We've blown our chances of fully counteracting the effects of climate change; recently released reports from the International Energy Agency and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) provide plenty of evidence. But all hope is not yet lost, we've still got a small chance to keep from irreversibly poisoning our atmosphere. Here's what the world's governments must do to save the Earth before we cook ourselves clean off the face of the planet.
The Problem with the Planet
This issue isn't nearly as cut and dry as an episode of Captain Planet would have you believe -- there are actually a number in interrelated phenomena, each contributing to it's own aspect of climate change. That means problem cannot be solved by just one change; each individual troublemaker has to be addressed simultaneously in order to halt climate change in time.
It's getting downright sweltering all up in this Mother Earth. While the UN has set an ambitious goal of limiting total global warming to just 2C over pre-industrial levels, a number of recent studies -- one from within the UN itself -- have suggested that we may have already missed our shot at accomplishing that.
In order to halt global warming by the 2C mark, global emissions per nation would have to start coming down by 2020, with a peak no greater than 44 gigatons. And since even the most stringent plans miss that target by 6 to 12 gigatons, it's simply not going to happen, not with the increasing rates of industrial development we're seeing out of Africa and East Asia.
CO2 emissions have been rapidly rising since the turn of the century -- 2010 saw the largest jump on record with a 5.9 per cent increase -- despite international efforts like the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In fact, even if those agreements were universally and fully implemented, climatologists figure we'd still see a 3.5 per cent rise in atmospheric temperatures by 2100.
"The latest science cited by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - ed.] assessment provides conclusive scientific evidence that human activities are causing unprecedented changes in the Earth's climate. It is time to take immediate and robust action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The clock is ticking and time is not on our side," UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a press statement. "As recent studies show, greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would induce changes in the oceans, ice caps, glaciers, the biosphere and other components of the climate system. Some of these changes would very likely be unprecedented over decades to thousands of years. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses."
Recent reports such as Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, produced by Working Group II of the IPCC, have detailed the impact of global warming, as well as what risks it will cause down the line and what options we presently have to mitigate those future risks. The outlook is not great.
"The report concludes that people, societies and ecosystems are vulnerable around the world, but with different vulnerability in different places. Climate change often interacts with other stresses to increase risk," Chris Field, Co-Chair of Working Group II in a press statement. "With high levels of warming that result from continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions, risks will be challenging to manage, and even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits."
These changes can, will, and already have impacted agriculture, ecosystems, water supplies, economies, and human health across the globe -- every single country on Earth has been affected by global warming.
Short-Lived Climate Forcers
Global warming is the result of a whole bunch of factors, some of which work over a long period of time, and a few big ones that heat up the planet fast. Since we need to stop warming the planet, like now, it's those latter contributors -- which include a trio of potent but thankfully short-lived greenhouse emissions: black carbon, tropospheric ozone, and methane -- that climate researchers are focusing on.
Black carbon is generated from inefficient combustion methods by things like cooking stoves and legacy diesel engines -- the kind of stuff that's put to wide use in developing nations. Black carbon has been shown to accelerate the melting of ice-caps by darkening them, increasing the rate of sunlight absorption and decreasing their reflectance. This impacts the water cycle, increasing global flood risks and disturbing tropical rainfall and regional weather patterns such as the Asian monsoon. It's a bad scene. And on top of that it's just plain bad for humans to breath in.
Tropospheric Ozone is a related pollutant and just as about as bad as black carbon. Ozone is a naturally occurring molecule normally present at ground level in very minute concentrations. But due to human activity over the last 120 years, the concentration of ozone has more than tripled in the lower atmosphere -- thanks to the interaction of ultraviolet light with hydrocarbon precursors like methane and nitrogen oxides, which are emitted by cars, fossil fuel power plants, refineries, mining operations and other industries. Increased ozone concentrations have been shown to negatively affect crop yields, reducing the food security of a rapidly growing human population. Again, not a great thing.
Luckily, reducing short-lived climate forcers leads to significant short-term improvements. If we can cut down on these pollutants soon, climate researchers figure we will significantly slow the rate of global warming by 2050, giving proposed deep, immediate carbon dioxide reductions the time they need to take effect and provide long-term change. But that's far easier said than done.
Al Gore getting an Honorary Doctorate from Professor Bronislaw Marciniak at the Poznan University, Poland - AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
The problem isn't just the hot air spewing from our factories, but also the hot air spewing from politicians. According to the IEA's 2011 World Energy Outlook, the power plants that we already have account for 80 per cent of the UN's 250,000 megaton emission limit, and the plants coming online in the next five years will fill up the rest easily -- unless we immediately switch those investments over to low-carbon technologies right now.
But it's not just about the numbers, it's about getting people to do things. Politicians specifically. Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development argues that reaching the UN's 2C goal is technologically feasible but politically impossible. To pull it off, governments around the world would have to single-mindedly transform their economies to adapt to the threat and coordinate industrial efforts with their regional neighbours. It doesn't take a genius to realise that's just not going to happen.
What We Have to Do to Fix It
The basic plan put forth by UNEP is to cut the crap that's giving us short-term trouble to give world governments enough time to pull their collective heads together and enact effective legislation to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, which are the real problem but take a long time to fix.
UNEP's plan calls for 16 measures targeting both short- and long-term climate forcers that, if universally enacted, could save up to 2.5 million, 32 million tons of crops, and reduce the rate of global warming by half a degree by 2040. All 16 measures have already been locally enacted by various world governments with varied levels of success and target black carbon, methane, and ozone production. That's a start.
These measures include implementation of methane recovery from coal, oil, and gas extraction for use as fuel, banning the field burning of agricultural waste, and distribution of clean burning cooking stoves and kilns in developing nations.
Meanwhile, just switching from traditional biomass cookstoves to more efficient Liquefied Petroleum Gas or biogas stoves throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America would provide as much as 25 per cent of the the reduction necessary to reach the 2C goal while providing direct fuel cost savings to their users. Similarly, replacing traditional kilns with Vertical-shaft brick kilns -- which are twice as efficient! -- would cut back on CO2 while costing half as much to run.
Picture: Oded Balilty/AP Images
Methane emissions can be combated through a mix of mining, processing, and transportation initiatives including capturing methane byproduct from oil drillings and coal mines, harvesting methane from landfills and agricultural sites, and recycling it from municipal waste facilities which alone could provide 10 per cent of the necessary emission reductions.
It's a lot to coordinate all at once, but no part of it is impossible. It's just getting it done that's the hard part. "Climate-change adaptation is not an exotic agenda that has never been tried. Governments, firms and communities around the world are building experience with adaptation," Field said in a press statement. "This experience forms a starting point for bolder, more ambitious adaptations that will be important as climate and society continue to change."
Implementing these 16 measures would, of course, require a massive amount of strategic investment and institutional arrangements to pull off and would have to be done in conjunction with long-term efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And considering all the variables, that's a tall order.
But most of these measures are only designed to affect short term climate change, and if we want to keep limboing under the 2C bar (spoiler: we do) it is going to require keeping CO2 concentrations in the air below 450 parts per million. We're at 400 ppm right now, up from the 280 ppm pre-industrial level. So in order to facilitate an expedient recovery from the two-degree precipice, new and potentially risky technologies will be necessary.
Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a greenhouse gas mitigation technology implemented as part of the Kyoto Protocol designed to intercept the CO2 produced by industry before it is released into the atmosphere and instead pump it deep underground. There, it is sequestered for more than a millennia -- far longer than in shallower carbon sinks or in terrestrial biomass. The project is already in progress; as of January 2012, we buried some 550,000 tons of CO2 annually using this method and though the UN is only aiming for a two gigaton processing goal by 2050, a 2013 study from Stanford University suggests we could achieve 11 gigatons annually if we put some serious effort in.
The problem is that BECCS schemes have a nasty habit of causing earthquakes, much like fracking efforts. When you blow open massive underground repositories to either suckout or pump in liquids and gases, it tends to cause unexpected rumblings. And in the case of BECCS, if a quake opens up a seam to the surface, the CO2 can escape back into the atmosphere in gas from, negating the whole effort.
"We live in an era of man-made climate change," said Vicente Barros, Co Chair of Working Group II. "In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future."
And these investments must include CO2-free electricity production. According to UNEP estimates renewable energy production from solar, aero, and hydro schemes constitutes about 30 per cent of the global total -- it needs to be nearly triple that, 80 per cent by 2050. Fossil fuel use must be essentially extinguished entirely by 2100 unless BECCS comes into its own, per the IPCC's Climate Change 2014 report. And even that is an iffy fix at best.
This doesn't mean we have to go back to living in caves, though. It just means that we -- as a planet and a species -- simply need to get our act together and embrace a new way of doing things. "Mitigation does not mean the world has to sacrifice economic growth," Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany told New Scientist.
In fact, other cost and carbon saving measures outlined in the IPCC report such as investment in renewable energies, more efficient building techniques, better urban planning and public transportation with more efficient vehicles, more trains and fewer trains, all stand to open up enormous job markets the world over spurring on industry and national development. We just need to stop arguing and start taking action, before it's too late. [New Scientist 1, 2, 3 - UNEP 1, 2, 3, 4 - IPCC - Stanford University - UCAR - IIED]
Lead picture: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, Filr