Forget 2° C. Will there be any ceiling to climate rise?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) yesterday gave a preview of some its findings and conclusions that will be presented in its annual World Energy Outlook to be published on November 9, 2011. When was the last time major news about our energy consumption was good? Well, this is not going to break that streak.

The IEA found that 2010 set a record for the most man-made CO2 emissions. Emissions were down in 2009 owing to the world-wide recession, but they came back with a vengeance in 2010 (even though 2010 didn’t exactly feel like a year of boom). In fact, carbon dioxide emissions increased by 5% over the previous record, set in 2008. In 2008 there were 29.3 gigatonnes (Gt) emitted; last year there were 30.6 Gt.

Now, you may recall the 2009 Copenhagen Conference called to deal with the 2012 expiration of the Kyoto Accords. During those heady days of hope and change the world leaders were unable to come together on anything nearly as ambitious as the Kyoto Accords. In fact, no meaningful agreement was entered into. Nevertheless, in a manner that would become characteristic of his leadership style, our President, who had invested neither his own political capital nor personal engagement, was able to cobble together a “non-partisan” agreement that fell considerably short of the expectations he himself had done a great deal to foster. The result was an agreement (with no enforcement mechanisms or even express promises) that the nations would aspire to do what is necessary that the world’s climate increase by no more than 2° C by the end of the century. This less than heroic goal (it would bring back the balmy days of much of the Jurassic) was (and is) to be obtained through the good will of nations. It was a mechanism made up more of hope than change. Nevertheless, our President called the agreed aspiration “meaningful and unprecedented,” adding:

“For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change.”

Less than two weeks before the President had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Copenhagen accord showed just how extraordinary those efforts typically were. The President acknowledged that arrangements he brokered “will not be by themselves sufficient to get to where we need to get by 2050,” but opined that “If we just waited for that [i.e., a meaningful and binding agreement], we would not make any progress.” Since then, of course, progress has been non-existent. A month later the “bipartisan” arrangement in the Senate on the tepid cap-and-trade approach had collapsed, and the White House would soon give up on any attempt to have the United States “accept [its] responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change.” There is of course now no foreseeable political outcome in the United States that would allow any form of action on carbon emissions to take place.

Now the IAE says that the aspiration of a 2° C increase will be almost impossible to obtain. To limit temperature increases to that level the CO2-equivalent concentration in the atmosphere can be no higher than 450 parts per million. In 2000 the concentration was 430 ppm. In its 2010 World Energy Outlook the IAE concluded that to achieve the limit to upward climate movement world carbon emissions in 2020 must not be greater than 32 Gt. The IAE now notes that given the record emissions in 2010, limiting emissions in 2020 to 32 Gt “means that over the next ten years, emissions must rise less in total than they did between 2009 and 2010.”

Of course that goal is not going to be met given that the countries that represent the major sources of emission have no serious plan to bring them under control. The only thing so far that has brought emissions down has been a global economic downturn. Short of a massive collapse of the Chinese economy, the prospect of meaningful emission control by 2020 is essentially impossible, largely because, as the IEA estimates, “80% of projected emissions from the power sector in 2020 are already locked in, as they will come from power plants that are currently in place or under construction today.”

The question now is, realistically how much higher will temperatures rise before meaningful action will be taken. Given the feedback loops caused by the loss of summertime energy reflection with the dwindling arctic snow cap, melting of permafrost and release of frozen methane (among other enhancers to the greenhouse effect), we will very shortly be moving from the relatively balmy climate of the Jurassic into the brutally hot-house environment of the Cretaceous. It will be an environment that we were not adapted to endure in and, frankly, given our inability to respond now in the face of the evidence, one that we are not likely to prevail in, at least not without massive calamity.


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