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There are good tipping points too! COP21 may have been one.


It’s over. The huge circus that is a climate conference has come to an end and the thousands of participants have made their way home. Some of them will have dutifully paid to offset the carbon they used by attending.

As climate conferences go, this was a good one. It went the anticipated day past its scheduled end, but an agreement was reached that all 196 participant nations could sign onto. And the agreement does have a few teeth. Canada performed well, although it still picked up a couple of Fossil of the Day awards. Our performance was much closer to what I would always have expected of Canada, a refreshing change from past conferences. I’ll summarize the good things that happened, but before doing that, I want to bring the hot air balloons back to earth and emphasize just how big a battle faces us all in the decades to come.

Paris proved itself to be a city where good things could happen. Photo © GreenWatch.

It was apparent long before the conference started that the proposals for emissions cuts submitted by the participant countries would not be sufficient to keep our climate to less than a 2oC rise above preindustrial times. As I wrote on 20th October, the commitments made by countries for emissions reductions to be made by 2030, even if fully achieved, will not keep the world from exceeding 2oC of warming. Carbon Action Tracker was estimating the commitments would achieve a 2.7oC increase, and Climate Interactive, using slightly different assumptions, was suggesting the warming would reach 3.5oC. Both sites have confirmed those estimates now that COP21 is finished, and 158 of the 196 participating countries (including all major emitters) have submitted their INDCs (proposals for emission reductions). Both also confirm that there are practical pathways opening that will facilitate countries strengthening their commitments, and welcome the inclusion in the Paris Agreement to have countries report progress every five years beginning in 2018. Climate Interactive went further and suggested achievable steps that could be taken post 2018 that would limit warming to 1.8oC by 2100.

Just how big is the challenge facing us? By increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere we have already raised the mean temperature of the planet by about 1oC. We are currently adding GHGs at the rate of about 36 GtCO2 emitted to the atmosphere per year. Every tonne emitted adds to the insulative properties of the atmosphere, and therefore it is possible to think in terms of a total budget of CO2 emissions that can be used in the future while still keeping the global temperature increase to less than 2oC. In a recent article in Nature Geoscience, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at University of Manchester has spelled things out clearly. He draws on the IPCC numbers (from Section 2.1 of their AR5 Synthesis Report, 2014): no more than 1000 GtCO2 should be emitted between 2011 and 2100 if we want to keep temperature increase below 2oC. He points out that energy production and use and cement production together resulted in emission of about 140 GtCO2 during 2011-2014. This means that the 1000 Gt budget has already been reduced to 860 Gt. He then provides plausible arguments for cement production between now and 2100 emitting about 150 Gt and deforestation over the same period costing a further 60 Gt. That leaves a total of 650 GtCO2 to be emitted due to energy use over the remainder of the century. Given that our current energy policies are releasing 36 GtCO2 each year, we have very little room to move. Anderson suggests the rate of emissions reduction will have to rachet up to about 10% a year by 2025. (Bear in mind that until now the global rate of emissions has been growing every year – 2015 may have seen the first tiny reduction – so a 10% per year rate of reduction means enormous change from present practices.)

The need for far more stringent reductions in emissions that have been announced in Paris is why people in the know are both praising the outcome of that conference and warning that it is not nearly enough to get the job done. The need for really substantive reductions will begin to sink in, and really needs to sink in, among policy makers over the next few months. Because if we do not make these really substantive cuts, we really are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Success in Paris?

So what did COP21 really achieve? Lots of people have discussed this already (see these articles in the New York Times), so I will be brief. It is the first global agreement in which there is a tacit understanding that developing countries, as well as developed countries, have got to make efforts to restrain their emissions. While the individually announced targets to 2030 are voluntary, with no enforcement mechanism (other than shaming) to ensure countries actually meet them, there is a mandatory reporting of progress by each country, every five years beginning in 2018. There is also an expectation that at each reporting interval, countries will rachet up their commitments bringing total emissions reductions into line with what is needed to keep warming controlled.

The agreement even includes language speaking of an immediate 2oC goal and a long-term 1.5oC goal, a victory for those who believe looking after the oceans might be important, and in my view an important step in the right direction. Coral reef scientists were among those who lobbied hard for this language.

International_Society_for_Reef_Studies_Portal_to_the_World_s_Coral_Reefs_-_2015-10-21_10.14.41Coral reefs have a slightly better future ahead of them if the promises from Paris bear fruit. Photo from XL Catlin Seaview Survey via International Society for Reef Studies

One major deficiency in the agreement is the lack of any significant discussion on how to put a price on carbon. If we had a global price on carbon emissions, or even a series of separate, but integrated, national prices, that would provide the financial incentive that is needed to get the problem of emissions strenuously attacked. Paris made no progress on that one.  Another gap is that aviation and ocean shipping are left out – some 5% of all energy use.  Another area where the agreement is particularly weak is in the area of finance. There are nice words stating that developed countries should be contributing funds to help developing countries struggling to adapt to climate impacts, even a nominal annual amount of such funding ($100 billion by 2025), but no mechanisms to encourage such behavior or even to examine foreign aid contributions to see if money is simply being re-labeled as climate-related. What is needed is a real influx of new foreign aid to help developing countries. Canada might help India build nuclear and/or solar instead of coal-fired plants, for example. Done right, such foreign aid often results in some economic gain for the developed country as well.

Problems for the future

Success in Paris reveals the kinds of problems now facing the world as we seek a successful management of climate. The first of these is simply how to measure emissions accurately and reliably. This becomes critical as the world moves to a regime in which countries report regularly on their emissions reductions, and these are compared to their voluntarily set targets.

Kyoto will have set out some baseline of accepted methodology that can be used, perhaps with modifications, such as, for example, that emissions belong to the nation in whose territory they occur. One could instead argue that the emissions due to burning fuel belong to the nation in whose territory the fuel was obtained, but governments have largely accepted that it is the act of using fuel rather than the act of providing fuel to use, which is the issue. That, of course, is good news for fuel exporters like Canada or Russia. Recently, some people have suggested that countries that import manufactured goods, should take responsibility for the emissions resulting from their manufacture – that is just as logical an argument as the one, currently accepted, that a country that chooses to manufacture and export goods is responsible for the energy used in manufacture. This figure from a presentation by the Global Carbon Project shows the massive flows of goods and services from countries that use energy to produce, to other countries that consume those products. To which country do those emissions really belong? China’s climate task would be a lot easier, and those of the US and EU vastly more difficult if that perspective were to be adopted!
GlobalCarbonProject flows from emissions to use of goods

Flows of CO2 emissions (as GtCO2) due to the export of goods and services from producing nations to consuming nations. By convention, these emissions are considered owned by the producing nation, despite the fact that the consuming nations generate the demand for the products. Only the 16 largest flows are shown by arrows. Data for 2011. Image © Global Carbon Project.

Even apart from such niceties, there is the basic problem of quantifying emissions. In an advanced economy, it should be relatively easy to gather data on quantities of fossil fuels used, and cement poured, but that may not be as easy to do in less developed nations. Zhu Liu and 23 co-authors from Chinese, US and EU universities published a detailed analysis of Chinese emissions in Nature last August. They considered energy use and cement manufacture, and reported that Chinese emissions from these sources were 14% lower in 2013 than had been previously reported. The discrepancy existed despite a 10% greater use of energy than previously reported. It turns out that, as well as there being some irregularities in figures compiled provincially and nationally, Chinese coal produces 40% less emissions than previously estimated, while Chinese gas produces 13% more. Because of the importance of coal in China’s energy mix, the result of these discrepancies alone is a major reason for Liu’s conclusion that 2013 emissions have been over-estimated by 13%. We should anticipate similar discrepancies in the estimates of emissions in many countries, even when (as here) the country was attempting to report accurately. The fact that China’s emissions (9.1GtCO2 in 2013; 25% of the annual global total) have been over-estimated is very good news, but the critical point is that estimates need to be improved if the world is to accurately assess what each country is doing.

Of course, measuring emissions from energy use and cement production is the easy part. Estimating emissions due to agriculture, forestry and other land uses is going to be even more difficult to do accurately. When we factor in the ‘creative accounting’ that at least some countries will engage in, seeking to spin their performance as positively as possible, the need for rigorous accounting methods is going to become very important, and we are simply not there yet. Lest anyone doubt that countries might use creative accounting, remember Canada’s creative reporting of being half-way to the target, when we were actually moving in the opposite direction during the Harper years. (Of course, with sunny ways in place in Canada, such ‘creativity’ will definitely not be a problem in our future! Oh yeah?)

Another area of needed improvement concerns the climate models themselves. Our estimates of how emissions are going to change in the future depend on the accuracy of our climate models, and there is still room to improve the science. One major area of active investigation at present concerns the effects of water vapor and clouds on warming.

Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, and when it condenses to form clouds those clouds shade the Earth’s surface and reflect light back into space. Warming is expected to enhance evaporation and transpiration, thereby increasing concentrations of water vapor in the atmosphere. This should lead to more warming (the greenhouse effect), but also to enhanced cloud cover and enhanced rainfall, but will these hydrological events enhance or reduce warming overall? On 10th December 2015, Anthony DeAngelis of UCLA, with three colleagues, published new results in Nature. Their article is difficult for the non-climate scientist to understand (or at least, for this one), but a short companion paper by Steven Sherwood, of the Climate Change Research Center in Sydney, Australia, explains what they have achieved. DeAngelis and colleagues have set aside the issue of clouds and focused on the interactions of water vapor, solar influx, warming and heat radiation, and how these are affected by increasing temperatures.
Sherwood Nature 2015 absorption of light by water vapor 528200a-f1

Transmission of sunlight by water vapor – most visible light passes through easily, but there are a number of wavelengths in the near infrared where transmission is almost totally blocked. Climate models differ in the degree of detail used to model this process, and these differences account for about 35% of the variation among models in simulating warming. Figure © S. Sherwood, Nature.

The visible part of sunlight passes through the atmosphere almost unimpeded, but the near infrared part is variously absorbed by water vapor. Global climate models have dealt with the complexity of water vapor impacts on sunlight in different ways, some modeling the infrared absorption relatively crudely, some dealing with it more sensitively. (In fact, in their efforts to make their models more robust with respect to effects of clouds, many modelling teams appear to have been content to retain a simple treatment with respect to water vapor while they sought to improve their modelling of clouds.) Since how water vapor in the atmosphere absorbs the infrared portion of sunlight has major impacts on how the presence, and concentration, of water vapor modifies the warming effect of sunlight at ground level, these variations among the global climate models are an important reason for differences in their projections of climate. In fact, DeAngelis and colleagues show that variations among models in the treatment of water vapor effects are responsible for about 35% of the variation among model outputs. They also show that all global climate models underestimate the effects of water vapor to some degree, leading to an over-estimation of the effects of increasing water vapor on precipitation (they project a wetter world than will likely occur). Simply identifying, as they do, which of the climate models perform best, and which worst, is an important step forward.

Clearly, if we are going to be able to assess the effects of emissions reductions by participating nations in reducing warming, we will need models that are as accurate as possible. Otherwise, when we think we have all done enough to keep within 2oC of warming, we could discover that we have not done enough. By then the damage to our environment and our societies will have been done.

Guess what? We are going to have to be innovative!

As the true extent of the task in front of us becomes apparent to more and more people, it is also becoming recognized that a few gestures in the direction of emissions cuts are not going to be sufficient. The Paris Agreement would have been first-rate if we had reached it back in the late 1990s. But we have lost 20+ years and it is no longer even close to a sufficient response. It is the first baby step on a very long, uphill road. We are going to need creativity, not just in battery technology and reliable electric cars. In one sense, Bill Gates (who has committed $2 billion), Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and India’s industrialist Mukesh Ambani acknowledged this need (and opportunity) when they announced the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition during COP21. This coalition of over 20 billionaire venture capitalists will provide the funding needed to develop innovative products relevant to the energy challenges we face globally. It’s great to see some of the 1% step forward like this, although I expect they will all get wealthier by so doing.

Among the possible innovations will likely be technologies for carbon sequestration or for removing carbon from the atmosphere itself. Carbon sequestration has long been talked about by the fossil fuel industry and there is one working coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan which uses this technology (see my brief comment here). So far it has proved to be a very expensive approach, but it would allow continued use of coal. Because there is not actually anything wrong with using fossil fuels if we can do so without harming the environment. Capturing the carbon, and storing it safely away somewhere, before it escapes into the atmosphere is a step in that direction. A likely even more challenging approach is to develop technology that will suck carbon out of the air fast enough to make a difference. A short article by Daniel Cressey in Nature on 15th October 2015 reported on two plants now in operation, one in Canada and one in Switzerland.
Carbon Engineering CO2 capture plant

The Carbon Engineering plant in Squamish. Photo © Nature.

Carbon Engineering’s plant, in Squamish, British Columbia, can capture one tonne of CO2 per day from the atmosphere, and has signed a contract with the BC government to convert this captured CO2 into fuel for buses. One tonne of CO2 represents the emissions from a trip from Toronto to Miami and return in the average car – a trip many snowbird Canadians will be able to relate to – and is a modest amount compared to our global annual emissions. But it is a start. The Swiss company, Climeworks, uses a module that sits above an incineration plant and captures CO2 in the swirling gases emerging. Climeworks is now building a commercial-scale plant in Hinwil, Switzerland, that will begin capturing 1000 tonnes CO2 per year beginning in 2016. The CO2 will be sold to Gebrüder Meier to be used to enhance plant growth in greenhouses.

The challenge for both Carbon Engineering and Climeworks, and for future carbon capturers will be to find markets for their product. The cost of obtaining CO2 by removing it from the air is currently in the hundreds of dollars per tonne, compared to CO2 from other sources in the tens of dollars per tonne. Prices will come down as the technology is matured, and a carbon tax would make this source more attractive.

Getting to where we really need to be

There is no doubt that the world is starting to move in the right direction, and also no doubt that it is going to have to move much further, and much faster, before we can be sure the climate is under control. One encouraging sign in Paris was the performance of China. While many western commentators used to point to China as the main problem in solving climate change that is now demonstrably not the case. An article in the Telegraph on 16th December made that clear. While the Telegraph has its own reasons for praising China, these items are worth noting: A massive report just released by the Chinese Communist Party makes clear that climate change is an existential threat for China. Among other things, the sea level rise that might occur by 2100 would threaten Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou. And China is already responding. Eight of the world’s biggest solar companies are Chinese. So is the second biggest wind power group, GoldWind. China invested $90bn in renewable energy last year and is already the superpower of low-carbon industries. It installed more solar in the first quarter than currently exists in France. The Chinese plan to build six to eight nuclear plants every year, reaching 110 by 2030. China will commence a national cap and trade scheme by 2017 that will manage more CO2 than all 40 of the world’s existing schemes combined. China’s economy is rapidly changing to become more knowledge-intensive and less energy-intensive. So-called tertiary industry has moved from 42% to 51% of the economy since 2007.
Chinese solar farm Yang Shiyao—Xinhua, Zuma Press20150110_zaf_x99_113_0

A power plant in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province. Photo © Yang Shiyao—Xinhua/Zuma Press

True there are a lot of new coal-fired power plants being planned, but many doubt seriously that they will ever be build. Coal is rapidly becoming uncompetitive in China, and its other environmental and health effects dampen enthusiasm for its use. Prices of alternative energy are rapidly falling, and China looks set to lead the transition to non-fossil fuels. Overall, the irony is that the US ‘free market’ is proving far more resistant to moving away from fossil fuels, perhaps because it is not free at all, but heavily protected and massively subsidized. Just watch Mitch McConnell, leader of the US Senate, and a Senator from coal-rich Kentucky, as he leads a tooth and nails fight to block any actions taken by Obama to combat climate change.

Challenges for Canada

Canada, too, will have some major decisions to make in the next few months. Our 10-year long attempt to become an ethical petrostate is in tatters, with oil trading at a price that is perhaps half of what it costs to take bitumen out of the ground and up-grade it into something that can be squeezed through a pipe. They are still producing the stuff, because it is more expensive to shut the wells down. But put the recent OPEC decision beside the COP21 outcome and the future for the tar sands should become crystal clear. That particular path to prosperity by digging up and shipping out another Canadian resource suddenly looks rather steep, narrow and crooked. Better we should plan on making better use of our educated workforce, and start creating products and services that will be competitive on world markets. The Star yesterday discusses how the Canadian oil sector can adapt to the new post-Paris reality. I think the discussion should be about how Canada can adapt.

The decision by the Trudeau government to spend on infrastructure could not come at a better time. We currently need a boost to the economy, but we also need the kind of investment in novel infrastructure that only government is likely to provide. Rationalizing the electricity systems across Canada to maximize use of our renewable energy sources, and our nuclear capabilities, while also building out a smart grid that is more resilient in the face of violent weather might be an excellent project to tackle. We need a power grid that is adapted to decentralized energy production as well as decentralized use, a grid that is smart, so users can decide when to use and when not to because prices are too high, and a grid that does not fail every time the wind blows a tree down. A coordinated program to progressively bury the major part of our power infrastructure is something that would have made lots of sense ages ago even without climate change. I mean, it’s great to see the power sector workers out in all weather, risking life and limb, restoring power after an ice storm or a traffic accident in the midst of a snowstorm. But really, why put the lines up in the air like so many strings of Christmas lights, so they can come down yet again? Hitting one’s head against a brick wall comes to mind. Perhaps now would be an excellent time to shift our $2.7 billion subsidy of the fossil fuels sector towards other forms of energy.

Will Canada find a way towards prosperity by becoming a leader in the new technologies needed for this new carbon-free economy the world is building? Can the disparate provinces of Canada even come together to create a common, nation-wide carbon tax to replace, equalize or augment the piecemeal, province by province ventures into taxes and cap and trade schemes? I commend those provinces which acted when the Harper government was doing everything it could to forestall action, but now it might make sense to build a larger, seamless, national approach to setting a price on carbon. And will Canada take the steps it needs to take to prepare for the climate stresses that are coming, differently, and in differing degree, to the communities across this enormous land? The move by the new government to reach out to First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities has nothing to do with climate change, but some of these communities will be among those most severely hit by the warming climate. Maybe it is time to re-visit Canada’s arctic to see what we need to do to protect those fragile lands and support the people who call them home, rather than visit, pick and shovel in hand, ready to dig up and export anything that can be found there? As an environmental scientist, I do not have solutions in hand that will help Canada prosper in a new world, but at least I can pose some questions. It’s time for a real discussion on how to move this country forward.

Some places have it worse than Canada

They are strung out like pearl necklaces across the Pacific; atolls, those most amazing of all the types of coral reefs. Sheer slopes to unfathomable depths on the outside, a ring of low islands surrounding a shallow lagoon, some palm trees, maybe a stranded sailor or two (always in the cartoons). But these atolls are also parts of island nations. The Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marianas; all nations with far more territorial seas than they have land. They are homes for people, who have lived there for many generations, who are as much ‘from’ those islands as any native person is from her homeland. And climate change is irrevocably removing these islands from the world of man by submerging them below a rising ocean. There are 100,000 Kiribati nationals scattered across 33 atolls with a total of 800 km2 land area dispersed over 3.5 million km2 of tropical ocean. Kiribati is the only nation with land in all four hemispheres, it is a member of the Commonwealth, and a least developed nation with an economy built almost entirely on fisheries and copra. Its maximum elevation is 81 meters, on the 6 km2 island of Banaba, the only raised reef in the group. Elsewhere elevation in meters is measured in single digits, and usually only one or two. These are tiny places and their people are literally dwellers on the ocean.

Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati, South Tarawa in the foreground. The stuff that dreams are made of, but the dreams may be becoming nightmares for the inhabitants. Photo © Government of Kiribati.

Trip Advisor advertises four hotels in Tarawa, the capital atoll of Kiribati. Mary’s Hotel is recommended as “the best in Tarawa”. It looks quite modest. Tarawa is roughly triangular in shape and has a 500 km2 lagoon with islands lining its southern (South Tarawa) and north-eastern (North Tarawa) shores. South Tarawa is the seat of government. Half the population of Kiribati lives on Tarawa. They live in basic accommodation, just meters from the ocean, always at risk of flooding. Fresh water, always in short supply, is becoming scarcer as rising seas intrude into the shallow lens of fresh water beneath each island. The government pumps potable water for about 2 hours every second day. High tide is becoming a challenging time if the seas are up. It’s one thing to face a storm and have to retreat inland, but on Kiribati, there is no inland to retreat to. In June 2014, President Anote Tong announced he had finalized the purchase from the Church of England of 20 km2 of forested land on Vanua Levu, Fiji for $8.77 million. Fiji is 2500 km away, but the nation of Kiribati is planning for a future without its islands. As Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has a challenging task to lead Canada at this time, but it is not quite so challenging as that faced by President Tong.