Are we disarming a bomb that’s already gone off?

Excerpt from: Why the Paris talks won’t prevent 2 degrees of global warming

BY Nsikan Akpan, William Brangham and Eric Osman  December 2, 2015

…the planet will inevitably surpass the 2 degree Celsius benchmark during this century, even with the calculations and intended pledges of the officials involved with the UN Convention on Climate Change and this week’s talks.

“These calculations show that even if countries fulfill their pledges, emissions will keep rising globally through 2030, and without any sign of stopping,” Barrett said. “And there’s no way you can meet any temperature target as long as emissions keep rising. The only way you can stabilize the climate is if global emissions head toward zero.”

Oppenheimer said the tipping point for reaching zero emissions greenhouse gases comes somewhere near the mid-century.

“The projections suggest that sometime after 2050 or 2060, but perhaps as late as 2100, we need to get close to zero emissions,” Oppenheimer said.

Man-made contributions to the global carbon budget. Illustration by the Global Carbon Project

Man-made contributions to the global carbon budget. Illustration by the Global Carbon Project

By then, humans need to have stopped emitting greenhouse gases, figured out how to sap these pollutants from the atmosphere or established some combination of the two.

The first option would require a massive shift to clean energy, and there are hints that this transition has started. A European report issued last week says the global growth of greenhouse gas emissions almost stalled in 2014. This shift was mainly due to China’s slow economic growth and switch to clean energy, though declining emissions in Europe, Japan and Australia helped too. The U.S. mirrored China in almost reaching stable levels.

Despite these achievements, emissions still grew and the planet still broke the world record for greenhouse gas concentrations in 2014, according to the The World Meteorological Organization. Renewable energy has made tremendous strides. Solar energy has boomed over the last decade, and wind energy has taken off in the United States, China, Europe and many other places around the world. On some days, Germany produces almost all its electricity with renewable energy.

Yet the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated in 2013 that only 11 percent of world’s marketed energy consumption came from renewable energy sources – biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind — and project that this value will only rise to 4 percent by 2040.

The prospects look grim for the second option of remediation: sucking carbon out of the sky. Carbon sequestration could, in theory, solve global warming. But the technology to date is too expensive and not ready for action on a global or regional scale, Oppenheimer said. Environmental reporter David Roberts takes things even further for Vox:

The mechanism for negative emissions is supposed to be bioenergy — burning plant mass — coupled with carbon capture and sequestration. The combo is called BECCS, and in theory, it buries more CO2 than it emits.

If you work enough BECCS into your model, you can almost double humanity’s “carbon budget” — the amount of carbon we can still pump in the atmosphere without passing 2°C. After all, if you can suck half the carbon out, you can afford to pump twice the carbon in.

But is large-scale BECCS plausible? There’s the problem of finding a source of biomass that doesn’t compete with food crops, the harvesting of which does not spur additional emissions, and which can be found in the enormous quantities required. The IPCC scenarios that come in below 2°C require BECCS to remove between 2 and 10 gigatons of CO2 a year from the atmosphere by 2050. By way of comparison, all the world’s oceans combined absorb about 9 gigatons a year; all the world’s terrestrial carbon sinks combined absorb about 10 gigatons a year.

That’s daunting given that the technology isn’t available. Investment in these innovations may be the champion of this week’s deliberations. On Monday, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other business entrepreneurs announced a new fund to boost private sector interests in clean energy technology. A sister program recruited 20 nations to promise $20 billion for similar projects in the public sector. And on Tuesday, France pledged 2 billion euros over the next four years to African countries to develop in renewable energy sources.

Shutting off lights when you leave a room, switching to solar or driving a hybrid can help the cause. But cutting the emissions to zero would require an international commitment on par with the World Wars. Unlike the Kyoto agreement, the Paris talks are non-binding from a legal perspective.

“I think countries will come to an agreement in Paris because the obligations are based on voluntary pledges,” Barrett said. “It’s easy to agree to something when you know you’re not really going to be held accountable. And it’s somewhat I think deceptive to think that this is a success.”

But even binding agreements, like Kyoto, have failed to stop emissions in many nations. Plus, three of the biggest perpetrators — the U.S., China and India — wouldn’t ratify or wouldn’t agree to binding emissions targets with the Kyoto protocol.

Oppenheimer compares the situation to the threat of nuclear annihilation in 1950s and 1960s, which never came to fruition because of international diplomacy.

“We haven’t completely put the [nuclear weapon] genie back in the bottle, but cooler heads prevailed in countries that found a way to see their mutual interest in not annihilating each other,” Oppenheimer said.

But oddly, the atomic bomb provides a historical example of the type of innovation needed to save the planet from greenhouse gases. The Manhattan Project took five decades of atomic research and created a weapon in just four years that quite literally shook the world. The globe would see a tidal shift — either in renewable energy or carbon capture — on par with the scale of the atomic bomb to rectify our current situation.

That could happen with a major investment in renewable and carbon capture technology, Oppenheimer said, adding that he remains hopeful, despite the challenges:

As a whole, I think humans will in their own messy way start dealing with the problem. We throw up lots of obstacles for ourselves, create lots of mess, and then we clean up after ourselves. Climate change is like that. Some of the clean up is ugly and some of the mess really doesn’t go away, but my expectation is if you look back a century from now on what happened, we’ll probably say this is the period of time where we actually got seriously started, and we averted the worst kinds of outcomes.

5 thoughts on “Are we disarming a bomb that’s already gone off?

  1. I don’t thing they are really comparable either; we like wars and blowing stuff up – we’ve been doing it since time immemorial. I don’t see the bomb as something humanity should be proud of or to put a positive spin on, and even its creator had moral reservations. Even a questionable benefit of nuclear energy isn’t even something we can seriously consider for our future because we cannot dispose of the waste. The benefits of wind and solar are overblown (pardon the pun); and only take into account the benefits to humans, and not the continued destruction of habitat and wildlife in order to take more for ourselves.

    What we don’t like to cut back on our creature comforts, or screwing and breeding, or change. So you won’t see such quick progress as we have with making bombs for keeping the world free and safe (for humans only). I have no faith in these talks either. 😦

  2. I’m concerned as well that the world’s indigenous voices are being excluded from the talks (surprise!). Their input and spirituality, and connection to the land, water and wildlife is sorely needed to offset the majority opinion of greed, selfishness, shallowness, maintaining their power and control, and lack of spirituality. And I love India as well:

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