“Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permissible by 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already “locked-in” by our existing capital stock (power plants, buildings, factories, etc.). If stringent new action is not forthcoming by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035, leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”
World Energy Outlook 2011, International Energy Agency (IEA)
Rachel Kyte, Vice President of Sustainability at the World Bank, routinely keeps her Twitter followers abreast of the latest in her area of work. This morning she sent out perhaps one of her most interesting Tweets. The IEA which maintains global energy supplies and consumption data has issued a new report, as reported by The Guardian newspaper of the United Kingdom, that 5 years from now, at the current level of CO2 emissions because of fossil fuel usage, atmospheric carbon dioxide will reach 450 parts per million (ppm) at which point climate change would be irreversible and global temperatures would rise by 2 degrees celsius.
The report, as is, is extraordinarily beneficial to people such as myself who are in the business of evangelizing the world to change its ways of life in relation to the rest of the planet we live on. Still, intellectual integrity demands analytical verification of climate’s fierce urgency of now to invest on a war footing in technologies and research to reduce humanity’s global carbon footprint, especially given the ongoing tentative global economic recovery.
If baseline levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, as determined by ice cores from the Antarctic continent of the past 800,000 years or so when most post-dinosaur mammalian life evolved on earth after the cataclysmic extinction of the reptiles about 65 million years ago, is 280 ppm of pre-industrial levels of the gas in the earth’s atmosphere, changes in climatic patterns may already be technically thermodynamically irreversible. Climate change is, therefore, the fierce urgency of yesterday, but the solution to the problem could be far simpler requiring less work to reverse it to initial conditions than raising a geopolitical alarm.
A corollary to this question would be: if the stock of all the fossil fuels, the source of the emissions problem, are burned to zero as a solution to the problem not the cause using current technologies and under existing regulations without regard to emissions in any country of the world, what would be the CO2 levels and temperature rise in 5 years and by 2035? It also behooves asking a converse question: is the current warming trend going to take a century to reverse if all CO2 emissions hypothetically cease in 5 years or by 2035 – the Copenhagen target year to reduce global CO2 emissions by 80 per cent of current levels, assuming there is going to be a consensus on contributions to global emissions by country by 2017 (a big IF)? These official estimates would be useful but are not yet available because the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have failed to consider these questions as viable solutions, but estimates are feasible using back-of-the-envelope methods.
The Guardian report brings to fore two important points: (a) it takes a century for the atmospheric warming to occur because of the rising CO2 levels and (b) 80 per cent of existing infrastructure that supports industrial human life on earth is the source of CO2 emissions. These two salient points together imply that (i) greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution about 150 years ago have produced the current warming and (ii) if the status quo is maintained, global temperatures will rise steadily over the next 150 to 200 years, not in the next 5 years as the IEA report claims. CO2 levels may not also rise from the existing 390 ppm to 450 ppm in 5 years, because the worst rise is behind us from the 280 ppm pre-industrial levels. The remaining 60 ppm could take not 5 but at least the next 60 years, one ppm per year on average, assuming that only fossil fuels are burned. If all fossil fuel use is hypothetically barred by 2017, it will take a century for global temperatures to stabilize, all other factors affecting earth temperatures remaining the same.
To raise investment the clear and present driver is, therefore, not climate change, as real as it may be because of human contribution assuming the weightier celestial factors outside the earth system are constant, but economic growth that arises from new infrastructure which should also contribute lower greenhouse gas emissions unlike the carryover from the paradigm of the 19th century. The old must give way to the new. Our way of life must change to replace lost jobs and to create new jobs.
Backward looking geopolitical tussles between the industrial west and the newly industrializing but more populous emerging market countries about economic growth rates are counterproductive, especially when the world’s largest CO2 emitters are the two largest economies on the planet, United States and China, one industrial and the other emerging, also the cause of the global trade imbalance. Achieving economic growth by investing in alternatives to fossil fuels is a much better approach while consuming the existing stock of these sources of energy to extinction.
Using recessions and depressions (or the business cycle) as a policy instrument for international economic coordination to consume less fossil fuels to put off global warming is a fool’s errand. Kyoto as a distinct enforcement mechanism separate from the IMF and World Bank is not a good idea because transition requires private financing and the monitoring of these capital flows by the international monetary system, including the world’s central banks.
When competitive economic growth rates are the source of climate politics, while investing in technical change it is far easier to move the peoples of the world around to achieve higher per capita incomes by harmonizing the global population distribution.
The motivation for moving people need not be the fear of the ices melting sooner than later because of human contribution, perhaps accelerating the long climate cycles on earth between snowball earth and rising sea levels.
Even if all the snows on earth melt (it takes a lot more atmospheric carbon dioxide than 450 ppm for that to happen based on paleo-data from the days when Utah was under water and dinosaurs roamed the earth) the sea levels may not rise more than 6 feet or 2 meters, and that would still not be a watery grave for humanity and life on earth.
Reversing the irreversible requires work to be done and, hence, creates jobs.