Halfway there: living on a prayer

24 November 2015

Portrait of Tim Kruger

by Tim Kruger
Programme Manager, Oxford Geoengineering Programme

Tim leads a group across the University of Oxford exploring proposed geoengineering techniques and the governance mechanisms required to ensure that any research in this field is undertaken in a responsible way.

Global Warming4

Two recent pieces of climate news bring into focus how far we have come in the six years since the Copenhagen summit and how much further we will need to go in order for the Paris talks to be deemed a success.

First up is the latest Emissions Gap Report – this report is published by the United Nations Environment Programme each year and compares what has been achieved in terms of mitigation with what more needs to be done to avoid dangerous climate change. Baselining against a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, the report heralds the emission reduction pledges that most nations are bringing to Paris – if these pledges are met then global emissions of carbon dioxide will be about 11 billion tonnes less per year than they would have been otherwise. This would be a great stride in the right direction – but it would be only half of the reduction required to give the world good prospects of avoiding the 2°C rise in average temperatures that has been described as dangerous climate change.

Which brings us to the second piece of climate news – the planet has now warmed 1°C above pre-industrial levels – halfway to ‘dangerous’ climate change. The dangerous is in inverted commas, because to many people around the world the damaging effects of climate change are already being felt severely.

So in two senses we are halfway there – and like the proverbial glass-half-full-glass-half-empty test – there is food for both optimists and pessimists.

For the optimists, they can herald the unprecedented progress made in corralling so many countries to making mitigation pledges – for them the climate negotiations have been an enormous success and to achieve the goal of limiting climate change we need only to continue along the path we are on, squeezing further emission reduction pledges from nations in an ongoing ratchet of commitments.

For the pessimists, time is running short and progress is insufficient. Even with the pre-Paris pledges global emissions will keep on rising beyond 2030. To have a good prospect of avoiding dangerous climate change requires humanity limiting the amount of carbon we burn to less than a trillion tonnes – with current policies we will exceed that limit in 2038.

And we are living on a prayer – displaying a faith in our ability to avoid dangerous climate change that is unsupported by rational analysis. Even if all the pre-Paris pledges are met (a gigantic ‘if’) the world is on course for 2.7°C of warming and pathways to capping the temperature rises at less than 2°C depend on negative emission techniques (proposals to develop ways of sucking out stupendous quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere, which have not been meaningfully assessed). Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief recently said “I have full confidence we are going to get on this two-degree pathway”. Such a statement betrays a degree of optimism that lies somewhere between heroic and delusional. To be fair, she may not actually believe what she is saying, but may instead consider that a cheery pep-talk is what is required to achieve the progress in the negotiations that she desires – a case of “fake it ‘til you make it”. While this has merits as a tactic, it makes for a terrible strategy - it’s a case of believing your own propaganda. It will inevitably lead to a plan which is divorced from reality and a backlash, when that reality becomes apparent.

There are some who argue that we should not undertake research into proposed negative emission techniques because the prospect of such techniques might undermine the will to make the necessary emission cuts – the so-called Moral Hazard argument. There are others who hold that removing such proposed techniques from the climate models – which makes the capping of temperature rises at less than 2°C miraculous and/or ridiculous – would be to do a disservice as it would undermine the will to cut emissions because of sheer hopelessness – the ‘ship’s going down, so we might as well party’ line of argument – or Morale Hazard as one might call it.

Instead, we have the worst of both worlds – implicit reliance on a suite of techniques that are essentially science fiction and a negligible evidence base with which to determine whether they could be transmuted into scalable fact.

It’s as if a new disease was discovered and governments around the world committed to its eradication, but failed to provide any of their own resources, or provide incentives to anyone else to mobilise resources, to develop a cure. Such inaction, if conscious, would be deeply cynical. So let us be generous and assume that it is an unconscious decision and instead only indicates ineptitude.

Perhaps it’s time to start praying …

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.