Monbiot’s reality check for Bali’s climate change conference

George Monbiot gives us a good briefing note for the UN’s climate change conference in Bali. While the issue’s  should not be understated, I do wonder whether we really need 10,000 people FLYING to Bali to meet “face-to-face”? Surely there is a better technological answer than that.

What is Progress? 

When you warn people about the dangers of climate change, they call you a saint. When you explain what needs to be done to stop it, they call you a communist. Let me show you why.

There is now a broad scientific consensus that we need to prevent temperatures from rising by more than 2°C above their pre-industrial level. Beyond that point, the Greenland ice sheet could go into irreversible meltdown, some ecosystems collapse, billions suffer from water stress, droughts could start to threaten global food supplies.

… In the new summary published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you will find a table which links different cuts to likely temperatures. To prevent global warming from eventually exceeding 2°, it suggests, by 2050 the world needs to cut its emissions to roughly 15% of the volume in 2000.I looked up the global figures for carbon dioxide production in 2000 and divided it by the current population. This gives a baseline figure of 3.58 tonnes of CO2 per person. An 85% cut means that (if the population remains constant) the global output per head should be reduced to 0.537t by 2050. The UK currently produces 9.6 tonnes per head and the US 23.6t. Reducing these figures to 0.537t means a 94.4% cut in the UK and a 97.7% cut in the US. But the world population will rise in the same period. If we assume a population of 9bn in 2050, the cuts rise to 95.9% in the UK and 98.3% in the US.

The last point around global population growth is one where I would take issue. Projections of global population going to 9 billion do not take into account climate change itself, and the likely impact will be horrible in decades to come precisely in those parts of the world where population growth is most expected. That said, this only gives us a little more wiggle room in the reductions required. But we cannot seriously talk about equal per capita emissions worldwide and also turn a blind eye to population (see this post).

The IPCC figures might also be out of date. In a footnote beneath the table, the panel admits that “emission reductions … might be underestimated due to missing carbon cycle feedbacks”. What this means is that the impact of the biosphere’s response to global warming has not been fully considered. As seawater warms, for example, it releases carbon dioxide. As soil bacteria heat up, they respire more, generating more CO2. As temperatures rise, tropical forests die back, releasing the carbon they contain. These are examples of positive feedbacks. A recent paper (all the references are on my website) estimates that feedbacks account for about 18% of global warming. They are likely to intensify.

A paper in Geophysical Research Letters finds that even with a 90% global cut by 2050, the 2° threshold “is eventually broken”. To stabilise temperatures at 1.5° above the pre-industrial level requires a global cut of 100%. The diplomats who started talks in Bali yesterday should be discussing the complete decarbonisation of the global economy.

It is not impossible. In a previous article I showed how by switching the whole economy over to the use of electricity and by deploying the latest thinking on regional supergrids, grid balancing and energy storage, you could run almost the entire energy system on renewable power. The major exception is flying (don’t expect to see battery-powered jetliners) which suggests that we should be closing rather than opening runways.

This could account for around 90% of the necessary cut. Total decarbonisation demands that we go further. Preventing 2° of warming means stripping carbon dioxide from the air. The necessary technology already exists: the challenge is making it efficient and cheap. Last year Joshuah Stolaroff, who has written a PhD on the subject, sent me some provisional costings, of £256-458 per tonne of carbon. This makes the capture of CO2 from the air roughly three times as expensive as the British government’s costings for building wind turbines, twice as expensive as nuclear power, slightly cheaper than tidal power and 8 times cheaper than rooftop solar panels in the UK. But I suspect his figures are too low, as they suggest this method is cheaper than catching CO2 from purpose-built power stations, which cannot be true.

The Kyoto Protocol, whose replacement the Bali meeting will discuss, has failed. Since it was signed, there has been an acceleration in global emissions: the rate of CO2 production exceeds the IPCC’s worst case and is now growing faster than at any time since the beginning of the industrial revolution(21). It’s not just the Chinese. A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that “no region is decarbonizing its energy supply”.

… But I am not advocating despair. We must confront a challenge which is as great and as pressing as the rise of the Axis powers. Had we thrown up our hands then, as many people are tempted to do today, you would be reading this paper in German. Though the war often seemed impossible to win, when the political will was mobilised strange and implausible things began to happen. The US economy was spun round on a dime in 1942 as civilian manufacturing was switched to military production. The state took on greater powers than it had exercised before. Impossible policies suddenly became achievable.

The real issues in Bali are not technical or economic. The crisis we face demands a profound philosophical discussion, a reappraisal of who we are and what progress means. Debating these matters makes us neither saints nor communists; it shows only that we have understood the science.

2 comments

  • In addition to population growth, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a doubling of the number of people living the US or UK standard of living. I assume the population projects take that into account, otherwise they would be even higher.

    I good news is that hopefully we can get all those people living a low carbon lifestyle from the beginning, rather then having to rebuild their infrastructure like we do in the west. Because many of these people are in China and India I can see way many people are saying they must be included in the next round. They need to skip the industrial revolution and go directly to the information revolution, but right now that is not happening.

  • Footprints won’t be homogenous. China doesn’t need copper phone lines and the associated smelter and construction footprints. All nations in the future will no doubt drive electric cars, or some sort of solid state hydrogen storage technology. There won’t be coal power and all appliances, vehicle parts and industrial applications will be lower footprint.

    Kyoto I wasn’t designed to “solve” climate change. The Montreal CFC treaty bought the world, as a side effect, a decade of time to adapt against the worse AGW effects. I wouldn’t be surprised if enacting Kyoto I buys about the same amount of time.

    It is tough to determine what actions would have occured in the absence of Kyoto. Would HFCs have been curbed outside of Earth Summit? Certainly Russia would have contracted; maybe the EU would have enacted an identical carbon trading arena. It makes little sense to imagine an alternate timeline where a Kyoto-like Treaty exists, capturing some or all of the effects of Kyoto, merely to discredit Kyoto I.
    Unfortunately, Canada and the US turning their backs on Kyoto I is sabotaging Kyoto II. Here you have a Prime Minister claiming to possessing economic credentials, yet has never heard: A stitch in time saves nine. And you have a President claiming to be fighting terrorism, who doesn’t understand how a person with a sustenance farm labourer job (even on a poppy field) is less likely to be recruited as a suicide bomber.

    The Iraq War added $5 to the global price of oil (ignoring the public debt’s effect in tanking the USD). This is around 10-15% the price of a carbon tax.
    Flying is no problem: an airfare carbon tax could fund tropical reforestation or wind turbine construction, or electric car subsidies, or lobbying for Kyoto-friendly political parties.

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