02 November 2021

With "net zero 2050" and the 1.5°C in the same breath, Glasgow reeks of cognitive dissonance

by David Spratt

So far most of the media coverage and advocacy at COP26 has been poor and severely misinformed. One after another  politicians, business leaders, journalists and NGO advocates talk about "net zero 2050" and the 1.5°C Paris goal in the same breath, and get away with it.  This gross underestimation of the climate condition is utterly delusional, and very few seem to be calling it out.

"Net zero 2050" (NZ2050) is a con, as this blog has reported over and over again, as did this Breakthrough report.  Central bankers have NZ2050 scenarios in which fossil fuels constitute 50% of primary energy use in 2050.  When the Murdoch media endorses the NZ2050 climate goal, you know it is the problem and not the answer. 2050 is so far away it's a reason for procrastination.  Judging by the G20 outcome, even NZ2050 and a coal phase-out may not pass muster in Glasgow.  China is on net zero by 2060 and India on net zero by 2070.

But 2050 is not the critical goal. 2025 and 2030 need to be the focus, and on these targets there is no reason to think COP26 is going to be within coo-ee of what needs to be done.

Let's start with some basics. The models producing 1.5°C scenarios are not up to scratch: 

Beyond the make-believe of 1.5°C scenarios full of overshoot, technological dreaming, high risks of failure and not fully accounting for carbon cycle feedbacks, there are some basic realities:

  • The first is that the world is likely to hit 1.5°C average global warming by 2030, regardless of the emissions path over the next decade. Warming is already 1.2°C, and the most recent IPCC report shows that Current (CMIP6) climate models project on average a warming of 0.3°C for the decade to 2030 (across the SSP2-4.5, SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5 scenarios).
  • Secondly, there is no carbon budget for 1.5°C target. It is a figment of modellers' imaginations. In fact, the renowned climate scientists and former head of climate at NASA, James Hansen, warns that the rate of global warming during the next 25 years could be double what it was in the previous 50 years. Rising emissions, declining aerosols (air pollution) and natural climate cycles will contribute to faster warming,  as will greater stratification of the ocean with a hotter layer of water on top.
  • Thirdly, to have a low risk of not overshooting 2°C, emissions need to be zero by 2030.  Even with a higher risk of overshoot, emissions need to be halved by 2030, and that scenario includes a substantial amount of carbon drawdown.  By way of comparison, it is likely that national emissions reduction pledges that actually have policies to go with them will result in global emissions by 2030 not being substantially lower than in 2020, and perhaps much worse. In September, the IPCC reported that global emissions will rise 16 per cent by 2030 on 2010 levels under governments’ plans put forward since the start of 2020.
So where does this lead us?  At the opening the COP, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston warned that we are at one minute to midnight on the doomsday clock. At the G20 meeting he warned: "Humanity, civilisation and society can go backwards as well as forwards and when they start to go wrong, they can go wrong at extraordinary speed... You saw that with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.... It’s true today that, unless we get this right in tackling climate change, we could see our civilisation, our world, also go backwards.”

Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director Emeritus of the Potsdam Institute,  is even more blunt: "I'm telling you that we're putting our kids onto a global school bus that will with 98% probability end in a deadly crash."  

And the reason is simple. Glasgow will not get within a mile of pledges to halve emissions by 2030, and any reputable climate scientist  will say that means warming is going to shoot past 2°C. And that then gets us into the land of accelerating carbon-cycle feedbacks of such magnitude that another degree becomes likely. The current Potsdam Institute Director, Johan Rockstrom, puts it like this: “If we go beyond 2°C it’s very likely that we have caused so many tipping points that you have probably added another degree just through self-reinforcing changes… The moment that the Earth system flips over from being self-cooling — which it still is — to self-warming, that is the moment that we lose control.”

This is the "Hothouse Earth" scenario, with its existential risks, in which system feedbacks and their mutual interaction could drive the Earth System climate to a point of no return, whereby further warming would become self-sustaining (without further human perturbations). The problem, elaborated in a 2019 paper, "Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against", is that time is close to running out: "We argue that the intervention time left to prevent tipping could already have shrunk towards zero, whereas the reaction time to achieve net zero emissions is 30 years at best. Hence we might already have lost control of whether tipping happens . A saving grace is that the rate at which damage accumulates from tipping — and hence the risk posed — could still be under our control to some extent.”

This was reaffirmed by Australia's Prof. Will Steffen: "Given the momentum in both the Earth and human systems, and the growing difference between the ‘reaction time’ needed to steer humanity towards a more sustainable future, and the ‘intervention time’ left to avert a range of catastrophes in both the physical climate system and the biosphere , we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse … the intervention time we have left has, in many cases, shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to transition to a more sustainable system.”

Moreover,  for regular readers of this blog, I should not have to add that 1.5°C is not a safe target. The Great Barrier Reef is in a death spiral: at the current level of global warming, it will bleach on average once every three-to-four years, whereas recovery takes a decade or more. West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) glaciers have passed a tipping point, and Greenland likely reached its tipping point 20 years ago. The Paris Agreement temperature target of 1.5°C is sufficient to drive the runaway retreat of WAIS.   Parts of East Antarctica might be similarly unstable. Three-quarters by volume of summer Arctic sea-ice has already been lost, and it is in a death spiral. One-quarter of the Himalayan and Tien Shan ice sheets have already been lost. The forest systems are oscillating to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern & central Amazonia.  A safe climate is one within the Holocene range, with warming no more than 0.5°C,

Of course little of this will be muttered in Glasgow, even softly. Thirteen years ago, Philip Sutton and I wrote a book called Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action. Slowly the nature of the climate emergency is being understood, thanks to the activism of many people, not least Greta Thunberg, Bernie Sanders and millions more.  This year the UN Secretary General sounded the "climate code red" alarm as the IPCC report was released. 

If this change in rhetoric is to mean anything,  it is this: forget about 2050, what we do in the next one, two, three, four, five year matters most. Former UK chief scientist Sir David King is ringing the alarms bells: “It is the short term which matters most, what global leaders do in the next three-to-five years will determine the future of humanity”, and he says we also need to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and provide cooling to preserve critical parts of the Earth system while we still can. 

This three-lever approach — zero emissions, large-scale carbon drawdown, and cooling — is advocated by the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, and by the Climate Crisis Advisory Group of leading scientists, initiated by King, with the meme "reduce, remove, repair". The Cambridge Centre's work on how to cool the Arctic is supported by Sir David Attenborough, who says that "Refreezing the Arctic, were it possible, would be a huge defence against the global catastrophes currently threatened by continued global warming".

If Glasgow could get to grips with this approach, the clock could be wound back by a minute or two.