IPCC Discovers Infographics – Communicates Climate Change

Working Group II put out their state of the climate for AR5 this March and finally worked out how to communicate climate change.

WHO: The many, many world leading scientific authors of the IPCC – the list is here.

WHAT: Working Group II – the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation group from the IPCC

WHEN: 31 March 2014

WHERE: The IPCC website

TITLE: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (open access)

Remember in October 2013, when the first chunk of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report (AR5 for us nerds) was released and I was really snarky about how everyone at the UN speaks a really dense dialect of bureaucrat that almost no-one else can understand and will therefore not bother to read?

Well this time the IPCC got it right! The report from Working Group II who look at the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation humanity will have to do because of climate change discovered colours and infographics and language that normal people actually speak and then used it in their summary for policy makers. They even improved the website to make it more user friendly. Round of applause to the IPCC, the UN Foundation and all the communicators who probably spent many hours de-wonkifying the scientific and bureaucratic language.

The IPCC discovers colour and images (from paper)

The IPCC discovers colour and images (from paper)

This means my job this week was much easier as I don’t even need to translate the 44-page summary for you, but since it’s 44 pages long, I’ll give you the short version.

This time around, the IPCC deliberately went with a risk management frame for communicating climate impacts, and noted that doing something about climate change isn’t really related to the science, so much as it’s a value judgement on how much we’re willing to roll the dice. They do however helpfully point out that ‘climate change poses risks for human and natural systems’ and that it’s being felt in all countries, on all continents and in all the oceans as well. Sorry to burst your bubble if you thought climate change wasn’t going to get you too.

They even put a glossary up the front so you know what they’re talking about when they use words like ‘hazard’, ‘exposure’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘impacts’, ‘risk’, ‘adaptation’, ‘transformation’ and ‘resilience’. Communication high five, IPCC.

Siku the polar bear (image: Polar Bears International)

Siku the polar bear (image: Polar Bears International)

So what’s happening so far because of climate change then? Well, it’s a long list of nasty stuff; glaciers are melting, there’s drought, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane. Species are being forced out of their habitat faster than they can move and going extinct and the IPCC can report with a high level of confidence that we’re causing climate change extinctions at a much faster rate than has ever happened with previous natural cycles of climate change.

Plant and animal migration opportunities and how far they could get pushed with climate change (from paper)

Plant and animal migration opportunities and how far they could get pushed with climate change (from paper)

Crops are getting more negative impacts from climate extremes than the extra CO2 is helping them grow, and the ability to grow lettuce in Greenland will be a coin toss depending on how good the quality of the soil is at such high latitudes. Climate change is already affecting the yield of wheat, maize, rice and soybean crops.

Climate change is affecting (and will continue to affect) humans too – it’s harming our health through heatwave deaths and increased waterborne diseases. It’s a ‘threat multiplier’, which means it makes stressful situations more dire, like the drought in Syria which was a big factor in the current civil war there.

The authors also point out that vulnerabilities differ because of inequality, which is their nice way of saying that if you’re poor or you live in a poor country; climate change will hit you first. This makes sense from what we’re already seeing of climate impacts and clean up from extreme weather disasters – it’s much harder to plan for climate adaptation when you live in a warzone.

After all that depressing news, they follow up with some good news – what we’re doing to adapt to climate change. They point out that adaptation is becoming embedded into planning processes, so areas will be more resilient to changes. Adaptation knowledge is accumulating in both the private and public sectors and is being incorporated into risk management processes.

They do point out though that adaptation and mitigation choices that are made now will affect the severity of climate change for the rest of the century. No pressure or anything, but if we get this wrong all your grandchildren might hate you for it.

Future risks
Then they get into how bad it could get if we do nothing. Low-lying Pacific Islands go underwater (the first one was actually evacuated last weekend), coastal cities get flooded, people die in storms and heatwaves, food runs short in some places, farmers lose their land from drought and desertification and places we are really fond of like the Great Barrier Reef die too.

But even if you don’t care about the plants, animals or people in far away countries, the IPCC isn’t going to let you off the hook. They point out that human influence on the climate system is clear, and it’s the level of danger to humans that we have to manage.

Then they do get a little wonky and come up with a hilarious acronym: RFC which stands for ‘Reasons for Concern’ (bureaucrats have a deep love of acronyms). What are the RFCs and should they be keeping you up at night?

Well it’s your call to lose sleep over it, but you should be worried about losing unique systems (any natural wonder of the world basically), extreme weather, uneven distribution of impacts (even if climate change doesn’t destroy your home city, where do you think all the migrants from the dustbowl will go?), global aggregate impacts (like ocean acidification killing all commercial fisheries), and abrupt irreversible impacts (hello melting Greenland ice sheet!).

Sensibly, they point out that increased warming puts us at a greater risk of ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts’, and that the cost of adapting to all these scary disasters is much cheaper if we mitigate (you know, stop burning carbon).

Sectoral risks
Just in case you still thought that climate change is not going to affect you, your friends and family, your hometown and your favourite holiday location, the IPCC would like to let you know it’s also going to affect your livelihood and your access to food.

We’re going to have more drought and water shortages, could have abrupt change in the Arctic or Amazon rainforest causing all kinds of disruption to not only carbon storage, water quality and biodiversity but also economic activity.

Coastal populations will be threatened by flooding, fisheries could collapse and ocean acidification already caused the loss of $10million worth of scallops in Canada. We’ll probably get more famines thus wiping out all the great work charities have done to try and end world hunger, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the report says ‘all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change, including food access, utilisation and price stability’. Everything is going to get more expensive and harder to source.

Cities will have more heat stress, flash flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought and water scarcity (the difference being that drought is when you’re short on water for your garden, water scarcity is when you’re short on water for people). Rural areas will have more food and water insecurity and could lose their farms and livelihoods to drought.

And if that laundry list of destruction wasn’t enough for you, here’s what the IPCC says about their worst case scenario projection (which is what will happen with business as usual): ‘by 2100 for the high-emission scenario RCP 8.5 the combination of high temperatures and humidity in some areas for parts of the year is projected to compromise normal human activities including growing food or working outdoors’.

Yeah, business as usual will make it too hot to go outdoors in some places and you won’t be able to grow any food.

Too hot to go outside – business as usual in 2100 on right (from paper)

Too hot to go outside – business as usual in 2100 on right (from paper)

Building resilience
So now that the IPCC has told us with high levels of certainty that we’re in big trouble and that climate change is going to affect everyone, no matter how much money you have to still import bacon, coffee and avocados, what can we do about it?

Firstly – coordinate across different levels of government for things like flood proofing and building infrastructure. Use the range of available strategies and actions to make sure communities are reducing their vulnerability – each of the risk bars on the IPCC infographic have a shaded area, which is the amount of risk that can be reduced through adaptation. Make sure planning takes into account diverse interests, circumstances and sociocultural contexts.

Adaptation risk management opportunities for Australia (from paper)

Adaptation risk management opportunities for Australia (from paper)

Some of the really hard conversations around climate change in the future are going to be with communities who will need to relocate or will lose their way of life because of climate impacts. These discussions are both really important and really difficult – we should be planning for that.

The report gives a slight nod to fossil fuel subsides (and the need to remove them) by saying ‘improved resource pricing, charges and subsidies’ which is their way of saying ‘divest, people’.

Also, (and somewhat obviously, but these things need to be said) the success of any adaptation will depend on how much we mitigate. Unless we stop burning carbon, we won’t have anything left we can adapt to – remember, business as usual makes it too hot to go outside and grow food.

So there you have it – the IPCC have kicked a massive goal this time around managing to stop speaking bureaucrat and start communicating with people. Kudos where it is deserved. Working Group III have their report coming out next week, so we’ll see if they can keep up the great work.

In the mean time, let’s stop burning carbon.

Agreeing to Zero

If the UN climate negotiations were to actually produce an agreement in 2015 to replace the Kyoto Accord, what would it look like?

WHO: Erik Haites, Margaree Consultants, Toronto, Canada
Farhana Yamin, University College London, Chatham House
Niklas Höhne, Ecofys, Wageningen University

WHAT: The possible legal elements of a 2015 agreement by the UN on climate change mitigation (which they’ve promised to try and do by 2015)

WHEN: 13 October 2013

WHERE: Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, Paris,

TITLE:  Possible Elements of a 2015 Legal Agreement on Climate Change (open access)

Let’s take a walk down fantasy lane for a moment since the UNFCCC climate change talks are happening in Warsaw over the next two weeks and imagine that the process begins to work. I’ll take off my cynical and sarcastic hat, and we can imagine together what the world might look like if nations sent negotiators with some actual power to commit their countries to reducing their carbon emissions.

Realistically, as any Canadian who has paid passing attention to the news can tell you, the Harper Government here in Canada is currently spending a lot of time and money muzzling and silencing their scientists who might talk about inconvenient things like climate change. So we know very little will come of these current negotiations. But I digress- as I said, let’s imagine, because that’s what this paper is doing.

These researchers looked at the current negotiations and figured that since all 194 countries that are part of the UN climate negotiations have agreed to negotiate a new legally binding agreement by 2015 to be implemented in 2020, maybe we should sit down and work out what the best one would look like? They helpfully point out that unless there’s an overarching plan for the negotiations that they get bogged down in procedural details, which is true given that Russia held up almost the entire negotiations on deforestation prevention financing in Bonn this year over the agenda.

Yes, Russia held up two weeks of negotiations over the agenda for the meeting (golf clap for Russia).

So to avoid negotiation grandstanding over the formatting of the agenda, what should the game plan be?

The researchers start by aiming high, stating ‘the climate regime needs to move out of continuous negotiation and into a framework of continuous implementation’ which would be awesome. They suggest we need a hybrid approach – avoiding the ‘top down’ regulation from above that tells countries how they can do things, allowing a ‘bottom up’ approach where countries get to choose how they want to reduce their emissions.

Elements of a 2015 agreement (from paper)

Elements of a 2015 agreement (from paper)

They also suggest we end the current split between developed and least developed countries that has been standard so far in the negotiations (generally Annex 1 countries are the western industrialised countries while non-Annex 1 countries are the developing countries/third world).

Instead of sitting down and trying to hash out exactly what each country is going to do to reduce their carbon emissions, the researchers say they should all agree to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Everyone. We all agree to zero by 2050 and then it’s up to each nation to work out how.

Using the words ‘net zero’ gives countries that believe in the commercial viability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to use that technology and still have zero emissions, but most importantly it leaves the details up to each country.

One planet, different ways to reach zero emissions (Norman Kuring, NASA GSFC, using data from the VIIRS instrument aboard Suomi NPP)

One planet, different ways to reach zero emissions (Norman Kuring, NASA GSFC, using data from the VIIRS instrument aboard Suomi NPP)

The simplicity of this idea means that the only agreement needed for 2015 is ‘we all agree to have zero emissions by 2050 and agree that progress will be monitored by the UNFCCC’ (although the UN will say it in their very wordy form of bureaucrat). It makes the idea quite appealing and possibly(?) achievable?

So let’s imagine that everyone agreed that we should all have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. How would the UNFCCC monitor this?

It will need several things – ways to measure reductions, ways to enforce reductions, ways to avoid free-riding and commitments from each country that get upgraded every four years.

The idea these researchers have is that once everyone signs on, each country is then responsible for proving how they’re going to reduce their emissions. They’ll submit these national plans to the UN and the UN will either approve it or send it back telling them it’s not good enough. Each country will also have to prove they’re doing their fair share to reduce emissions (time to pony up the reductions EU, UK, Canada, US, Australia and others!).

The plans will then be reported on every year with the exception of countries that produce less than 0.1% of global emissions. Something that might be surprising to you – 100 countries fall under that threshold! So those countries would only have to report on their progress to zero emissions every five years.

In order to make the process complete, the agreement would need to include everything – air travel emissions, shipping emissions (and who is responsible for the emissions – the country of origin or the country who ordered the stuff?). There will also need to be more money for climate adaptation, because we are already in the age of climate impacts, which will involve wealthier countries coughing up the $100billion each year they promised and haven’t delivered on.

Oh, and of course the agreement needs to be legally binding because everyone knows voluntary commitments are like buying a gym membership as a New Year’s resolution.

Now of course, my first question when reading about an internationally agreed, legally binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050 through rolling four-year periods that ramp up each time automatically is whether the unicorns are included or extras.

Complimentary unicorns? (Gordon Ednie, flickr)

Complimentary unicorns? (Gordon Ednie, flickr)

However, the researchers rightly point out that with currently available technologies and some political will, it’s possible to have reduced 90% of carbon emissions by 2050. They list sensible and achievable things to get us there like net zero carbon electricity by 2040, totally recyclable products by 2050, zero energy buildings by 2025, decarbonised and electrified passenger transit by 2040, Hydroflurocarbon (HFC) phase out by 2030, zero food in landfill by 2025 and the end of deforestation by 2025.

Even better, they’ve got a list of things we can do before the agreement kicks in for 2020 like: removing the billions of dollars that is current spent each year subsidising fossil fuels, better energy standards and air pollution standards, regulation of shipping and aviation emissions and incentives for early mitigation. Sounds simple, no?

They also recommend incentives for countries that are beating their reduction targets as well as recognition for companies and other organisations within countries that are doing their part too.

This idea is great, if we could get past the sticking point of getting countries to send negotiators who would actually have the power to agree to a legally binding agreement (this year Australia didn’t bother to send their Minister for the Environment, because the new Prime Minister doesn’t believe in climate change).

But if we did all agree that global emissions should be zero by 2050 (which they need to be to preserve a livable climate), this paper outlines a pretty good idea of what it could look like.

Smoking Kills, so does Climate Change

A translation of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report Summary for Policymakers

WHO: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

WHAT: Summary for policy makers of their 2000 page 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the state of the climate and climate science.

WHEN: 27 September 2013

WHERE: On the IPCC website

TITLE: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Summary for Policymakers (open access)

There’s a lot of things not to like about the way the IPCC communicates what they do, but for me the main one is that they speak a very specific dialect of bureaucrat that no-one else understands unless they’ve also worked on UN things and speak the same sort of acronym.

The worst bit of this dialect of bureaucrat is the words they use to describe how confident they are that their findings are correct. They probably believe they’re being really clear, however they use language that none of the rest of us would ever use and it means their findings make little sense without their ‘very likely = 90-100% certain’ footnote at the front.

So now that we’ve established that the UN doesn’t speak an understandable form of English, what does the report actually say? It works its way through each of the different climate systems and how they’re changing because humans are burning fossil fuels.

As you can see from this lovely graph, each of the last three decades has been noticeably warmer than the proceeding one, and the IPCC are 66% sure that 1983-2012 was the warmest 30 year period in 1,400 years.

Decade by decade average temperatures (Y axis is change in Celsius from base year of 1950) (from paper)

Decade by decade average temperatures (Y axis is change in Celsius from base year of 1950) (from paper)

One of the reasons I really like this graph is you can see how the rate of change is speeding up (one of the key dangers with climate change). From 1850 through to around 1980 each decade’s average is touching the box of the average before it, until after the 80s when the heat shoots up much more rapidly.

The report did have this dig for the deniers though: ‘Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends’. Which is UN bureaucrat for ‘when you cherry pick data to fit your denier talking points you’re doing it wrong’.

Looking at regional atmospheric trends, the report notes that while things like the Medieval Warm Period did have multi-decadal periods of change, these changes didn’t happen across the whole globe like the warming currently being measured.

In the oceans, the top layer has warmed (the top 75m) by 0.11oC per decade from 1971 to 2010, and more than 60% of the carbon energy we’ve pumped into the atmosphere since 1971 has been stored in the top layer, with another 30% being stored in the ocean below 700m.

This extra heat is not just causing thermal expansion, it’s speeding up sea level rise, which the IPCC are 90% certain increased from 1901 to 2010 from 1.7mm per year to 3.2mm per year. This is now happening faster than the past two millenniums. Yes, sea level is rising faster than it has for the last 2,000,000 years so you might want to sell your waterfront property sooner, rather than later.

The extra carbon has also made it harder to live in the ocean if you own a shell, because the acidity of the ocean has increased by 26% which makes shells thinner and harder to grow.

On the glaciers and the ice sheets, the IPCC is 90% certain that the rate of melting from Greenland has increased from 34Gigatonnes (Gt) of ice per year to 215Gt of ice after 2002. Yes, increased from 34Gt to 215Gt – it’s melting six times faster now thanks to us.

For Antarctica, the IPCC is 66% certain that the rate of ice loss has increased from 30Gt per year to 147Gt per year, with most of that loss coming from the Northern Peninsula and West Antarctica. Worryingly, this ice loss will also include the parts of Antarctica that are gaining ice due to natural variability.

And at the North Pole, Santa is going to have to buy himself and his elves some boats or floating pontoons soon, because the IPCC have found ‘multiple lines of evidence support[ing] very substantial Artctic warming since the mid-20th Century’. Sorry Santa!

As for the carbon we’ve been spewing into the atmosphere since the 1850s, well, we’re winning that race too! ‘The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years’. Congratulations humanity – in the last century and a half, we’ve changed the composition of the atmosphere so rapidly that this hasn’t been seen in 800,000 years!

Methane levels have gone up by 150%, and I’m undecided as to whether that means I should eat more beef to stop the cows from farting, or if it means we raised too many cows to be steaks in the first place…

This is the part of the report where we get into the one excellent thing the IPCC did this time around – our carbon budget. I’m not sure whether they realised that committing to reduce certain percentages by certain years from different baselines meant that governments were able to shuffle the numbers to do nothing and make themselves look good at the same time, but this is a promising step.

I’ve written about the very excellent work of Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre in the UK before, but the basic deal with a carbon budget is this: it doesn’t matter when we burn the carbon or how fast, all the matters is the total emissions in the end. You can eat half the chocolate bar now, and half the chocolate bar later, but you’re still eating a whole bar.

Our budget to have a 2/3 chance of not going beyond dangerous climate change is 1,000Gt of carbon and so far we’ve burnt 545Gt, so we’re more than halfway there. All of this leads to the conclusion that ‘human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming and understanding of the climate system.’

What observations you may ask? Scientists have made progress on working out how climate change pumps extreme weather up and makes it worse. They also got it right for the frequency of extreme warm and cold days, which if you live in North America was the hot extremes winning 10:1 over the cold extremes. Round of applause for science everyone!

Warming with natural forcing vs human forcing and how it lines up with the observations (from paper)

Warming with natural forcing vs human forcing and how it lines up with the observations (from paper)

They’re also 95% sure that more than half of the observed global surface warming from 1951 is from humanity. So next time there’s a nasty heatwave that’s more frequent than it should be, blame humans.

The report does also point out though that even though the heat records are beating the cold records 10-1, this doesn’t mean that snow disproves climate change (sorry Fox News!). There will still be yearly and decade by decade by variability in how our planet cooks which will not be the same across the whole planet. Which sounds to me like we’re being warmed in an uneven microwave. For instance, El Niño and La Niña will still be big influencers over the Pacific and will determine to a great extent the variability in the Pacific North West (yeah, it’s still going to rain a lot Vancouver).

For those that were fans of the film The Day After Tomorrow, there’s a 66% chance the Atlantic Meridional Circulation will slow down, but only a 10% chance it will undergo an abrupt change or collapse like it did in the film, so you’re not going to be running away from a flash freezing ocean any time this century.

The report then runs through the different scenarios they’ve decided to model that range from ‘we did a lot to reduce carbon emissions’ to ‘we did nothing to reduce carbon emissions and burned all the fossil fuels’. Because this is the IPCC and they had to get EVERYONE to agree on each line of the report (I’m serious, they approved it line by line, which has to be the most painful process I can think of) the scenarios are conservative in their estimations, not measuring tipping points (which are really hard to incorporate anyway). So their ‘worst case scenario’ is only 4.0oC of surface warming by 2100.

Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) Scenarios from the IPCC AR5

Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) Scenarios from the IPCC AR5

Now, obviously ‘only’ 4oC of climate change by the end of the century is still pretty unbearable. There will still be a lot of hardship, drought, famine, refugee migration and uninhabitable parts of the planet with 4oC. However, once we get to 4oC, it’s likely to have triggered tipping points like methane release from permafrost, so 4oC would be a stopping point towards 6oC even if we ran out of carbon to burn. And 6oC of course, as you all hear me say frequently is mass extinction time. It’s also the point at which even if humanity did survive, you wouldn’t want to live here anymore.

The paper finishes up with a subtle dig at the insanity of relying on geoengineering, pointing out that trying to put shade reflectors into orbit or artificially suck carbon out of the air has a high chance of going horribly wrong. They also point out that if we did manage large scale geoegineering and it then broke down, re-releasing that carbon back into the atmosphere would super-cook the planet really quickly.

The moral of this 36 page ‘summary’ is that it’s us guys. We’re as certain that we’ve done this as we are that smoking causes cancer. We have burned this carbon and it’s changed the chemical energy balance of the atmosphere and if we don’t stop burning carbon we’re going to cook the whole planet. Seriously. So let’s finally, actually stop burning carbon.

Reviewing Our Budget

In the lead up to the IPCC 5th Assessment Report next week, let’s review the Unburnable Carbon report and remind ourselves how much carbon we have left to burn.

WHO: James Leaton, Nicola Ranger, Bob Ward, Luke Sussams, and Meg Brown, Carbon Tracker Initiative

WHAT: Measuring the amount of capital, assets and infrastructure that is currently overvalued and will be stranded or wasted when we act on climate change.

WHEN: 2013

WHERE: On the Carbon Tracker website

TITLE: Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted capital and stranded assets (open access)

As I’m sure all of you RtS readers are aware (and excited about!); the IPCC are releasing the first part of their 5th Assessment Report on Friday September 27th and then slowly drip feeding us chapter by chapter over the next year.

This is exciting for climate nerds like me because the last IPCC report came out in 2007, so it was looking at the state of climate science in a very different world – before the 2008 financial crash, before the weather started getting seriously weird and going haywire, before 98% of Greenland melted one summer, the Arctic Death Spiral, the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen talks…. yeah, a lot has happened since 2007.

So, in preparation for when this international ‘State of the Climate’ report comes out, I thought it would be good to look at the Carbon Tracker’s Unburnbable Carbon report from this year to remind ourselves of the budget of carbon we have left that we can spew into the atmosphere and still have a chance of not totally cooking the climate.

The Carbon Tracker report looks at two different budgets – if we want to have an 80% chance of not going beyond a certain amount of global warming, and if we want to have a 50% chance of not going beyond a certain amount of global warming. Given that we haven’t done much to lower global carbon emissions yet, I think we’ll push to a 50/50 chance of cooking our habitat (humans are great at procrastinating after all), but feel free to be optimistic and look at the 80% option.

Carbon budget from now until 2050 (from paper)

Carbon budget from now until 2050 (from paper)

If we start from the assumption that humanity will act to save ourselves and keep global warming at 2oC or less with a 50/50 chance, we have 1,075 Gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 left to burn over the next 37 years.

Now, you might ask – what about carbon capture and storage? Everyone says that technology is going to be big! The Carbon Tracker people ran those numbers. The 2015 estimate for carbon capture and storage projects (CCS) is 2.25million tonnes of CO2 being sequestered over 16 projects. The idealised scenario for CCS is that it will be able to sequester around 8Gt of CO2 each year, which Carbon Tracker worked out would be 3,800 projects operating by 2050 and would only reduce the above carbon budgets by 125Gt. It definitely isn’t a ‘get out of jail free and burn the fossil fuels’ card.

Speaking of burning all the fossil fuels – how much do we have left? The World Energy Outlook, which gets released by the International Energy Agency each year estimated in 2012 (the 2013 report will be released in November this year) that there were total assets equivalent to 2,860Gt CO2 in the world. This is enough carbon to cook the atmosphere beyond 3oC and probably into the next mass extinction.

The report rightly points out that if we assume we want to save a livable climate and keep within the above carbon budgets, then between 65-80% of all the listed reserves for fossil fuel companies cannot be burned. It’s simple math: 2,860 is more than double the budget for keeping under 2oC with a 50/50 chance of blowing past the temperature.

But enough about trying not to cook the atmosphere – how about the important things – like what does it mean for financial markets?

Carbon Tracker looked at the capital expenditure by publicly listed fossil fuel companies to work out how much money is being spent trying to find new reserves of fossil fuels that will add to the list we can’t burn and are therefore being over-valued, because the market valuation assumes they will be burned and a profit will be made from burning it.

In 2012, the 200 listed fossil fuel companies spent $674billion on capital expenditure. $593billion of that was spent looking for more oil and gas, while $81billion of that was spent looking for more coal. If these kinds of spending continue (if the companies don’t admit that there is going to be an end to carbon pollution) over the next decade $6.74trillion dollars could be wasted looking for fossil fuels that have to stay in the ground.

As the authors say: ‘this has profound implications for asset owners with significant holdings in fossil fuel stocks’ because what investors are being sold is the lie that these reserves can be profitably sold and burned.

There’s also a lot of risk associated with this. Over the last two years, the amount of carbon being traded on the New York Stock Exchange has increased by 37% and in London it’s increased by 7%. This means that similar to the sub-prime loan crisis that precipitated the 2008 financial crash, all investors are exposed to carbon risk through the over-valuation of fossil fuel companies.

Map of oil, gas and coal reserves listed on world stock exchanges (from paper)

Map of oil, gas and coal reserves listed on world stock exchanges (from paper)

There’s a risk of carbon not being properly managed as a risk within stock portfolios which could create a carbon bubble that will burst as carbon starts being constrained, and there’s also the risk of stranded assets, where the fossil fuel companies sink all the capital expenditure into their projects only to find they can’t burn the carbon and there was no point in building the mine/gas well/oil platform in the first place.

The report states: ‘investors need to challenge the continued pursuit of potentially unprofitable projects before costs are sunk’. This makes sense also because oil and gas are becoming harder to get at (tarsands, tight oil, gas fracking, Arctic drilling), so the cost is going up and the profit margins are getting squeezed, unless the price of oil keeps climbing. This means that fossil fuels are going to increasingly become challenged by lower cost lower carbon options, because mining for sunshine is really not that hard.

So if we agree that we’ll stop burning carbon before we’ve cooked the atmosphere and therefore that means that 80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, what does it mean for the fossil fuel companies themselves?

Well, they may have some debt problems on the horizon. The report points out that even without a global climate change agreement the coal industry in the USA is looking increasingly shaky, just from new air quality regulations. They point out that if the business models unravel that quickly, these companies may have problems refinancing their debt when they mature in the near future (which is also a risk for investors). They point out that any company with tar sands exposure will also have stranded asset risk because the business model relies on high oil prices to be profitable.

Basically they show that traditional business models are no longer viable in energy markets that will be moving towards decarbonisation and that different information is going to be needed for investors to manage the risk of carbon in their portfolio.

In the final section of the report, Carbon Tracker gives a list of recommendations for investors, policy makers, finance ministers, financial regulators, analysts and ratings agencies for how we can avoid this financial carbon bubble. The recommendations include better regulation, shareholder engagement and resolutions, fossil fuel divestment, and better risk definition.

The full list of Carbon Tracker recommendations (click to embiggen) (from paper)

The full list of Carbon Tracker recommendations (click to embiggen) (from paper)

For what it’s worth, my recommendations would be to remove fossil fuel subsidies, stop looking for new reserves of carbon that we can’t burn and price carbon pollution. And as usual, stop burning carbon.

Plan B: Saving Political Face Beyond 2 Degrees

So far the ‘targets and timetables’ approach to keeping climate change below 2oC has done very little to reduce emissions. What happens when we start thinking about giving up the 2oC target?

WHO:  Oliver Geden, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)

WHAT: Looking at the ‘politically possible’ in light of our failures to get anywhere near the emissions reductions needed to keep global warming below 2oC.

WHEN: June 2013

WHERE: Online at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs

TITLE:  Modifying the 2°C Target: Climate Policy Objectives in the Contested Terrain of Scientific Policy Advice, Political Preferences, and Rising Emissions (open access)

This paper is all about the realpolitik. At the outset, it points out that in the 20 years since the UN framework on climate change (UNFCCC) was adopted that progress has been ‘modest at best’. Also, in order to keep global emissions from soaring quickly beyond the 2oC limit, significant reductions will be needed in the decade between 2010-2020, which is ‘patently unrealistic’.

Ok, so we’ve procrastinated away the most important decades that we had to do something about climate change with minimal impacts on both the economy and the wider environment. What now?

This paper suggests that the best bet might be changing or ‘modifying’ the internationally agreed on 2oC target. The author points out (quite rightly) that unrealistic targets signal that you can disregard them with few consequences. For instance, I’m not about to say that I’m going to compete in the next Olympic Marathon, because the second I miss a single training session it’s obviously time to give up given I’ve never run a full marathon before.

So if the world is going to fail on our 2oC training schedule, what will we aim for instead? Should we just aim for redefining ‘safe’ and ‘catastrophic’ climate change? Should we aim for 2.5oC? Should we aim for short term overshoot in the hopes that future humans will pick up the slack when we’ve kicked the can down the road for them?

The author points out what many people don’t like to notice when their countries are failing on their carbon reduction diets – not only have we already warmed by 0.8oC, but we’ve already baked in another 0.5oC from current emissions, so we’re already really close to 2oC without even starting to give up our fossil fuel habits. Also, those reductions we’ve all been promising to make and failing to make (or withdrawing from completely in Canada’s case)? Yeah, if we met all those targets, we’d still blow ‘significantly’ past 2oC. Ouch.

The emissions gap (from paper)

The emissions gap (from paper)

Another issue – the current top-down UNFCCC approach assumes that once we reach an agreement, that effective governance structures can be set up and operating within a matter of years, which is highly unlikely given we can’t even reach an agreement yet.

So what does a ‘more pragmatic stance’ for the EU on climate policy look like if we’re going to collectively blow past 2oC? Will climate policy have any legitimacy?

The author argues that the coming palpable impacts of climate change will soon remove the political possibility of ignoring climate change as an issue while in office (which I for one am looking forward to). He also doesn’t place much faith in the UN process finding a global solution with enough time – if an agreement is reached in 2015, it’s unlikely to be ratified by 2020, at which point the targets from 2015 are obsolete.

One suggestion for the EU is reviewing the numbers for the likelihood of passing 2oC. Currently, humanity is vaguely aiming to have a 50/50 chance of staying below 2oC. If we could roll the dice with slightly higher odds of blowing 2oC, maybe we could buy some time to get our political butts in gear?

That idea puts all the hard work of mitigation on everyone post-2050, at which point we’ll all be dealing with the climate impacts as well as trying to find the time for mitigation.

The other option is to say that 2oC is a ‘benchmark’ (only slightly better than an ‘aspirational target?’) and put our faith in climate inertia allowing humanity to overshoot on emissions and then increase the amount of sequestration (negative emissions) to pull back from the brink of the next mass extinction.

The paper does acknowledge that this will implicitly approve a temperature overshoot as well as an emissions overshoot, which could possibly kick the can down the road to 2300 before global temperatures are below 2oC above what we used to call ‘normal’. Apologies to everyone’s great great great great grandchildren for making you responsible for all of that.

Kicking the can down the road to 2300 (from paper)

Kicking the can down the road to 2300 (from paper)

The author also acknowledges that overshoot policies will only be accepted by the wider public if they’re convinced that this time governments will actually respect them as limits not to be passed. Previous experience with the UNFCCC processes show that any extra time that can be wrangled through carbon accounting is likely to be procrastinated away as well.

The other option could be a target of 2.5oC or 550ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, but as the paper points out, the ‘targets and timetables’ policies haven’t worked yet, and it might be time to look more towards feasible ‘policies and measures’.

The problem for me with this paper is that while it’s practical to look at aiming for what humanity can politically achieve in terms of climate policies, redefining what ‘dangerous climate change’ is to fit with realpolitik rather than physics won’t work. Physics doesn’t negotiate – the first law of thermodynamics doesn’t care that there was an economic downturn in 2008 that has made it harder to pass climate legislation.

So yes, we need to think about what is politically possible in the current ‘we can still procrastinate on this’ climate. But we also need to be planning for the tipping point once all the extreme weather adds up to business as usual no longer being feasible. We may be able to ‘postpone the impending failure of the 2oC target’, but we won’t be able to ignore the impacts of climate change.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Looking at the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions being undertaken by developing countries with the UNFCCC.

WHO: Xander van Tilburg, Sophy Bristow, Frauke Röser, Donovan Escalante , Hanna Fekete, MitigationMomentum Project, Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN)

WHAT: An update on the progress of the NAMA projects under the UNFCCC process

WHEN: June 2013

WHERE: Published on their website MitigationMomentum.org

TITLE: Status Report on Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) (open access)

This week, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) is meeting in Bonn to try and make some more progress towards action on climate change (yay!). One of the papers that was released to time with the negotiations is this one and I thought it would be interesting to look at what actually happens on the ground in relation to the high level negotiations. There will be lots of acronyms, so bear with me and I’ll try and get us there in English.

What is a NAMA?

NAMAs are not this guy (photo: Tamboko the Jaguar, flickr)

NAMAs are not this guy (photo: Tamboko the Jaguar, flickr)

Did you say Llama? No, NAMA… In true bureaucratic style, the UN came up with the really forgettable name of NAMA for Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions, which can also be called ‘correctly fitting climate jeans’ or even ‘different places are different’. I want to keep calling them llamas (because I lack that maturity) but I promise not to make any bad llama jokes. The main thing you need to remember is that climate mitigation in Alaska is obviously going to be different to climate mitigation in Indonesia because they’re very different locations and economies.

The idea with NAMA is for a bottom up approach to the UNFCCC negotiations and the ideas that come out of the negotiations (they’re not just talk-fests – they have program and policy ideas too!).

Because the wealthy industrialised countries (also called the First World, Global North or Annex 1 in UN speak) are mostly responsible for the emissions causing climate change, we are also then more responsible for the cleanup. So in 2007 at the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) in Bali, it was decided that NAMA projects should be created by developing countries for mitigation projects they’d like to do which would be funded by industrialised countries.

The projects need to be related to sustainable development and are supported through technology, financing and capacity building (training local people). The people running the projects also report back to the UNFCCC so that progress can be monitored (like any project). The first group of NAMAs were submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat at the Copenhagen COP 15 in 2009.

NAMA projects are only conducted in developing countries because the idea is that it’s going to be easier for those countries to change the way they’re developing towards a low carbon economy, rather than just following in the full carbon burning footsteps of the industrialised world and then having to retrofit low carbon alternatives.

So if they’re going to try and build it right the first time round, what do they do? First, the country comes up with a feasibility study – what do they want to do and is it possible? If it is possible, then they develop the concept to present to the UNFCCC for funding. The concept has to have a mitigation objective and be clear about who is running the project as well as support from the government of the country.

Once they’ve worked out what they’re doing, they start the preparation phase where they work out the costs, the specific support they need to pull off the project and an estimate of how much carbon emissions will be reduced through the project.

Finally, they start the implementation of the project, which is my favourite bit – getting on the ground and getting it done.

NAMA projects by stage (left) and location (right) (from paper)

NAMA projects by stage (left) and location (right) (from paper)

So far, €100million has been provided to NAMA projects, and a NAMA facility was launched to help the projects with financial and technical support in December 2012. Most of the projects are related to energy supply and the majority of them (56%) are based in Latin America.

The funding agreed to was from 2010 until 2012, so a long term financing arrangement will need to be made at this year’s talks, but I think it’s really exciting to see the tangible reality of what the UNFCCC is trying to do.

The first two NAMA projects submitted were from Mali and Ethiopia looking at shifting freight to electric rail in Ethiopia and energy efficiency and renewable energy supply in Mali.

So far, five projects have advanced far enough to receive funding. The projects are between 3-5 years in length, need between €5 – €15million in funding and should be able to start quickly (within 3-12 months) after applying.

The five projects are:

  1. Small scale renewable energy projects in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia with a feed-in tariff for independent power producers (IPPs)
  2. A project to stimulate investment in renewable energy systems in Chile
  3. Waste to energy systems using agricultural waste in Peru (with different approaches tailored to different geographic locations)
  4. Energy conservation and efficiency standards for the building sector in Tunisia
  5. A geothermal energy project in Kenya

There are still details and processes that need to be worked out as the NAMA program progresses, given that one size never fits all for climate mitigation and renewable energy generation. But I really like the idea of locally developed projects that suit the challenges different countries face being implemented on the ground, supported at a high level from the UNFCCC.

Sleepwalking off a Cliff: Can we Avoid Global Collapse?

‘Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster’
Drs. Paul and Anne Ehrlich

WHO: Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, Department of Biology, Stanford University, California, USA

WHAT: An ‘invited perspective’ from the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (the Royal Society) on the future of humanity following the election of Dr. Paul Ehrlich to the fellowship of the Royal Society.

WHEN: 26 January 2013

WHERE: Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences (Proc. R. Soc. B) 280, January 2013

TITLE: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

Dr. Paul Ehrlich has been warning humanity about the dangers of exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity for decades. He first wrote about the dangers of over-population in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, and now following his appointment to the fellowship of the Royal Society, he and his wife have written what I can only describe as a broad and sweeping essay on the challenges that currently face humanity (which you should all click the link and read as well).

When you think about it, we’re living in a very unique period of time. We are at the beginning of the next mass extinction on this planet, which is something that only happens every couple of hundred million years. And since humans are the driving force of this extinction, we are also in control of how far we let it go. So the question is, will we save ourselves, or will we sleepwalk off the cliff?

Drs. Ehrlich describe the multiple pressures currently facing the planet and its inhabitants as a perfect storm of challenges. Not only is there the overarching threat multiplier of climate change, which will make all of our existing problems harder to deal with, we have concurrent challenges facing us through the loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity from mass extinction, land degradation, the global spread of toxic chemicals, ocean acidification, infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance, resource depletion (especially ground water) and subsequent resource conflicts.

you have humans Wow. That’s quite the laundry list of problems we’ve got. Of course, all these issues interact not only with the biosphere; they interact with human socio-economic systems, including overpopulation, overconsumption and current unequal global economic system.

If you haven’t heard the term ‘carrying capacity’ before, it’s the limit any system has before things start going wrong – for instance if you put 10 people in a 4 person hot tub, it will start to overflow, because you’ve exceeded its carrying capacity.

The bad news is we’ve exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. For the planet to sustainably house the current 7 billion people it has, we would need an extra half an empty planet to provide for everyone. If we wanted all 7 billion of us to over-consume at the living standards of the USA, we would need between 4 – 5 extra empty planets to provide for everyone. Better get searching NASA!

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/NHSC)

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/NHSC)

The next problem is that a global collapse could be triggered by any one of the above issues, with cascading effects, although Drs. Ehrlich think the biggest key will be feeding everyone (which I’ve written about before), because the social unrest triggered by mass famine would make dealing with all the other problems almost impossible.

So what do we need to do? We need to restructure our energy sources and remove fossil fuel use from agriculture, although Drs. Ehrlich do point out that peaking fossil fuel use by 2020 and halving it by 2050 will be difficult. There’s also the issue that it’s really ethically difficult to knowingly continue to run a lethal yet profitable business, hence the highly funded climate denial campaigns to try and keep the party running for Big Oil a little longer, which will get in the way of change.

The global spread of toxic compounds can only be managed and minimised as best we can, similarly, we don’t have many answers for the spread of infectious and tropical diseases along with increasing antibiotic resistance that will happen with climate change.

Helpfully, Drs. Ehrlich point out that the fastest way to cause a global collapse would be to have any kind of nuclear conflict, even one they refer to as a ‘regional conflict’ like India and Pakistan. But even without nuclear warfare (which I hope is unlikely!) 6 metres of sea level rise would displace around 400 million people.

One of the most important things that we can be doing right now to help humanity survive for a bit longer on this planet is population control. We need less people on this planet (and not just because I dislike screaming children in cafes and on airplanes), and Drs. Ehrlich think that instead of asking ‘how can we feed 9.6 billion people in 2050’ scientists should be asking ‘how can we humanely make sure it’s only 8.6 billion people in 2050’?

How can we do that? Firstly, we need to push back against what they refer to as the ‘endarkenment’, which is the rise of religious fundamentalism that rejects enlightenment ideas like freedom of thought, democracy, separation of church and state, and basing beliefs on empirical evidence, which leads to climate change denialism, failure to act on biodiversity loss and opposition to the use of contraceptives.

And why do we need to push back against people who refuse to base their beliefs on empirical evidence? Because the fastest and easiest way to control population growth is female emancipation. Drs. Ehrlich point out that giving women everywhere full rights, education and opportunities as well as giving everyone on the planet access to safe contraception and abortion is the best way to control population growth (you know, letting people choose whether they’d like children).

More importantly, Drs. Ehrlich want the world to develop a new way of thinking systematically about things, which they’ve called ‘foresight intelligence’. Since it’s rare that societies manage to mobilise around slow threats rather than immediate threats, there need to be new ways and mechanisms for greater cooperation between people, because we are not going to succeed as a species if we don’t work together.

They’d like to see the development of steady-state economics which would destroy the ‘fables such as ‘technological innovation will save us’’. They’d like to see natural scientists working together with social scientists to look at the dynamics of social movements, sustainability and equality and to scale up the places where that kind of work is already happening.

They point out that our current methods of governance are inadequate to meet the challenges we face and that we need to work with developing nations who are currently looking to reproduce the western nation’s ‘success’ of industrialisation, so that they can instead be leaders to the new economy, because playing catch up will lead to global collapse.

Do Drs. Ehrlich believe that we can avoid a global collapse of civilisation? They think we still can, but only if we get fully into gear and work together now, because unless we restructure our way of doing things, nature will do it for us. It’s your call humanity – shall we get going, or will we sleepwalk our species off the cliff?