Obama’s failure on climate

In the Guardian, George Monbiot is incandescent about the failure of Obama and Romney to speak out about climate change.

The two candidates remain struck dumb. Speech fails them, action is abominable, they will not even raise their hands in self-defence. The world’s most pressing crisis, now breaking down the doors of the world’s most powerful nation, cannot be discussed.

Although Monbiot briefly refers to a lack of action, most of his article is dedicated to what the candidates have or haven’t said during the course of an interminable election campaign. Real world data, by contrast, does not get a look in.

As far back as the first Bush administration, successive presidents have been promising that they would restrain America’s carbon emissions, but have failed to deliver. Instead, emissions rose sharply during their term in office. Under Obama, they have finally hit a peak, are falling, and are expected to continue to do so.

By 2020, according to a projection published last month by Resources for the Future, US emissions will be 16% below a 2005 benchmark, in line with the Obama’s administration’s pledge under the Copenhagen Accord. (See Michael Levi for a useful discussion of the RFF study.)

As this graph shows, tighter regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act  is playing the greatest role, with new standards kicking in in 2011. This is followed by ‘secular trends’ (higher energy prices) and action at sub-national level, mostly in California.

There are many problems with US policy at the moment. For example, the extent to which the US exports the coal it no longer needs will have a huge bearing on the net climate impact of its increased use of gas for electricity generation, for example.

However, its emissions trajectory is shifting, and this is likely to continue, and could accelerate, if Obama wins a second term today. It will also be fascinating to see how an American president deals with climate internationally if, for the first time, he walks into a negotiation with a story to tell of progress at home.

Emissions have peaked! (Shame NGOs don’t call for them to do so til 2017…)

If you missed it earlier in the week, the FT’s Fiona Harvey has been given a preview of the next World Energy Outlook, which the International Energy Agency will publish in November.  Findings:

The recession has resulted in an unparalleled fall in greenhouse gas emissions, providing a “unique opportunity” to move the world away from highcarbon growth, an International Energy Agency study has found.

In the first big study of the impact of the recession on climate change, the IEA found that CO 2 emissions from burning fossil fuels had undergone “a significant decline” this year – further than in any year in the past 40. The fall will exceed the drop in the 1981 recession that followed the oil crisis. Falling industrial output is largely responsible for the plunge in CO 2 , but other factors have played a role, including the shelving of plans for new coal-fired power stations owing to falling demand and lack of financing.

For the first time, government policies to cut emissions have also had a significant impact. The IEA estimates that about a quarter of the reduction is the result of regulation, an “unprecedented” proportion. Three initiatives had a particular effect: Europe’s target to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020; US car emission standards; and China’s energy efficiency policies.

All of which brings us back to David’s prescient suggestion back in March this year that civil society “should declare 2009 the year of peak emissions and challenge the world’s governments to develop a concrete plan to ensure they are never allowed to rise again”. 

Given IEA’s data, it’s clear that’s exactly what NGOs should have done. In fact, though, the TckTckTck campaign’s policy position – their only policy position, in fact – is that emissions should peak in… 2017.

Er, thanks guys. Great agenda setting there. Don’t call us – we’ll call you.

How to define success on climate change

Lots of media coverage today of a special edition of Nature that’s just been published, and in particular on two articles that discuss what it will take to limit global average warming to 2 degrees C.

The headline finding that most of the press coverage runs with is that the total, cumulative carbon budget that the world can emit without hitting catastrophic tipping points is estimated at 1 trillion tonnes of carbon – and that we’ve already used up half of this. What’s more, as Wired notes, at present we’re sending another 9 billion tonnes of carbon up into the air each year – meaning that on present rates, we’re going to hit the buffers within half a century.

So, according to the authors of the studies, we need to reduce global emissions by around 80% by 2050 – quite some distance more demanding a target than the 50% by 2050 target that the G8 has committed to, though in line with Obama’s headline objective. (As I noted here back in 2007, the G8 should have known better than to take 50% as their headline global target – which rested on a rather optimistic interpretation of figures set out in the last IPCC assessment report.)

One thing that confused me in the two Nature articles, though, was this point – summed up on Real Climate (emphasis added):

Both [articles] find that the most directly relevant quantity is the total amount of CO2 ultimately released, rather than a target atmospheric CO2 concentration or emission rate. This is an extremely useful result, giving us a clear statement of how our policy goals should be framed. We have a total emission quota; if we keep going now, we will have to cut back more quickly later.

Needless to say, the question of what metric we use to measure success on climate change is a very big deal, given the extent of policy implications that flow from it.  So are the authors right to suggest that instead of aiming for a target CO2 concentration level, we should be focusing primarily on cumulative emissions?

Well, by way of comparison of the different metrics, think of the atmosphere as a bath-tub and CO2 as water.  Too much water, and the bath will overflow (as we start hitting buffers, tipping points, positive feedbacks, abrupt climate change and other Bad Things). In this metaphor:

  • Emissions = the amount of water flowing into the bath
  • Sinks (the amount of CO2 soaked up by oceans, forests etc.) = the amount of water flowing out of the plughole
  • Concentration levels (how much CO2 or CO2e there is in the air, in parts per million) = the level of water in the bath

Now as Myles Allen, lead author of one of the Nature articles, observes in the Guardian today, it’s clearly true that if cumulative emissions matter more than our current rate of emissions right now. To return to the bath-tub metaphor: if you’re worried about the risk of the bath overflowing, then the question of the rate at which is flowing into the bath is clearly less relevant than the total amount of water that’s flowed into the bath since you turned on the tap.

But what I don’t get is why we should be more interested in cumulative emissions (how much water has flowed into the bath) than in concentration levels (the level of water in the bath).

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