Facing the true projections of climate change

Posted on Posted in Geography

Foreword: The following is produced from my notes and interpretations of a seminar given by Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, a UK-based climate research centre. Entitled: “Real Clothes for the Emperor: Facing the challenges of climate change”. I found it a wake-up call in terms of the timescale and magnitude upon which we must act should we accept the consensus on the extent that atmospheric CO2 levels can dictate surface temperature. It does not necessarily pertain to my own views, but I found the talk informative and enlightening. I shall provide my own thoughts beneath it so as to differentiate them from the seminar summary.

Climate Change is perhaps the most pertinent of contemporary issues. We have doubled CO2 emissions since 1980. There was a 6% growth in emissions in 2010 and this is higher than any time in the industrial revolution. The math is unappealing. The numbers are brutal, they are not what we wanted to hear. There is very little hope of making substantive changes in the time frame we have available. If we’re in this situation we need to be honest with ourselves. We could carry on with cognitive dissonance like we have been doing for the past 20 years. For example, the Rio Earth Sumit was in 1992, yet emissions have continued and the rate of growth has actually gone up.

Our infrastructure also provides various “lock-in” factors, which makes it hard to change:

  • Large scale infrastructure 30-70 years
  • Built environment – 30-100 years
  • Aircrafts and Ships – 30 years
  • High demand technology 2-20 years

There are however, some real messages of hope.

Explore the void between the rhetoric and reality on climate change mitigation. Whats the difference between the discussion on what to do and what we actually do?

First it is perhaps important to understand what are we responding to?

Copenhagen Accord (2009) ‘To hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and to take action to meet this objective consistent with the science on the basis of equity

EU ‘…must ensure global average temperature increases do not exceed preindustrial levels by more than 2 degrees Celsius’

UK’s Low Carbon Transition Plan (2009) ‘Average global temperatures must rise no more than 2 degrees Celsius’

These do not say try to plateau at 2 degrees Celsius, and they certainly do not say try to give a 50/50 chance at staying at 2 degrees Celsius, they definitively say that it must be no more. Smoke and mirrors have been placed around this, obscuring the original names, because the policies that have been introduced give around a 1 in 5 chance of staying within this 2 degrees Celsius margin.

So if current policy is failing us, how do we ensure a good chance of staying below 2 degrees celsius?

But what does this ‘staying below 2 degrees’ figure actually mean… What is it comparative  to? Well, it is actually defined as a global average surface temperature rise as compared to preindustrial levels. Regionally this could have devastating consequences, whilst a 2 degrees Celsius rise in the UK may be appealing, it could lead to a 7 degree Celsius rise at the poles. Most of the planet is covered in oceans, and so most of the land will be subject to a 3 degree Celsius temperature rise. Much larger repercussions than we may immediately think.

But where has this 2 degree Celsius number come from? Scientists have looked at the impacts of different temperatures and come up with a threshold, over time we’ve come to think of this 2 degrees Celsius, that below it we could tolerate. What’s important is that this was made in the late 1990s and published in 2001. These were revisited at the time of Copenhagen (2009) and we suddenly see the science has come a long way and worryingly a lot more of the collective impacts are red, and will appear at a number of lower temperatures than we thought before. If we plotted the acceptable impacts now, we’d see that they occur at a much lower temperature.

If 2 degrees Celsius was dangerous at the time, how dangerous is it now? Is 1 degree Celsius the new 2 degree Celsius? Given what we’ve already done, it’s hard for us to imagine holding the temperature at 1 degree Celsius. We’re pretty much stuck at 2 degrees Celsius, but we’ve already kind of failed that. It does have significant political momentum behind it. What mitigation is necessary to stay at or below 2 degrees Celsius? How do we split the global cake between Annex 1 (OECD) [wealthier countries] and non-Annex 1 (non-OECD) [less wealthier countries]?

Emission reduction targets

  • UK 80% CO2 reduction by 2050
  • EU 60-80% by 2050
  • Bali 50% by 2050

Long term targets are not in a politicians term in office, they can ignore it in the short-term, pass the problems on to their children. As a global society we really like the idea of long-term targets. The CO2 we emit now will change the climate for the next 100-200 years. 2050 targets are unrelated to avoiding dangerous climate change, the only thing that matters is their cumulative quantity, how much are they building up to. What we are doing day-to-day – the carbon budget.. This rewrites the whole chronology of climate change. It eliminates techno fixes in 2030 and beyond, and brings about change that we must make now. We can therefore see why long-term targets are tempting and why we stick with this scientifically illiterate method, so we don’t have to act now.

How does it change the challenge that we face in terms of mitigation? Global CO2 emissions, 2.7% pa last 100 years, 3.5% pa 2000-7 and 5.6% pa 2009-10. This correlates with increasing car use.  Despite the rhetoric and discussion, there is still an increase every year. The economic downturn caused a 1.3% decrease in emissions, which was less than expected.  The 09-10 period may be a blip, coming out of the downturn, but the reality is we are likely to see an increase from non-Annex 1 countries. They are using a lot of coal based energy to fuel production.

What does this failure say about what we need to do? What does this say about the 2 degrees Celsius goal? The earliest we can peak the better, it means we don’t have to come off the peak as fast. It’s difficult as countries are trying to grow their economies at the same time. Anderson & Bows (2008) suggests the affects that different peaks could  have. These show cumulative emissions, as we hit 2050, CO2 is assumed to level off, this is not 0, as there is the assumption that everything is carbon neutral except for feeding the world’s population, as the process will always put greenhouse gases in to the atmosphere ergo reducing the amount we can emit in the interim. The Stern Report (2006) had CO2 peak at 2015. This doesn’t seem viable, but if we change it to 2020 or 2025, we see how fast we have to reduce our carbon emissions increase drastically. In some cases after 2015, we’ve already exceeded the budgets that some of the science advises to maintain a 2 degrees Celsius warming.

Assuming a peak of 2020, there are unprecedented reduction rates, 10% reduction year on year to stay on track to 2 degrees Celsius warming, that we have already noted may be dangerous. Assumptions are made optimistically, especially in terms of deforestation. For energy emissions, most of the science says it’s too late if we peak in 2020, the emissions for food and deforestation means there’s nothing left for energy. Emissions from energy, planes cars and heating, has to be 0 carbon by 2035. Reduction rates are 10-20% every year from 2020.

There are no precedents for such reductions. The Stern Report (2006) says ‘Annual reductions of greater than 1% pa have only been associated with economic recession or upheaval”. The collapse of the Soviet Union economy only generated around 5% pa reductions for around 10 years. This is 1/4 to 1/2 of what we think is necessary to give us a chance of 2 degrees Celsius. We have no idea how to get to the 2 degree Celsius future.

Why is this different from the standard discussion? Most assume the growth rate to peak emissions to be 1-2%, when in reality, conservative estimates are about 3 or 4%. Possibly higher. Almost all analyses peak emissions from 2010-2016 and China peaking 2017, these are very early peaking dates. Is it a good illustration of the world in which we live? The rate of emission reduction is more challenging (10%) on the other side of the peak. We cannot put technology in place fast enough to deliver, that’s not to say it’s not important – it’s a prerequisite. Especially supply technology. Socolow’s wedges are the wrong way round early action is needed as we’re acting late and not early. Net costs are meaningless – economics is fundamentally premised on small changes, we need large changes. Economists tell us we can use the same theories for different scales. Market economics cannot address the holistic challenge of climate change mitigation.

What if we had a 4 degree Celsius future? Assuming a 4 degree Celsius future, peaking at 2020 with a 3.5 pa reduction of CO2. It means a 5-6 degree Celsius global land mean, and an increase of 6-8 degrees on the hottest days in China, 8-10 degrees in Central Europe and 10-12 degrees in New York. Low latitudes receive a 40% reduction in maize and rice, where the population heads towards 9 billion by 2050.

The widespread view is the a 4 degree future is incompatible with our future. It’d be devastating for the majority of ecosystems and we could entrain other feedbacks, tipping points, and therefore cause further temperature rises. It should be avoided at all costs.

How do we split the cake between the Anne 1 and the Non Annex 1 areas? If we allowed non Annex 1 an emissions growth of 3.5%, even though they’re growing at 6,7 or 8%. And a very early peak at 2025. And allowed them to decrease at 7%, twice that which Stern have said is possible. What does this leave for the developed world? To have a 40% chance of not exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, under these conditions, we would have had to have peaked at 2010 and come down at an infinite rate. Even this is too optimistic.

China is contributing 25% of global emissions, they’re growing at 10.5% pa, they are not planning on it coming down. India contributes 6% of global emissions and is growing at 7.4% pa. There is a huge scope for low-income industrialisation in China. The average Chinese only has 5% of the wealth of those in the UK. Whilst some provinces such as Shanghai and Beijing are the same as OECD countries in terms of wealth, and around 2/3 of the size of the UK. Therefore there is huge scope for these individuals to become wealthier and industrialise. India is the same, but the GDP per capita average is even lower, at 2%.

If China meets it’s 12th 5 year plan, China will represent around 50% of global CO2 emissions by 2020. By 2030, if it carried on at the same rate, China’s emissions would be equal to the entirety of the world’s today. Chinese academics support these numbers. 2030 is assumed to be the peak by them and have a growth between 5 and 7% pa ans a 3.5 to 5% pa reduction post peak. Western modelers do not use these figures. By 2030, India and China could have 2/3 of the world’s CO2 emissions. Currently no global models take China and India seriously.

The nature of language used to inform policy makers is misleading. Observe how the following quotes point towards a likelihood of achievability:

“It is possible to restrict warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less… with at least a 50% probability.” AVOID (2009)

For ~2 degrees Celsius it is necessary  that “the UK ut emissions by at least 80%… by 2050. The good news is that reductions of that size are possible without sacrificing the benefits of economic growth and rising prosperity.” CCC p.xiii& 7 (2009)

“…a low stabilisation target of 400ppm Co2e can be achieved at moderate cost… with.. a high likelihood of achieving this goal.” ADAM p.19 (2009)

However, using the same science, Anderson & Bows arrive at the following conclusions:

“..it is difficult to envisage anything other than a planned economic recession being compatible with stabilisation at or below 650ppmv Co2e.” Anderson & Bows (2008)

“…the 2015-16 global peaking date (CCC, Stern & ADAM) implies… a period of prolonged austerity for Annex 1 nations and a rapid transition away from existing development patterns within non-Annex 1 nations.” Anderson & Bows (2011)

People are talking abstractly from what is reality, there is a poor choice of language which is being used to make critical political decisions.


  • Recent historical emissions are ‘mistaken’
  • Short-term emission growth are played down
  • The peak year choice is expedient and dangerously misleading
  • Reduction rate is universally determined by economists and is pivotal to why these analyses are so unrealistic
  • Emissions floors are poorly accounted for or misunderstood
  • Geoengineering to reduce carbon emissions may end up being viable options, but we do not currently know enough about them and they are speculative at best. They should not be embedded in models – it is irresponsible
  • Annex 1 (OECD) / non-Annex 1 (non OECD) emissions split is often neglected or hidden
  • Our view of time is irresponsible, climate change is cumulative, it’s not a case of we can act later if we don’t act now.

Too much has been invested in to 2 degree Celsius for politicians to say it’s not possible. A Senior Government Advisor was question by Anderson as to whether they lie over the plausibility of 2 degrees, he replied  with a “perhaps” and that rather than lying they are being less honest – and more dishonest. David Milliband was even quoted as saying: “[The] position is challenging enough, I can’t go with the message that 2 degrees Celsius is impossible – it’s all we’ve worked towards”.

The solutions…

There are things we can do to move towards an outside chance of 2 degrees Celsius. It may be an outside chance, but it’s a step in the right direction. We need a 10% reduction in emissions year on year, 40% by 2015, 70% by 2020 and 90+% by 2030. This may seem impossible, but so may be living with 4 degrees Celsius in 2050-70. The future is impossible in some way.

How many of the 7 billion people need to do something to make a difference? If we apply the Pareto principle, else known as the 80-20 rule, whereby roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, we discover that  ~50% of emissions come from ~1% of the population. This broadly seems to hold when we look at what happens around the world. But who is this 1%? Many people will argue that people in China will equally start wanting domestic CO2 contributing  products, such as a car or a fridge, but for the mode of people in China to have them, it will take them another 20 or 30 years, even at 10% pa growth rates. So the poor cannot grow fast enough to effect the basis of this math.

Who’s in this 1%? Likely anyone who gets on a plane, or those earning over £30k in the UK. So most climate scientists. This raises the question that are Annex 1 constituents sufficiently concerned to make substantial personal sacrifices and changes to their lifestyles right now? But we know who needs to change, so this gives us hope, for policy needs to be aimed at them.

But what can technology offer us? Most energy inefficiency takes closest near the source, so there are massive demand opportunities that we can take advantage of. Demand opportunities dwarf those from supply in short-term. White goods only have a lifetime of 3 to 8 years, but power stations are much longer. So we can make big changes relatively quickly.

In terms of car efficiency in the UK, on average UK cars emit ~175g/km, by 2015 the EU plan to have a fleet average of 130g/km. New cars are improving, normal cars now such as the 2010 VW and SKODAs are 85-99g/km. Roughly 90% of the cars on the roads are less than 8 years old, and so with this information, we can deduce that we can reach a 50% CO2 reduction by 2020 with no new technology and the amount of km covered did not grow. If we reverse recent trends in occupancy, we could even see it decrease by around 70% by 2020.

To conclude:

Uncomfortable implications of conservative assumptions if…

  • The link between cumulative emissions and temperature is correct
  • If the Non-Annex 1 (less developed) nations peak emissions by 2025/30
  • There are rapid reductions in deforestation emissions
  • Food emissions halve from today’s values by 2050 (they are currently going up)
  • No tipping points occur
  • Stern/CCC/IEA’s feasible reductions of 3-4% pa is achieved


2 degrees Celsius stabilisation is virtually impossible under the current economic framework and society. But it’s virtually impossible, but not absolutely impossible, if we’re prepared to make the adjustments now as the 1%, alongside technological advancements and changes… there is still an outside chance. It is still possible. If we don’t change now then we will head towards 4 degrees or more Celsius by 2050-2070, which currently looks likely. This is unlikely to be stable, this may evoke feedback mechanisms itself, causing it to rise further. We could even reach 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2035. We’re no longer talking about these temperatures by the end of the century, it’s very much within our lifetimes.


The Manchester Mandate says that we should mitigate for 2 degrees Celsius, but plan for 4 degrees Celsius, so that the correct infrastructure is in place should the worst case scenario arise. However what we observe is that we are planning for 2 degrees Celsius, and mitigating for 4 degrees Celsius. This should not be a message of futility, but a wake-up call. We have done nothing but talk since the ’90s, we cannot do that anymore if we still want to claim our outside chance of plateauing the temperature rise, relative to preindustrial levels, at 2 degrees Celsius.
My comments: The presentation was very alarmist, but I think it was correct for being as such. I was reassured to see this alarmist attitude emerging from its disenchantment with the economist’s view of climate change and it’s mitigation and the uncovering and interpretation of data that fully supports these claims. However, it only does so if we accept the consensus of the extent by which atmospheric carbon dioxide has a baring over surface temperature. Which I think is important to keep in mind. However, being a consensus, it would be foolish of us to ignore it when we are being warned that it is our last chance to act.
What alarms me more is the misinformation that politicians spread, in terms of them sticking to their 2 degrees statements and long-term policies that they are not accountable for being out of office. These are true holes in our society’s Government that are only emerging in practice, the scope for these to have negative effects is great not just in terms of climate, but also in terms of general society. Finally, I raise the question of how we usual consider policy pertaining to the science, such as it does here (albeit clouded science), but ask you to focus on the other side, where political interests fund science. Should the political dissonance be such as described by Anderson, surely the misallocation of funding and research is to follow, which is unyielding regardless of your stance on the debate.
-Joe Blakey
A older version of the presentation is available to listen to on the following link: Professor Kevin Anderson – Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous