Global warming: The longer we wait, the harder it gets

Meeting 2-degree warming target requires immediate action

Even without El Niño, Nov. 2012 temps were far above average across most of the globe. Graphic courtesy NASA.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Delaying meaningful action on climate change is tempting, but will likely prove to be very costly in the long run, an international group of researchers warned this week in an article in Nature Climate Change.

The easiest path is to reaching the targeted 2-degree cap in global temperatire increases would be to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions. If that doesn’t happen by 2020, the goal is still attainable, but at a much greater cost, with much higher climate risks and and under exceedingly optimistic assumptions about future technologies.

Timely cuts in emissions leaves more doors open in the long run, said the researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, ETH Zurich in Switzerland, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

The researchers say this is what needs to happen sooner, rather than later:

Nuclear power would need to remain on the table as a mitigation option, or people would need to quickly adopt advanced technology strategies, including electric vehicles and highly efficient energy end-use technologies such as appliances, buildings, and transportation. Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants would need to be rapidly shut down and replaced with other energy sources.

“You would need to shut down a coal power plant each week for ten years if you still wanted to reach the two-degree Celsius target,” said IIASA energy program leader Keywan Riahi, who also worked on the study.

“If we want to keep as many options open as possible, we should aim to reduce global emissions to 41 to 47 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2020”, said Joeri Rogelj, lead author of the paper and researcher at ETH Zurich.

According to the study, the only way to meet the long-term temperature target without carbon capture and storage is to ensure that emissions fall within this near-term range.

“Fundamentally, it’s a question of how much society is willing to risk,” said IIASA energy researcher David McCollum, one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s certainly easier for us to push the climate problem off for a little while longer, but if we do that, then we risk that certain mitigation options may not ultimately be available in the long run. What’s more, from the perspective of the global climate system, continuing to pump high levels of emissions into the atmosphere over the next decade only increases the risk that we will overshoot the two-degree target,” he said.

The paper explores technological, policy, and social changes that would need to take place in the near term in order to keep global average temperature from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, a target supported by more than 190 countries as a global limit to avoid dangerous climate change.

The study quantifies the costs and risks of greenhouse gas emissions surpassing critical thresholds by 2020. The findings of the study are particularly important given the failure of the recent climate negotiations in Doha to decide to increase mitigation action before 2020.

“We wanted to know what needs to be done by 2020 in order to be able to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius for the entire twenty-first century,” said Joeri Rogelj, lead author of the paper and researcher at ETH Zurich.

Projections based on current national emissions pledges suggest that global carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions will reach 55 gigatons (billion metric tons, Gt) or more per year in 2020, up from approximately 50 Gt today. At such levels, it would still be possible to reach the 2°C target in the long term, though it would be more difficult and expensive than if near-term emissions were lower.

“What we do over the next eight years really determines the feasibility and choices that we have in the long term,” said Riahi. “Some of these options for policies and technological change are still choices, such as phasing out nuclear power. We lose these choices if we overshoot certain thresholds.”

The study goes beyond previous analyses by directly assessing how high emissions in 2020 can go before the long-term target of 2 °C is no longer attainable.

“Under some conditions, the two-degree target is feasible even if we don’t reduce emissions at all by 2020,” said co-author Brian O’Neill, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “But if we allow for the possibility that some technologies may not pan out, or are overly costly or have undesirable consequences, then emissions reductions have to start this decade.”

“Our analysis shows that we are very dependent on key technologies like carbon capture and storage and on land-consuming measures like afforestation and the cultivation of crops for biofuel production,” said Rogelj. “If we want to become less dependent on massive implementation of these technologies to make it below two degrees Celsius, we need to reduce emissions by 2020 and use energy more efficiently.”

The study highlights the importance of reducing energy demand and improving efficiency as perhaps the most effective way to mitigate climate change this decade, echoing previous work from IIASA and others (Global Energy Assessment, 2012). In scenarios with lower energy demand growth, the researchers find a much greater chance that global temperatures would not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius, with much more flexibility in the methods and technologies required to reduce greenhouse gases.



4 thoughts on “Global warming: The longer we wait, the harder it gets

  1. Does the writer really think that by 2020 we will be able to reduce our emissions by as much as 7-8 a year? That is what will be needed by then in order to reduce chances for reaching 2 degrees. I see no indication of this happening- The likely scenario will be voluntary pledges – not until the late 2020s or early 2030s- when the climate has begun to deteriorate to a point of producing social and economic chaos- and C02 passing 450ppm will any real attempts to mandate cuts be taken seriously. And by then 3-4 degrees will be all they can can get.

  2. I am from Missouri but I keep coming back to the Summit County Citizens Voice to read the always interesting and informative pieces on the environment and climate change. I agree with Peter Mizia, though, about the content of this article. Action will only occur when events force the major players–US, China, India, Europe–to respond. However, I disagree with his projection of when this will occur. One of the things that is now apparent is how conservative even the most vociferous climate scientists have been. Do a search on news articles about global warming and climate change over the past five to seven years, looking for phrases like, “scientists were surprised,” “unexpected findings,” “predictions too conservative,” etc. The rate of melting of arctic sea ice is a case in point. I think the danger will come home to all of us in the next five to eight years, but it may already be too late to prevent any but the most catastrophic changes.

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