grim climate numbers
- George Monbiot, author of _Heat_, said this yesterday
in the Guardian:
Published on Tuesday, May 1, 2007 by The Guardian/UK
The Rich Worlds Policy on Greenhouse Gas Now Seems Clear: Millions Will Die
by George Monbiot
Rich nations seeking to cut climate change have this in common: they lie. You wont find this statement in the draft of the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was leaked to the Guardian last week. But as soon as you understand the numbers, the words form before your eyes. The governments making genuine efforts to tackle global warming are using figures they know to be false.
The British government, the European Union and the United Nations all claim to be trying to prevent dangerous climate change. Any level of climate change is dangerous for someone, but there is a broad consensus about what this word means: two degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels. It is dangerous because of its direct impacts on people and places (it could, for example, trigger the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the collapse of the Amazon rainforest) and because it is likely to stimulate further warming, as it encourages the worlds natural systems to start releasing greenhouse gases.
The aim of preventing more than 2C of warming has been adopted overtly by the UN and the European Union, and implicitly by the British, German and Swedish governments. All of them say they are hoping to confine the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a level that would prevent such a rise. And all of them know that they have set the wrong targets, based on outdated science. Fearful of the political implications, they have failed to adjust to the levels the new research demands.
This isnt easy to follow, but please bear with me, as you cannot understand the worlds most important issue without grappling with some numbers. The average global temperature is affected by the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This concentration is usually expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent. It is not an exact science - you cannot say that a certain concentration of gases will lead to a precise increase in temperature - but scientists discuss the relationship in terms of probability. A paper published last year by the climatologist Malte Meinshausen suggests that if greenhouse gases reach a concentration of 550 parts per million, carbon dioxide equivalent, there is a 63-99% chance (with an average value of 82%) that global warming will exceed two degrees. At 475 parts per million (ppm) the average likelihood is 64%. Only if concentrations are stabilised at 400 parts or below is there a low chance (an average of 28%) that temperatures will rise by more than two degrees.
The IPCCs draft report contains similar figures. A concentration of 510ppm gives us a 33% chance of preventing more than two degrees of warming. A concentration of 590ppm gives us a 10% chance. You begin to understand the scale of the challenge when you discover that the current level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (using the IPCCs formula) is 459ppm. We have already exceeded the safe level. To give ourselves a high chance of preventing dangerous climate change, we will need a programme so drastic that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere end up below the current concentrations. The sooner this happens, the greater the chance of preventing two degrees of warming.
But no government has set itself this task. The European Union and the Swedish government have established the worlds most stringent target. It is 550ppm, which gives us a near certainty of an extra 2C. The British government makes use of a clever conjuring trick. Its target is also 550 parts per million, but 550 parts of carbon dioxide alone. When you include the other greenhouse gases, this translates into 666ppm, carbon dioxide equivalent (a fitting figure). According to last autumns Stern report on the economics of climate change, at 650ppm there is a 60-95% chance of 3C of warming. The governments target, in other words, commits us to a very dangerous level of climate change.
The British government has been aware that it has set the wrong target for at least four years. In 2003 the environment department found that with an atmospheric CO2 stabilisation concentration of 550ppm, temperatures are expected to rise by between 2C and 5C. In March last year it admitted that a limit closer to 450ppm or even lower, might be more appropriate to meet a 2C stabilisation limit. Yet the target has not changed. Last October I challenged the environment secretary, David Miliband, over this issue on Channel 4 News. He responded as if he had never come across it before.
The European Union is also aware that it is using the wrong figures. In 2005 it found that to have a reasonable chance to limit global warming to no more than 2C, stabilisation of concentrations well below 550ppm CO2 equivalent may be needed. But its target hasnt changed either.
Embarrassingly for the government, and for leftwingers like me, the only large political entity that seems able to confront this is the British Conservative party. In a paper published a fortnight ago, it called for an atmospheric stabilisation target of 400-450ppm carbon dioxide equivalent. Will this become policy? Does Cameron have the guts to do what his advisers say he should?
In my book Heat, I estimate that to avoid two degrees of warming we require a global emissions cut of 60% per capita between now and 2030. This translates into an 87% cut in the United Kingdom. This is a much stiffer target than the British governments - which requires a 60% cut in the UKs emissions by 2050. But my figure now appears to have been an underestimate. A recent paper in the journal Climatic Change emphasises that the sensitivity of global temperatures to greenhouse gas concentrations remains uncertain. But if we use the average figure, to obtain a 50% chance of preventing more than 2C of warming requires a global cut of 80% by 2050.
This is a cut in total emissions, not in emissions per head. If the population were to rise from 6 billion to 9 billion between now and then, we would need an 87% cut in global emissions per person. If carbon emissions are to be distributed equally, the greater cut must be made by the biggest polluters: rich nations like us. The UKs emissions per capita would need to fall by 91%.
But our governments appear quietly to have abandoned their aim of preventing dangerous climate change. If so, they condemn millions to death. What the IPCC report shows is that we have to stop treating climate change as an urgent issue. We have to start treating it as an international emergency.
We must open immediate negotiations with China, which threatens to become the worlds biggest emitter of greenhouse gases by next November, partly because it manufactures many of the products we use. We must work out how much it would cost to decarbonise its growing economy, and help to pay. We need a major diplomatic offensive - far more pressing than it has been so far - to persuade the United States to do what it did in 1941, and turn the economy around on a dime. But above all we need to show that we remain serious about fighting climate change, by setting the targets the science demands.
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J.H. Crawford Carfree Cities
- Climate change is a fashionable topic here in the States, as well, but
I see almost no one addressing the elephant in the garage, namely,
America's overwhelming dependence on the automobile, supposedly
responsible for 1/3 of all U.S. greenhouse emissions.
The "helpful hints" given in popular newspapers and magazines include
replacing conventional light bulbs with fluorescent ones or paying
one's utility company extra to subsidize the use of wind power, and
some even refer indirectly to the problem of automobile exhaust by
saying, "Keep your tires properly inflated to increase gas mileage" or
"Combine errands into one trip" or "Replace one car trip a week with
transit or cycling," or "Buy a Prius" or even, misguidedly, "Buy a
vehicle that runs on ethanol."
However, I have never seen a popular article that says, "Get rid of
your car" or, for people trapped in car-dependent communities, as I
currently am, "Have no more than one car per household and use it as
little as possible." Another suggestion that I never see is, "Urge your
local government to adopt pedestrian-friendly and transit-friendly
construction, zoning, and retrofitting standards, and to ban all
Meanwhile, suburban sprawl continues unchecked, with only a few "New
Urbanist" designs scattered among the strip malls, and even some of
these New Urban areas are essentially car-dependent.
This is especially sad because another hot topic in the popular press
is the problem of elderly people who keep driving after their eyesight
or mental acuity dims. Having faced this situation within my own
extended family, I can understand how not driving reduces an older
adult to the helplessness of a child, but writers on this topic
concentrate not on expanding alternatives to driving but on
psychological strategies for getting older people to surrender their
I feel as if I'm in a country that is walking over a cliff with its
- The effect of scale on all the better alternative fuel solutions is
not generally appreciated. The greater the overall reduction in
vehicle use, the more biodiesel/ethanol/biomethane begins to make
sense. All these solutions really come into their own in a low-
demand, localized, appropriate-technology scenario. Simply unplugging
petroleum and plugging in biofuels won't work.
A 90%+ reduction in vehicle use would take both the fuel and motor
industries beyond a critical point at which their current
methodologies are no longer viable. Then, both fuels and vehicles
capable of being made using handicraft techniques and small, power-
diffuse organizational structures would be required - in vastly
reduced quantities, of course. All the biofuel processes, especially
ethanol!, are as exquisitely suited to such conditions as they are
unsuited to the conditions that currently prevail.
The fuel and motor industries derive their power from the
perpetuation and expansion of their current methodologies, which
effectively renders them technologically and therefore economically
invulnerable. That, rather than the loss of discrete operational
profits, is why they will resist any real reduction in the use or
rate of consumption of automobiles. New, supposedly efficient designs
tend to rely more heavily on these methodologies and therefore
further entrench the power of these industries. That is the real
reason not to buy a Prius.
That is also why better cities are the only real solution to the
problems of vehicle emissions and resource depletion.
--- In email@example.com, Karen Sandness <ksandness@...>
> Climate change is a fashionable topic here in the States, as well,
> I see almost no one addressing the elephant in the garage, namely,...
> America's overwhelming dependence on the automobile, supposedly
> responsible for 1/3 of all U.S. greenhouse emissions.
> In transit,
> Karen Sandness
- "I see almost no one addressing the elephant in the garage, namely,
America's overwhelming dependence on the automobile"
I agree with your point, the cure to the problem is an entire
culture change. I often wonder if it is possible in the US,
particularly the south where the mention of riding the bus gets you
a crazed look from neighbors. Sigh.
I was watching PBS last night and caught the very end of a car-free
city in Italy (not Venice). It was a small town of around 600
people, on the coast, does anyone know the name of this town? There
could be many like it I suppose, but just wondering if anyone saw
this show and has the name.