Too late for two degrees?

International accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers has just released its latest Low Carbon Economy Index, an annual report on how the world’s transition to renewable energy is going. It makes very sobering reading, the more so because PwC can not by any stretch of the imagination be counted among the loony-left-alarmist greenies.

The whole report is not very long but I will present its key messages here, beginning with its ‘Foreword’ which is actually a one-page summary of its findings.

It’s time to plan for a warmer world. The annual Low Carbon Economy Index centres on one core statistic: the rate of change of global carbon intensity. This year we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2°C warming target has risen to 5.1% a year, from now to 2050. We have passed a critical threshold – not once since World War 2 has the world achieved that rate of decarbonisation, but the task now confronting us is to achieve it for 39 consecutive years.

The 2011 rate of improvement in carbon intensity was 0.7%, giving an average rate of decarbonisation of 0.8% a year since 2000. … Even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation, would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

To give ourselves a more than 50% chance of avoiding 2 degrees will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonisation.

In the emerging markets, where the E7 are now emitting more than the G7, improvements in carbon intensity have largely stalled, with strong GDP growth closely coupled with rapid emissions growth. Meanwhile the policy context for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear, critical technologies for low carbon energy generation, remains uncertain. Government support for renewable energy technologies is also being scaled back. As negotiators convene every year to attempt to agree a global deal, carbon emissions continue to rise in most parts of the world.

Business leaders have been asking for clarity in political ambition on climate change. Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.

Leo Johnson
Partner, Sustainability and Climate Change, PwC

On p.3 they mention other warnings that we may be unable to avoid a temperature rise of more than 2°C:

Governments’ ambitions to limit warning to 2°C now appear highly unrealistic. This new reality means that we must contemplate a much more challenging future. Whilst the negotiators continue to focus on 2°C, a growing number of scientists and other expert organisations are now projecting much more pessimistic scenarios for global temperatures. The International Energy Agency, for example, now considers 4°C and 6°C scenarios as well as 2°C in their latest analysis.

Guy Rowland drew my attention to the report in a comment thread over at RealClimate, saying, “That sounds pretty bad to me,” and asked for comments.

Wili said, “It is bad. Beyond bad, really, if you’ve read what six degrees means in Lynas’s book of the same name,” and added Hansen (NASA) and Brown (WWI) to the list of experts predicting large temperature increases.

MARodger was slightly more positive: “PWC do not actually say it is all too late. Note the PWC conclusions – as well as talking of a need to start considering plans for a global temperature rise of 4°C as the 2°C limit will not be achieved with current rates of decarbonisation, they do not say 2°C is a totally impossible target, only that such a target ‘…suggests a need for much more ambition and urgency on climate policy, at both the national and international level.’ 

“This year the PWC analysis yields a required continual annual reduction in global carbon intensity of 5.1%, up from 4.8% last year. This is not good news but … the reductions achieved between 2004 & 2007 at least paralleled their suggested decarbonisation course. So when more folk come on board to address emission cuts, when denialists are at last treated as pariahs, then [their] graph can surely be steepened and brought back on course.”

Back to PwC: On p.8 they consider shale gas and conclude that it is not a solution, despite its short-term advantages, and may contribute to the problem:

The boom of shale gas in the United States that has helped push down emissions there has sparked a debate on the use of gas as a transition fuel to a low carbon economy. The development and widespread deployment of fracking technology in the US has lowered the price of natural gas and resulted in a fall in greenhouse gas emissions as it displaces coal in power generation (although some analysts have raised questions around the lifecycle emissions of shale gas). Despite concerns about the possible environmental impacts of fracking, a world-wide hunt for unconventional gas reserves had already begun – China, India, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Russia and Saudi Arabia are all known to have significant reserves.

Gas may buy some time much needed by the global climate system and help limit emissions growth – displacing coal with gas in power generation roughly halves carbon emissions. But low gas prices may also reduce the incentive for investment in lower-carbon nuclear power and renewable energy. … A shift to gas away from oil and coal can provide temporary respite, a necessary but not sufficient move to the low carbon challenge. At the same time, an over-reliance on gas, particularly in emerging economies expecting high energy demand growth, could lock in the dependence on fossil fuel.

Their text ends thus:

Increasing degrees of risk

Regardless of the outcomes at the UN climate change summit in Doha this year, one thing is clear. Governments and businesses can no longer assume that a 2°C warming world is the default scenario. Any investment in long-term assets or infrastructure, particularly in coastal or low-lying regions, needs to address more pessimistic scenarios. Sectors dependent on food, water, energy or ecosystem services need to scrutinise the resilience and viability of their supply chains. More carbon intensive sectors need to anticipate more invasive regulation and the possibility of stranded assets. And governments’ support for vulnerable communities needs to consider more drastic actions.

The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS, removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation. This suggests a need for much more ambition and urgency on climate policy, at both the national and international level.

Either way, business-as-usual is not an option.

Edit, 20.12.19: the full report is no longer available on the PWC website.

Science, entertainment or misinformation?

A friend suggested a few days ago that I ‘may be interested in this (forthcoming) ABC TV show Climate Change – Can I Change your Mind?

It is indeed the sort of programme I watch so I thanked him and looked further. I didn’t have to look much further, actually, since a pre-review was also on the ABC’s excellent website: I can change your mind about science on the ABC. In it, Stephan Lewandowsky is scathing about the lack of scientific comment and, in fact, scientific balance in the programme. The Sydney Morning Herald coverage (dare I say even the SMH coverage?) shares some of those concerns. I see no reason to disbelieve Lewandowsky, an acknowledged expert in how people arrive at their opinions, especially since his criticisms match the concerns which the programme information raised in my own mind.

While it is refreshing that the ABC willingly publishes such a negative opinion piece about one of its own programmes, that programme seems to have been disappointingly, frustratingly, ill-conceived in the first place. An ill-balanced pair of debaters, male authority-figure vs young female, in which the authority figure is mis-educated and plain wrong, is a poor start; and ‘equal time’ to pro and anti is an outright injustice in the face of the well-understood science of the subject.* Are they going to give ‘equal time’ to a flat-earther next week? On this basis, they might as well.

So … I will turn the TV on tomorrow evening but I will make sure, for the sake of the screen, that there are no heavy objects within reach.

——-

* The way conservative media misrepresented ‘equal time’ as ‘fairness’ is something Oreskes covered at length in Merchants of Doubt. A fair balance is one which leaves the viewer/reader/listener with an accurate idea of the relative strengths of the two sides. Graham Readfearn has a detailed critique of the defects of the process on his blog.

Merchants of Doubt

cover of Merchants of DoubtMerchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Merchants of Doubt tells the story of ‘How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming,’ as its subtitle says. It is a very strange and disturbing story of collusion between scientists, science administrators, right-wing politicians and big business in pursuit of an agenda which was ostensibly libertarian but in fact unscrupulously pro-business. One of its strangest, saddest aspects is that their programme gradually became a broadside attack on all science.

Anyone with any interest in the politics and sociology of climate change soon becomes aware that there is a very vocal but very small group which denies the overwhelming expert evidence that climate change is real, that is happening now and that it is man-made. They are today’s merchants of doubt: Bolt, Carter and Plimer in Australia, and Monckton, Lindzen, the Pielkes (father and son), Curry, Spencer, Lomborg, Watts and a few others overseas, mostly in the US. Most of the scientists on that list are not climate scientists, and some of the most vocal deniers are not scientists at all.

Oreskes and Conway show how this situation developed from the US politics of the Cold War era. First, the hard-science establishment was identified with the war effort; second, its already-hawkish leaders were promoted into science policy-making; third, some of them convinced themselves that any regulation of the free market was equivalent to creeping communism; and fourth, industry tacticians began recruiting scientists willing to cast doubt on any science which led to government policies which would cost them money.

The industries concerned were tobacco, agricultural and industrial chemicals (opposing bans on DDT and CFCs) and most recently fossil fuels – fighting, of course, the idea that global warming is a problem. In each case they funnelled money to scientists and opinion-makers through lobby groups, ‘philanthropic’ foundations and so on – bodies with names like ‘Heartland Institute,’ ‘Freedom of Expression Foundation’ and ‘Hudson Institute.’ Names are named and evidence is methodically documented.

The original merchants of doubt, Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow, were all scientists but (to quote from the book’s introduction) ‘for more than twenty years, these men did almost no original scientific research on any of the issues on which they weighed in. … In fact, on every issue, they were on the wrong side of the scientific consensus. … [They] fought the scientific evidence and spread confusion on many of the most important issues of our time.’

Merchants of Doubt is peculiar in my life in that I commended it to others long before I read it myself. It emerged to great acclaim from people and publications I trusted, reviews showed that it told a very important story and Oreskes’ interviews convinced me it would be well told. It is pleasing to know now that I was right to recommend it and it has been satisfying to read the whole morbidly fascinating story at last.

More information:

Remembering the floods

I wrote about extreme weather events and their connection to global warming two and a half months ago and a small coincidence leads me to revisit the topic. Today has been chosen as the day of remembrance for the disastrous SE Queensland floods a year ago, and a link on RealClimate took me yesterday to a paper by eminent climate scientist James Hansen which touches on something I’ve been thinking about for some  time: the fact that climate change should already be apparent to ordinary people.

First, the floods. Wikipedia has a good overview here with plenty of links to further information and the ABC has put together a terrific gallery of flood photos here. There’s not much point in trying to add to that coverage here. The floods certainly qualify as an ‘extreme weather event’ and were recognised as such in the major global report State of the Climate in 2010 from NOAA and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 

Hansen’s paper, Climate Variability and Climate Change: The New Climate Dice (November 2011) (pdf here) begins thus:

The “climate dice” describing the chance of an unusually warm or cool season, relative to the climatology of 1951-1980, have progressively become more “loaded” during the past 30 years, coincident with increased global warming. The most dramatic and important change of the climate dice is the appearance of a new category of extreme climate outliers. …

The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is the natural variability of climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?

This question assumes great practical importance, because of the need for the public to appreciate the significance of human-made global warming. Actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming, mainly CO2, are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public perceives that human-made climate change is underway and will have disastrous consequences if effective actions are not taken to short-circuit the climate change.

He goes on to show two kinds of systematic change in climate: the averages have shifted and, at the same time, the odds of extreme events occurring have increased dramatically. This, of course, is the significance of his title: the climate dice have been loaded (biased) by global warming. He presents details of the changes which have already occurred and notes that, “The climate dice are now loaded to a degree that the perceptive person (old enough to remember the climate of 1951-1980) should be able to recognize the existence of climate change.” In particular, people should be noticing that extreme weather is far more common than it ever used to be.

He doesn’t quite ask, “Why don’t they notice?” but the question hovers there, waiting for an answer.

I have been trying to answer it myself since a random conversation a year ago. I was chatting to a youngish, intelligent person with a degree in natural sciences and a job in  GBRMPA, which looks after the Great Barrier Reef. I was quite surprised to find that she had not actually observed the effects of climate change. Then I found that she had spent her first ten years on a Pacific island, her next eight in Sydney, and another eight or so here in Townsville, so she hadn’t actually been anywhere long enough to notice a change in that location.

As I thought about that, I realised that she has lots of company. There are far fewer people who might reasonably be expected to notice climate change than we might at first think. A quick estimate goes like this:

  • Age group really has to be 40+, since anyone under ten in the early 1980s won’t remember the old norms. Change has occurred in the last thirty years, but it is the comparison with the pre-1980 baseline which makes it stand out strongly. That rules out more than 50% of the world’s population and perhaps even more than 50% of the world’s voters.
  • But also, those people have to have been living in the same general area for 40+ years, or have returned to it after some time away, because no-one in California will say, “It wasn’t like this when I was a kid,” if they grew up in Normandy, Queensland or even Virginia. How many Westerners are that stable? 50%?
  • Furthermore, the closer we live to nature, the more likely we are to notice its changes – but more and more of us are urbanised. Europe, Australia and the US are all more than 80% urbanised according to UN stats, while China, India and most of the developing nations are less than 40% urbanised. How many of the 50% of 50% are therefore likely to qualify as “perceptive”? Less than 50% in the West, certainly; perhaps more than 50% in less urbanised countries.
  • That leaves less than 10% of the world’s population in a position to recognise climate change from personal observation. And (unfortunately for the debate) most of those 10% are the rural poor of developing nations, the most frequent victims of climate change not the opinion-makers of industrialised nations.

Of course, Hansen’s statistics show that extreme weather events are going to increase very rapidly in number and severity as global warming continues. More and more of us will notice the effects in our daily lives. But that is not really good news.