A whole thesaurus of praise has been heaped on the climate change agreement reached in Paris in December. “Historic” “unprecedented” “a diplomatic triumph” “a big, big deal”…. And for an agreement that sets the world on course to limit global warming to 1.5°C such words would be deserved. The only problem is that this agreement doesn’t do that. It doesn’t even set us on course to limit warming by 2°C. In fact the agreement sets us on course for warming to reach between 3 or 4 degrees this century. That would be a disaster.
To have any hope of limiting warming to 2°C emissions of carbon dioxide would need to be cut massively (around 80 to 90% by 2030 in developed countries) beginning immediately. Instead COP21 introduces modest cuts which only begin in 2020. As these commitments were already known last year the conference was doomed to fail before it had even begun. What could have saved it would have a mandatory review process which ratchets up climate action in line with the science. There is a review process but the first one in 2020 is not mandatory and emission cuts are not required to be consistent with meeting the 2°C target. So instead of massive cuts, under the current pledges emissions of carbon dioxide will continue to rise until 2030 and are unlikely to be reviewed until 2025 by which time it will be far too late to make the cuts necessary to avoid catastrophic warming.
So why was everyone – from governments, through NGOs to the media so positive about the outcome? Because the models which show that limiting warming to 1.5C is still possible rely on an accounting trick so devious that even Goldman Sacs might blanche at its use in financial circles. Every single one of them including those for a 2C limit rely on large amounts of negative emissions to reach their target. Negative emissions involve some method of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The problem is that the technology to do so doesn’t currently exist, despite billions having been spent on trying to develop it. Even if by some miracle the technology is somehow developed and ready to roll out on a massive scale in a couple of decades it will require a huge amount of energy and space both of which will be very scarce in a carbon constrained world of 9 billion people. The technology which the technocrats hold out most hope for is BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage). This involves planting huge areas of vegetation and then harvesting it, burning it to produce energy and then capturing the carbon emissions and storing them underground. But just to remove the carbon equivalent to one year’s emissions at current rates would require a forest twice the size of Australia to be planted. And in reality we would have to remove much more carbon than that. Something which will almost certainly prove to be impossible.
Indeed some argue that we have already breached the budget for the 2C target. The world has already warmed by around 1C since industrial times almost all of which has been caused by the burning of fossil fuels. However burning coal also releases sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere which have a cooling effect. These particles are very short lived so stopping burning coal will remove the aerosols thereby removing their cooling effect which will warm the planet by as much as 0.5C. One of the weaknesses of the IPCC modelling is that is fails to include any feedback affects into the calculations. One feedback such feedback is the release of massive amounts of methane as the permafrost in the Arctic melts. Once the earth warms by 1.5C it is estimated that enough methane will be released to cause a further 0.5C of warming. So that’s 2C already. However it would probably still be possible to avoid catastrophic climate change with immediate huge cuts to emissions coupled by drawing down carbon from the atmosphere through a massive programme of planting biomass. Delaying such action by another decade will make it impossible to achieve. But that’s precisely what the Paris agreement does.
So why has the environmental movement been so enthusiastic in its welcome for such an agreement. Well I really don’t know. I guess they felt after the abject failure of the Copenhagen summit, anything positive should be clutched at. They saw how demoralised the climate movement was after 2009 and desperately wanted to avoid that. But being an enthusiastic and largely uncritical cheerleader for something that will lead to disaster is even worse. It’s probably not too late to avert disaster but it is if everyone thinks everything is fine.
Others argue that at least it’s a start. But it’s far too late for a start. This agreement would have been good 20 years ago. 10 years ago it might have just about been ok, but now it is a disaster. This was our last chance and our supine, venal, cowardly leaders fucked it up. And we let them.