We need rapid change, not a gradual shift.

This is part 2 of a 3 part article 'Why is engagement with oil giants wrong?'

The 2015 UN Paris Agreement urges governments of the world to commit to lowering emissions to ensure the global temperature increase remains below 1.5C. But it does more than that.

On the level of threat the Paris Agreement says this,
Climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.
The UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, speaking in 2009 at the DAVOS summit, said,

“We face only one truly existential threat. That is climate change.”

In the US the Pentagon has called climate change a significant risk. Why is this the case? It is because increasing drought and flooding leads to food and water shortages, which in turn can cause social unrest, conflict and humanitarian disasters. Fragile states can quickly tip over to become failed states descending into civil wars. 

These scenarios are being played out right now in Syria, Darfur in Sudan, Eretria, Ethiopia and Somalia, and Afghanistan has experienced conflict influenced by drought for years. Conflict results in refugees. According to the UNICEF 53% of the world’s 21.3 million refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. But conflict is only the start of serious impacts.

The ecological impacts of global warming can really be devastating. There was a strong El Niño in 2016 that caused warm waters to well up to the surface in the Pacific ocean releasing additional heat into the atmosphere. The result was the largest coral bleaching die-off event ever recorded. That might not sound like a major impact but the problem is, 500 million people depend on reefs for food and coastal protection from storms.

Some scientists believe that coral bleaching is just the first sign of ecological collapse in the oceans. Modelling has shown that ocean warming of 6C, which is possible by 2100 with current emission rates, will cause oxygen-producing plankton to die off. The result would be a threat to life an earth itself. This is why the Ban Ki Moon calls climate change an existential threat.

The Paris Agreement is a framework for change, but the agreement itself emphasizes “with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap” between the countries pledged emission reductions and the reductions required to limit warming to 2C. Unless economies convert to low carbon quickly things will get difficult. So how long is quickly?

Lots of smart people have already worked out how quickly we need to change. The calculation is based on physics. CO2 causes global warming, so how much CO2 have we added to the atmosphere? And how much more can we add to keep warming to less than 2C?

To answer these questions we need to understand the carbon budget. This is the maximum amount of carbon dioxide, CO2, that can be released to the atmosphere before we cross a temperature threshold. To stay below a +2C rise a maximum of 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 can be released. Between 1850 and 2011 humanity emitted 531 billion tonnes carbon dioxide (GtCO2). So half the budget is used up. 

At the moment each year we release 40 GtCO2. The carbon budget for a +2C rise in global temperature is only 335 GtCO2 more. This is just more 9 years of burning fossil fuels to keep within the 2C threshold, and just 5 years for the 1.5C target. So we need to reduce emissions very, very quickly.

The world really needs an energy revolution for the 21st century. This revolution will be much bigger than the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. In 1850 there were 1.2 billion people on the planet, by 2030 there will be 8 billion, all of whom want access to energy. The energy revolution is going to be huge.

Lord Stern, the economist who published the influential Stern Report on the economics of climate change in 2006 said recently,

"People have not sufficiently understood the importance of the next 20 years. They are going to be the most decisive two decades in human history."

We need a rapid change. The next twenty years are absolutely critical.


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