within the planetary boundaries.  There were two reviews on how human activities and sheer abundance are affecting global biodiversity.  Another review detailed how environmental management is a wicked problem, and included information that many policy makers would do well to pay attention to – it’s way more complicated than rocket science (which suggests we must avoid procrastinating because complicated tasks take time).  And there was a review concerning psychological aspects of how to motivate people effectively to care for the natural world, something I have been wondering about for a while now.  Unfortunately, all of these articles are stuck behind pay walls, so I will be discussing them further in the future.

One could say I am just reading stuff written for the choir, but the choir needs to learn how to sing effectively and articles like these would likely not have appeared in such prestigious technical journals a decade or so ago.  There really is hope.

On the other hand, there really is so very little time to dither.  It is unconscionable, for example, that Australia can contemplate encouraging (with millions of real dollars in tax incentives) foreign corporations to develop enormous new coal mines to tap into coal deposits that Australia has no need for, other than as export commodities, so exports can be ramped up – all being transported through the Great Barrier Reef – at a time when that reef is seriously bleaching for the second year in a row.  Australia should be particularly aware of what climate change will do to its economy and quality of life, and should be leading the charge to bring climate under control.  Instead it is a laggard, while trying to increase its extraction and export of fossil fuel.  The politicians involved have demonstrated their ethical limitations multiple times as they mouth platitudes about their concern for their reef.

As for the fiasco happening in the USA, my only slim reason for optimism there is that Trump’s utter incompetence may be the best thing going for the environment, for international trade, for race relations, and perhaps even for world peace.  But that my American friends were capable of electing him?  And might do so again?  Not a good sign.  Let’s hope there are more signs encouraging optimism in the next few months.  Happy Earth Day.

Perhaps the first leader of a major nation who excels only in his incompetence.
© David Horsey/LA Times.