The best climate change movie yet

Here’s the trailer for the new climate film Disruption, which came out earlier this month. As Upworthy summarise, “he sat down in a cold, grey room and proceeded to scare the hell out of me”. You can watch the full film for free here.

 

The political deal on post-2015 ‘means of implementation’

The post-2015 agenda is at a turning point, with the intense discussions of the last year about Goals and targets giving way to a new focus on how the world will achieve the high ambitions set out in the draft Sustainable Development Goals.

Over the next eighteen months, we’ll see a veritable blizzard of summitry, including a critical OECD meeting looking at the definition of aid this December, a major summit on financing for development in Addis Ababa next July, the key final decision moment on the shape of the new Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, a make-or-break climate summit and a WTO trade ministerial in December 2015, and high-potential summits of the G7/G8 in Germany, and the G20 in Turkey.

All of these moments have the potential to yield elements of a global political deal on ‘means of implementation’ for the post-2015 agenda. But what are the options for those elements – and which of them offer the highest potential in terms of development impact and political achievability?

These are the questions I address in a new paper, commissioned by the UN Foundation, and published today as a working draft ahead of next week’s UN General Assembly and climate summit, and in advance of a final version in October.

It includes both a 10 point ‘straw man’ package of measures on means of implementation that ranges from ODA, domestic resource mobilisation, and the role of the private sector through to trade, sustainability, and transparency; and a long-list of potential outcomes and asks – in each case with a brief discussion of the political and developmental pros and cons.

Environmentally friendly oil rigs? Well yes, Norway, but….

oil rig

Photo: Dave Taylor/www.oilrig-photos.com

We are big fans of Norway here at GD. And look – in a bid to make oil production more environmentally friendly, the Norwegian parliament is hoping to force offshore oil rigs to use electrical power rather than burn gas or diesel.  Hurrah, obviously –  what’s not to love about the Scandinaviafication of oil production.

The Norwegians aren’t alone either.  Environmentally friendly drilling (by oil workers in shiny lipstick, obviously), is a thing, it seems…

So yay and double yay.  Let’s make oil production all green and cuddly and maybe we can stop worrying about those millions of barrels that are rolling up out of the sea every day and burning…oh wait a minute….

Data revolution, meet deforestation

You will need: Some satellites. Google Maps. Trees. People. Some money.

Method:

  • Grab satellite data on forest cover.
  • Make it super hi-resolution – all the way down to 30 square metres.
  • Overlay it onto Google Maps.
  • Update it every ten (ten!) days.
  • Mash it up with boundaries of national parks and logging concessions, so that illegal logging shows up immediately.
  • Enable automatic area alerts.
  • Proactively offer funding for access to legal redress to local groups via the Access Initiative.
  • Stir well.

Your Global Forest Watch is now ready. Nice going, World Resources Institute.

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Ending poverty through climate action in the Post-2015 development agenda

The post-2015 development agenda offers an extraordinary opportunity to tackle the world’s two most pressing challenges—poverty and climate change. A recent report from the Center for American Progress outlines a practical strategy for policymakers to ensure the new framework tackles both.

While it is sometimes tempting to despair that countries around the world are incapable of crafting multilateral solutions that are equal to the world’s most pressing challenges, there are tremendous opportunities for international agreements to bring about real change and accelerate progress.

In 2015, a pair of international summits – one to agree on a set of sustainable development goals, the other a new climate agreement – present a tremendous opportunity. These efforts can and should complement one another.

Where countries failed to fully integrating environmental concerns into the Millennium Development Goals, they have an unprecedented opportunity now to ensure that the new goals complement and mutually enforce global development and climate solutions.

In a new report from the Center for American Progress, a couple of colleagues and I outline specific, measurable targets to be incorporated into future development goals. These targets focus on specific actions that fight poverty and reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change, and support sustainable agriculture and food security, economic growth and infrastructure, sustainable energy, ecosystems, and healthy lives.

If adopted as part of the post-2015 development agenda, these targets would help drive investments and sensible actions by local and national governments, multilateral development banks, international organizations, and the private sector to end poverty and build a more resilient and sustainable future for generations to come.

Goodbye to all that

Yesterday’s findings from two scientific teams that a large section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has now started to collapse (almost certainly unstoppably, implying 10 feet or more of long term sea level rise), is relevant to pretty much everyone around the world. But for us Brits in particular, the prospect of the disappearance of so much of Antarctica has a particular resonance, coming as it does just a couple of years after the centenary of the deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his companions in the race to the South Pole.

Scott’s last expedition didn’t cross the West Antarctic Ice Sheet on their way to the Pole; instead, they landed just to the east of the WAIS, at the edge of the Ross Sea, and made their way to the Pole over the Ross Ice Shelf.

They built their HQ, seen above, on Ross Island, at a place called Cape Evans – named, as it happens, for my great granddad, Teddy Evans, who was second in command of the expedition. (He was also one of the few who survived; he caught scurvy on the way to the Pole, and was hauled back by his companions William Lashley and Tom Crean – thanks to whom I’m here to write this blog post.) He’s just to Scott’s right in the photo above, taken at Cape Evans on Scott’s birthday in 1911.

But now the Ross Ice Shelf is melting too – not as fast as the WAIS, admittedly, but melting from underneath all the same, rather than just calving icebergs the way it always used to. Same story with Antarctica’s other giant cold-cavity ice shelves, Filchner and Ronne.

There’s a certain sad irony here in that the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust recently completed a successful appeal to preserve Scott’s hut at Cape Evans – a place that, as David Attenborough noted when he went there, is

“a time warp without parallel – you walk into Scott’s hut and you are transported to the year 1912 in a way that is quite impossible anywhere else in the world. Everything is there.”

But while the hut will stay the same, the continent that my great granddad and his fellow expeditioners would have looked out at whenever they stepped outside is disappearing. Not too many generations from now, only the bedrock will be left – and even that, rapidly disappearing under the waves.

See this companion post, also published today, for a short guide to other climate ‘tipping points’ – and a few links to what you can do to help prevent us from sleepwalking over any more of them.

Climate tipping points – a quick guide

Yesterday’s news that we now appear to be on course for the unstoppable and irreversible loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) – the largest ice body in the world (for now, anyway) – means that we’re now probably past two key climate tipping points, the other being the loss of summer Arctic sea ice. So this is probably a good time to post a quick overview of all of the main climate tipping points: if you’re not familiar with this list, you should be…

Below is a quick guide, adapted from a chapter by Exeter University’s Tim Lenton in his and Tim O’Riordan’s book on the same subject. The book was published last year; as you can see, scientific consensus at the time was that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet “appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart”. So much for that estimate.

  • Arctic sea ice loss underwent a new record summer loss of area in 2012, breaking the previous record of 2007, and now covers only half the area of the late 1970s when satellites first began monitoring it. Current projections suggest we’re looking at complete loss of Arctic summer sea ice within decades. Already, the changing ice cover is changing air circulation patterns, and leading to cold winter extremes in Europe and North America.
  • The Greenland ice sheet may be nearing a tipping point beyond which it is committed to shrink; here too, the summer of 2012 saw record melting. Ice loss would probably take place over centuries, so this form of change wouldn’t be abrupt – but it might well be irreversible, and could ultimately lead to 7 metres of sea level rise, including up to half a metre this century.
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart, but has the potential for more rapid change, and hence bigger impacts in the near term. If warming exceeds 4º Celsius, the current best guess is that the West Antarctic ice sheet is ‘more likely than not’ to collapse, causing sea level rise of 1 metre per century and 3-4 metres in total.
  • The Yedoma permafrost in Siberia contains massive amounts of carbon – potentially up to 500 billion tonnes of it, about the same as has been emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution. If decomposition inside the permafrost starts to generate enough heat, all of the permafrost could tip into irreversible, self-sustaining collapse, generating a “runaway positive feedback” with emissions of 2-3 billion tonnes of carbon a year, or about a third of current fossil fuel emissions. The current best guess is that this would not happen before regional warming of 9º Celsius, but that could be closer than we think: in 2007, for instance, Arctic surface temperatures jumped 3º Celsius.
  • Ocean methane hydrates are thought to store up to 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon under the seabed. As the deep ocean warms, this frozen reservoir of methane could conceivably melt, causing an abrupt, massive release of the gas – which is four times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. This is probably at the least likely end of the spectrum, but the impacts if it happened would be extreme.
  • The Himalayan glaciers could lose much of their mass over the coming century, with the change becoming self-amplifying as exposure of bare ground increases the amount of sunlight energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface rather than reflected back into space. Scientists are so far unsure as to whether a large-scale tipping point could apply to this trend.
  • The Amazon rainforest experienced severe droughts in both 2005 and 2010 – in both cases, turning the forest into a source of carbon rather than a sink for absorbing it. If, as is currently happening, the dry season continues to lengthen, and droughts get more frequent and severe, then the rainforest could reach a tipping point, with up to 80% of trees dying off. Widespread dieback is expected at increases of over 4º Celsius, and could be committed to at much lower temperature increases – long before we notice it happening.
  • Western Canada’s boreal forest is currently suffering from an invasion of mountain pine beetle, leading to widespread dieback which has already turned the forest from a source to a sink. More widespread die-off could happen in future at global average warming of more than 3º Celsius, further amplifying global warming.
  • Tropical coral reefs are already experiencing bleaching as oceans warm up, and may be nearing a ‘point of no return’. Further risks come from the increasing acidification of the oceans, which could see up to 70% of corals in corrosive water by the end of this century.
  • The Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) – in effect, a massive oceanic conveyer belt that drives the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift, and which helps keep northern Europe much warmer than it would otherwise be – could shut down altogether if enough freshwater dilutes the ocean’s salinity; current best guesses are that this could happen at global average warming of over 4º Celsius. A weakening THC could also drive an additional quarter metre of sea level rise along the north-eastern seaboard of the United States.
  • The Sahel and West African Monsoon has experienced rapid changes in the past, including a catastrophic drought that lasted from the late 1960s through to the 1980s, and could be disrupted anew by changes to the THC. The Indian Summer Monsoon, meanwhile, is already being disrupted and rice harvests damaged, in particular by the cloud of brown haze that now sits semi-permanently over the Indian sub-continent.

Of course, the really big question in each case is exactly where the tipping points lie, and what level of temperature increase might push us over the threshold. Some research suggests that warning of 1º Celsius over the average temperature of the 1980s and 1990s would be dangerous; other recent work suggests that 4º could be where the danger zone begins.

But again, note that the best guess just one year ago was that it would take 4º of warming to cause the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse; in the event, current warming of 0.7º above pre-industrial levels seems to have been enough to push us over the edge. It’s a salutary reminder of how little we know about climate tipping points – and hence just how risky and high stakes a situation we’re in.

And in all scenarios, the key point is that these kinds of temperature increases are exactly where our current trajectory is headed: current policies have us on track for 3.6-5.3 degrees Celsius of warming, according to the IEA. In the worst case scenario, Tim Lenton observes, we could slide into

“…’domino dynamics’, in which tipping one element of the Earth system significantly increases the probability of tipping another, and so on … on several occasions in the past, the planet was radically reorganized without there being any sign of a particularly large forcing perturbation.”

Wondering what you can do in the face of such relentlessly gloomy news? Get hold of any policymaker you can and ask them whether they support a binding global carbon budget, and fair – i.e. equal per capita – shares of it for all the world’s people. Ask whichever NGO you support whether they’re calling for the same thing at the Paris summit next year. And don’t take any shit from anyone about how technology and voluntary action are going to do the business without anyone having to take any tough decisions.

(See also this companion post, also published here today, for a slightly different take on the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.)