It is no secret that climate change is a serious problem than needs to be addressed, and the sooner we do it the easier it will be to make the greenhouse gas emissions cuts that are necessary. The longer we delay the more difficult the required changes will be.
The goal of climate mitigation is to avoid dangerous human-caused impacts, which science suggests would mean limiting total warming to 2 °C above preindustrial temperatures. In turn, this would require keeping atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide below 450 parts per million (p.p.m.) [and if a recent paper by James Hanson of NASA GISS is to be believed we may need to eventually reduce our CO2 from the current level of 385 ppm to 350ppm].
So the question becomes, what do we need to do in order to make the serious cuts to our emissions that the science says are absolutely necessary in order to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change? A recent article in Nature, and a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) have arrived at basically the same conclusions, which coincidentally also agree with some of the IPCC recommendations. When the normally conservative International Energy Agency agrees with both the middle of the road IPCC and more progressive voices like Nature, it should be a clear indication that they are all on to something.
So what did they recommend?
According to Nature we already have all the technology needed to stabilize and then reduce our emissions, and what is needed is a massive deployment of these technologies.
What would then be required merely to keep global emissions frozen through most of the rest of the century? I use the ‘stabilization wedges‘ approach put forward by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala of Princeton University to answer that question qualitatively. As Socolow and Pacala explain, “A wedge represents an activity that reduces emissions to the atmosphere that starts at zero today and increases linearly until it accounts for 1 GtC/year of reduced carbon emissions in 50 years.” So the planet would need 11 wedges to keep emissions flat at 11 GtC per year from 2020 to 2070.
However the Nature article realizes that if we wish to make the cuts necessary to avoid the most dangerous human-caused impacts of climate change then we need an immediate massive deployment effort.
If we are to have confidence in our ability to stabilize carbon dioxide levels below 450 p.p.m. emissions must average less than 5 GtC per year over the century. This means accelerating the deployment of the 11 wedges so they begin to take effect in 2015 and are completely operational in much less time than originally modelled by Socolow and Pacala, say in 25 years. As a result, in 2040 global emissions would be at about 4 GtC per year. We would then have six decades to cut emissions in half again (or by more if the science deems it necessary), which would require an equally impressive effort.
The Nature article is very similar to what the IEA has recommended.
The question now becomes how much such a massive deployment of renewable energy will cost? About $45 trillion globally, which is, thankfully, not nearly as much as it first appears.
The investment required is “an average of some 1.1% of global GDP each year from now until 2050. This expenditure reflects a re-direction of economic activity and employment, and not necessarily a reduction of GDP.” In fact, this investment partly pays for itself in reduced energy costs alone (not even counting the pollution reduction benefits)!
So given the fact that a massive deployment of alternative energy isn’t very expensive and the costs of inaction are absolutely massive, why has it been so difficult to get governments to implement policies to tackle climate change? Simple, far to many politicians (mostly from the right) have decided that they know better than the worlds climate scientists.
It’s a terrifying thought. If the science of the last few years and the painful reality of a changing climate haven’t persuaded the conservative movement of the dire nature of human-caused global warming, I can’t imagine what chain of catastrophes would. We’ve already had record-breaking droughts, heat waves, wildfires, deluges, super storms and flooding at home and abroad — just as climate science predicted. And we’ve had far more loss of ice from Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic Sea than anyone expected…
Conservatives can’t stop the impending catastrophe with anti-government rhetoric. But they can prevent progressives and moderates from stopping it by blocking aggressive climate legislation. Progressives and moderates will need all their political skill and tenacity to overcome the obstructionism of the anti-science, anti-technology conservatives. This is unlike any previous political fight; it is a fight to save the health and well-being of the next 50 generations, a fight to preserve our way of life. Losing is not an option.
It should be obvious to anyone who accepts climate science that we need to act, and we need to act now, if we wish to avoid real catastrophes in the not to distant future. And as the article in Nature and the IEA report show it wont even cost that much… if we act today.