Wednesday, August 2, 2023

The Origin of Climate Goals

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and author, wrote an educational post about climate goals back in 2019, but it's currently useful information to understand the news (since climate change is finally in the news):

"When it comes to what climate goals we should be aiming for, there are a lot of 'magic numbers' floating around: 2 degrees, 12 years, 350ppm, net zero emissions, and more. Here's a short thread explaining the scientific basis--or lack thereof--for each.

The very first (and still relevant) goal was expressed in the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change]. It was drafted at the Earth Summit in Rio and adopted in May 1992. It calls for 'stabilizing atmospheric CO2 in ppm to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.'  Here is the full text: 

Since then, there have been 24 'Conferences of Parties to the UNFCCC' or COP meetings. The most recent was in Katowice, Poland. The next [2019] is in Santiago, Chile. COPs are not scientific meetings; they are primarily attended by formal delegations from each nation that's a party to the UNFCCC. (I say this because it's a frequent misconception that COPs are just an excuse for all the climate scientists in the world to regularly gather for expensive and very carbon-intensive parties - haha! In fact, I've only been to one, to provide tech support.)

It took until COP21 - that's right, form 1992 to 2015 - to decide on what might constitute 'dangerous interference.' That's because 'dangerous' is not a scientific definition It's values-based, and everyone has different values and priorities. Unfortunately, many of the wealthiest and most powerful countries (ahem, companies) in the world view climate solutions as posing a more immediate and short-term threat to their bottom line and well-being than climate impacts. That's a big hurdle to overcome; no wonder it took so long. Some countries and organizations had already decided what they considered dangerous - the UK initially went for 550 ppm, then moved it down to 450 ppm; based on Jim Hansen's arguments, organizations like @350 argued for even lower levels. (Note: pre-industrial is ~280 ppm). See the article addressed to Hansen: "Get back to 350 ppm or risk an ice-free planet." 

Why the disparity? Not because we scientists don't have a good idea of what the impacts will be at 350 (if we could get back there - we are currently above 410! [now 421]) or 450 or 550 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, but because different people weight mitigation vs adaptation differently. In the meantime, a lot of research was being done to quantify the impacts of temperature targets: 2, 3, 4 °C and beyond. I contributed to the first book on the topic, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, the result of a Defra Government UK workshop. About a decade of research on food, water, infrastructure, health, energy impacts and more began to converge on ~2°C-ish as preventing 'widespread' dangerous impacts (recognizing that locally and regionally they can occur far sooner than a 2°C warming). By COP21 in Paris, there was a substantial body of research quantifying the impacts of a +2, +3 and beyond warming. This directly informed the expected goal 'to hold global average temperature to well below 2°C.'

At COP21, however, there was an unexpected surprise: a strong support for a more aspirational goal of 1.5°C! Problem: there weren't a lot of studies quantifying impacts under 1.5 versus 2°C. Solution: ask IPCC to write a special report so we knew what the difference was! The IPCC 1.5 report was released in October 2018. It concluded that there WERE quantifiable differences in many impacts including those related to 'health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth.' It's important to note that neither 1.5 nor 2°C are magic numbers: i.e., 1.4999°C or 1.999°C of warming vs 1.5001 or 2.001C does not avoid dangerous impacts everywhere because it's a sliding scale. This Global Weirding episode explains; please give it a watch!

But regardless of which temperature target we aim for--which again depends on our priorities (my own research, for example, comparing everything from Iowa corn yields to Texas water supply suggests that 1.5°C is typically adaptable; 2°X is challenging; 3°C is system-altering). The first step is to translate a temperature target into a cumulative carbon target, as this figure by Damon Matthews from the NASEM report we co-authored on "Impacts by Degree" shows: 

The second step is to allocate the remaining CO2 budget for a given warming amount by country; but how do we do that? Per capita? By current ems? Historical ems? Futurs ems? The Paris Agreement solved this by opting for a 'potluck dinner' approach. Globally, a number of pathways lead to a cumulative carbon budget consistent with a 1.5 and/or 2°C warming. The IPCC 1.5 report lays these out, and concludes that, broadly CO2 emissions have to decline 45% by 2030 to meet 1.5°C. 

And here, my friends, is where the mythical 'we have 12 years to fix this or the world ends' narrative comes from. (I'm not pointing my finger at anyone in particular here; I'm just saying I've heard this. A lot.)

Conclusion: Science does not identify a specific goal, target, or timeline. What is says is simply this: the more carbon we produce, the worse the impacts. The best thing to do is wean ourselves off it, as soon as is humanly possible. As a human I'd add: while minimizing suffering. And this is why, as a scientist and a human, I am fully in support of any policy that cuts heat-trapping gas emissions, as soon as possible, while helping the poor and vulnerable already disproportionately suffering its impacts. As the IPCC says, 

Net zero emissions are the end goal because that is the ONLY way to stabilize atmospheric concentrations as per the original UNFCCC (1992). How fast we reach net zero determines how much warming we see. This figure from the NASEM (2011) report explains: 
And then net negative emissions are the ultimate goal, as that is the only way we can bring atmospheric CO2 back down (e.g. to 400 or 350 ppm) and reverse some (not all) of the impacts. This is called an 'overshoot' pathway. The faster we do this, the more impacts we can avoid. But the bottom line is this: it's true some impacts are already here. Others are unavoidable. But my research, and that of hundreds of other scientists, clearly shows that our choices matter. It is not too late to avoid the worst impacts. And that's why, The most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it.


MoS said...

Unfortunately we have politicized the climate issue. We keep throwing out political numbers that are all but meaningless. At best they're aspirational targets absent the commitment, even the means, to deliver on these flimsy promises. We throw out "one size fits all" targets. Yet climate impacts are not uniform. One region experiences climate breakdown in different ways, to differing degrees than others. Some countries are more latitudinally advantaged than others. Look at the exodus of marine life ever more poleward these days.

Then there's equity. The major emitters tend to be the wealthiest nations and should be shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden. Are we? Not a chance. We know how much more greenhouse gas can be emitted to stay within our aspirational targets and it's somewhat less than 8 years at current emission levels. To meet that, the industrialized nations, the First World, would have to go on a war footing but that's not happening. There are proven fossil energy reserves estimated at more than 30 trillion dollars subscribed on the stock markets and bourses of the developed world. Who holds those investments? Governments, banks, investment houses and - pension plans. 80% of these proven resources must be left in the ground according to the IEA and other agencies. Mark Carney and his predecessor at the Bank of England repeatedly warned that fossil fuels are mainly "stranded assets" and investors should quietly get out of those markets. That hasn't happened. Oil prices have held. Governments are well aware of what could happen to the global economy if the "carbon bubble" bursts. They are like deer caught in the headlights. And these are the same people who huddle together at the annual climate summits to formulate empty targets for emissions cuts that never seem to be achieved. Next year for sure.

However, climate change is just one of three or more existential threats that we face. Overpopulation and its companion danger, resource depletion and exhaustion - over consumption, also imperil the future of human civilization. It took mankind until 1814 to grow to one billion strong. At my birth that had grown enormously to 2.5 billion. Within my lifetime that has reached 8 billion plus. At the turn of the 20th century male longevity in Canada was about 42 years. Today we've expanded that by another 30+ years. So one adult male born today will require some 80 years of resources. Add to that perpetual, exponential growth in per capita consumption has gone from about $10 thousand to $47 thousand. In one lifetime we've tripled in numbers, nearly doubled in longevity and expanded at least four-fold in extraction, production, consumption, pollution and waste. That's the face of our challenge.

I'm a fan of Katherine Hayhoe but we can't ever address climate breakdown as a standalone threat. It's not. We will never succeed until we accept that we live on a finite planet and learn to live in harmony well within the planet's limitations and boundaries. There's no mystery. We know, with considerable accuracy, the sustainable limits of the human footprint. Like ill-tempered teenagers we don't want to listen.

We'll get there one way or the other. This year is powerfully revealing what will befall humanity if we don't seize the chance to do it on our own terms. When I hear comforting voices saying there's still time, I ask "for what?" There's still time for a survivable crash landing but the alternative, the course we're on, is a nose dive.

Marie Snyder said...

The marine exodus is one of the things, I believe, that's really waking people up in the middle of this crisis. More and more I wonder if the huge shift to privatize healthcare being ramped up, along with overly closing rural ERs (and even some cities), could be a means to address population and the coming food scarcity, ensuring there's enough for the fittest among us -- among them -- those who are "Davos Safe" and healthy, to get first pick of rations. But that's just conspiratorial thinking, right??

MoS said...

It is a subject of such urgency and magnitude that it does lend itself to conspiratorial thinking, itself a major vulnerability. To paraphrase a Churchill warning, sometimes it is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we must do what is required. That is the rule of emergencies.