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Can we avoid a “Hothouse” Earth?

Despite the threat of global warming having been clearly identified by NASA scientist, James Hansen, in his address to the US Congress in 1988, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. They have risen around 70 per cent since 1988. The first decrease was recorded early in 2020 as a result, not of human efforts, but of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That decrease was short-lived. By the end of 2020, the increase was back. It is expected that the focus on economic recovery around the world will lead to an even greater rate of increase.

At the time of Hansen’s address, fossil fuels accounted for around 79 per cent of global energy supply. In 2019, that figure was 84 per cent.

In 2018, Hansen told The Guardian “All we’ve done is agree there’s a problem. We agreed that in 1992 [at the Earth summit in Rio] and re-agreed it again in Paris [at the 2015 climate accord]. We haven’t acknowledged what is required to solve it. Promises like Paris don’t mean much, it’s wishful thinking. It’s a hoax that governments have played on us since the 1990s.”

Australian climate scientist, Professor Will Steffen, recently warned that we are facing a “Hothouse” Earth if we don’t act now and rapidly. His presentation is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1X4IdxXEwA.

The Paris Agreement set a target for global temperature increase of not more than 20C and preferably below 1.50C. We are already at 1.10C. Under the current trajectory, the increase is likely to be more than 30C.

Steffen raises the issue of tipping points in the Earth System. We know that tipping points can come from melting of ice, changes in circulation in the ocean and loss of biomes such as the Amazon rainforest and boreal forest.

With increase in global temperature we can expect tipping cascades. How long have we got before these cascades begin? According to Steffen, not long:

  • Arctic sea ice — probably at the tipping point;
  • West Antarctic — maybe 10 years to a tipping point;
  • Amazon rainforest — maybe 15 years or less, depending on the rate of deforestation the Bolsonaro government inflicts;
  • Greenland ice sheet — 25 years is probably optimistic.

We cannot rule out the possibility of a tipping cascade beginning in the near future and well before the net-zero emissions target of 2050. Professor Steffen says that is “far, far too late”.

Direct human impact on the biosphere is obviously not limited to climate change. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released in 2019 painted a grim picture of the state of Nature:

  • Nature is declining globally at unprecedented rates;
  • Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades;
  • The web of life is getting smaller and increasingly frayed.

According to Steffen “We have a double whammy — a rapidly destabilising climate system and a rapidly degrading biosphere.”

Steffen refers to the work of Oxford University economist, Kate Raworth, known for her concept of ‘doughnut economics’, balancing human needs and planetary boundaries. Steffen summarises Raworth’s ‘doughnut — a safe and just place for humanity’ in three main points for an economy for the 21st century:

  • We need systems thinking — not linear cause-effect. We have to go out of GDP thinking and think about dynamic complexity.
  • Equity: our system should be distributive by design.
  • Biosphere: it should be regenerative, not exploitative, by design.

As Professor Steffen says, “our current neoliberal economic system is exactly the opposite of what we actually need”.

Steffen’s analysis shows that we need much more ambitious targets than those of the Paris Agreement. The target for 2030 needs to be a reduction in emissions of at least 50 per cent and net zero by 2040. And to reach those targets we need to act decisively now. We have a climate emergency.

Ahead of the next Conference of the Parties, COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November, around the world, parties to the Paris Agreement are beginning to set more ambitious targets. United Kingdom has committed to a 78 per cent reduction by 2035. USA has committed to a 50–52 per cent reduction by 2030. China has committed to a reduction of 65 per cent by 2030 and ‘carbon neutrality’ by 2060. Other countries have committed to net zero by 2050.

The problem with these commitments is how the emissions are calculated. A recent paper published in The Conversation, “Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap” exposes the flaws in modelling that has been used to verify targets. The paper can be viewed at https://theconversation.com/climate-scientists-concept-of-net-zero-is-a-dangerous-trap-157368.

The authors, one of whom, Robert Watson, has served as Chair of both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the IPBES, say they “arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar” and that it “has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.”

The Integrated Assessment Models involve a range of assumptions including changes in investments and technology that could lead to changes in emissions.

The modelling that suggest that it is possible to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 involve technologies that have never been successfully implemented on a scale anywhere near what would be required. A particular case is carbon capture and storage (CCS) where CO2 emitted when fossil fuels are burned is captured and pumped deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

There is essentially no possibility that CCS will be implemented at the scale required and in time to bring about the reduction in emissions that is needed.

The other problem is biofuels. In the UK, biofuels account for 12 per cent of the energy used to generate electricity. In the EU, biofuels account for 60 per cent of renewables.

The major source of biofuels in Europe is wood pellets imported from USA. The major producer in USA is Enviva which currently produces 35 million tonnes a year. These are produced from what Enviva calls “working forests” around the country. In other words, USA’s forests are being burned in electricity generating plants in Europe.

In calculating emissions, biofuels are counted as carbon-neutral. This is because they come from a renewable source. The argument is that the carbon released on burning will be balanced by carbon absorbed by the trees when they regrow. But, of course, the carbon released on burning is not ‘balanced’ by new growth for many decades. That doesn’t bother Enviva’s Jennifer Jenkins who says “we don’t need to worry about the short versus long term time frame”. Carbon-neutrality of biofuels is a fraud.

In addition, burning wood for electricity generation is inefficient and produces 65 per cent more CO2 than burning coal.

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia’s emissions target is a reduction from 2005 levels of 26–28 per cent.The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, had declared that Australia will reduce emissions through technology, principally carbon capture and storage.

At the recent G7 meeting in UK, the G7 countries agreed to pursue a phase-out of coal, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the world that Australia would not be moving away from coal anytime soon.

While the scientists recognise that we need to stop burning fossil fuels and we need to start now, the Australian Government proposes to build a new gas-fired generator in the Hunter Valley.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Coalition is beholden to the fossil fuel lobby while Labor, whose position is not much better, is divided over coal mining.

Can we avoid a ‘Hothouse’ Earth? Yes. But will we? Given the trickery, deceit and fraud perpetrated by decision makers and vested interests, the answer is probably No!

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The Climate Emergency

The next United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference, COP 25, will be held in Chile in December. In a prelude to COP 25, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, organised a Climate Action Summit in New York in September.

The Summit was attended by world leaders but not by Prime Minister Scott Morrison despite the fact that he was in USA at the time. Australia was represented at the Summit by Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, but she did
not speak.

Antonio Guterres had asked countries to come with a more ambitious plan than that to which they had already committed. If they didn’t, they were requested not to speak. Hence, Marise Payne’s silence.

Griffith University’s Professor Ian Lowe said “Australia’s disinterest in the UN Climate Summit is, frankly, a national embarrassment. Our Government’s encouragement of new coal mines and expanded gas exports runs directly counter to the necessary global efforts.”

One of the speakers at the Summit was Swedish teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg. Greta gave an impassioned speech extorting world leaders to act on climate change. She said “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”

Greta’s role in bringing the Climate Emergency into greater focus internationally is to be applauded. As an independent teenager she is able to express her views in straightforward terms. On the other hand, official representatives are more likely to feel bound by diplomacy or engage in obfuscation and gobbledygook.

Prior to the Summit, the World Meteorological Organization released a report, The Global Climate in 2015–2019. Compared to the previous period 2011–2015, the current period 2015–2019 has recorded

  • continued increase in CO2 emissions
  • an accelerated increase in greenhouse gas emissions
  • increase in oceanic CO2 concentrations with increased ocean acidity
  • the warmest of any equivalent period on record globally with a 1.1℃ increase since pre-industrial period and a 0.2℃ increase compared to 2011–2015
  • an accelerated rising sea level
  • a continued decline in the Arctic sea-ice extent
  • an abrupt decrease in Antarctic sea ice
  • continued mass loss of glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets
  • the largest ocean heat content on record in 2018
  • heatwaves affecting all continents resulting in record temperatures for many countries
  • unprecedented wildfires.

The Australian Government remains unmoved by the science that is becoming increasingly worrying. Whereas Scott Morrison did not attend the Climate Action Summit he did address the UN General Assembly in New York and said “Australia is taking real action on climate change and getting results …. We are successfully balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical
policies to secure our environmental and economic future.”

Clearly, Scott Morrison and his colleagues have not recognised the seriousness of the issue. As we reported in a previous post, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided evidence for the need to limit global warming to 1.5ºC and noted that this “would require rapid, farreaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” and “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities”.

The IPCC concluded that to limit global warming to 1.5℃, it would be necessary to reduce emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050. A middle-of-theroad scenario requires a 75% reduction in coal use as the primary energy source by 2030 (IPPC Special Report (SR15), Summary for Policymakers, p. 14).

Australia needs to start planning for a phase-out of coal mining and coal use. But we are actually doing the opposite.

In a surprise move, Labor front-bencher Joel Fitzgibbon recently called for the party to adopt the Coalition’s climate policy. That means accepting an emissions reduction target of 26–28% by 2030 rather than the 45% target that Labor took to the last election. His argument is that Australians are “inherently conservative” and will continue to support the Coalition leaving Labor in Opposition for a further six years.

Fortunately, Fitzgibbon’s colleagues rejected his proposal. Labor joined the Greens and cross-bench members in a motion in the House of Representatives to declare a “climate emergency”. It was, of course, defeated.

Scott Morrison’s speech to the UN General Assembly was an exercise in cherry-picking. For example, he noted that emissions from Australia’s electricity sector had fallen 15.7% compared with the peak in 2009. That figure doesn’t even apply Australia-wide — just to the East Coast. Overall Australia’s emissions continue to increase. And according to The Climate Council, if you include our fossil-fuel exports, Australia is the fifth largest emitter in the world, after USA, China, EU and India.

Things need to change.

Keith Scott

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