Given the non-linear and irreversible nature of climate change, relying on uncertain future technologies like carbon capture and storage is hazardous and only delays urgent actions that need to be taken now, write Laurent Hubert, Jean-Noël Geist and Adrien Jahier.
Laurent Hubert is Coordinator for European Affairs at The Shift Project, a French think tank advocating the shift to a post-carbon economy. Jean-Noël Geist is Public Affairs Manager at The Shift Project. Adrien Jahier is a Lecturer at Polytech Mons and Member of The Shifters Belgium.
Fighting against global warming is a top priority for the EU. But the actions proposed and taken so far – in particular the Climate Law – show a misunderstanding of the problem at hand.
This proposal is a most welcome commitment: Europe would be the first continent to engrave an objective of carbon neutrality by 2050 in law. As negotiations continue in the European Parliament, The Shift Project would like to remind European policymakers of some basic – though often overlooked – facts on climate. As the COVID-19 crisis has reminded us, on exponential trends, each day wasted intensifies the problem, making us
ever closer to the point of no-return. Global warming and CO2 emissions are not conventional realities – like budgetary debt or a piece of legislation – but physical realities.
+1.5 °C: a political objective, already compromised by physical reality
A more tangible way to picture this urgent deadline is our carbon budget. Additional CO2 emissions and global temperature rise are strongly correlated. The carbon-budget tool estimates the total amount of carbon dioxide all humans can emit if we are to keep global-temperature increase below a given point.
It thus gives a better idea of the magnitude of collective efforts needed. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimated that from 2020, the available carbon budget is 130 GtC (billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) for the world to remain under +1.5 °C of temperature rise. Global CO2 emissions are close to 11.5 GtC a year, which means that at our current emissions trends, we will exceed our carbon budget in less than ten years. And this does not include other potential greenhouse gases.
Climate change is not a complicated problem. It is a complex and non-linear one, and is irreversible on human timescales. This makes the “other things being equal” assumption usually made in projections irrelevant, and highlights two significant flaws in the carbon budget approach.
First, the chemical inertia of CO2 is not accounted for. This means that all the efforts we make today will only start to have an effect in a couple of decades because CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere: one generation away!
Second, climate change also includes multiple built-in feedback loops. A positive feedback loop is a self-amplifying phenomenon: the change it triggers also causes the same change to occur again faster and stronger. Climate-change feedback loops mean that what causes climate change also causes other phenomena, which in turn amplify and worsen climate change.
The snowball effect of permafrost thawing is one of them. With the thawing, the organic matter contained, notably in part of the Arctic permafrost, starts to decompose, which releases additional greenhouse gases (CO2, methane), leading to higher temperatures, which in turn makes the permafrost thaw even faster, and so on.
In an article published in the journal Nature last year, scientists reported that among the fifteen identified major metrics regulating the Earth system, nine had tipping points already activated, triggering irreversible and hardly-predictable feedback loops. Some estimates suggest that we might overshoot the +1.5 °C threshold as soon as 2021.
+2°C : The tree of average temperatures hides the forest of climatic catastrophes
Our inability to grasp the true consequences of a +2 °C global warming is a major impediment to immediate and effective climate action. Most of us people, including politicians and the authors of these words, are ill-equipped to understand what it actually means. We tend to see it through weather instead of climate, and believe that taking off the jumper in winter or turning on the air-conditioning in summer would suffice to make
a +2 °C global warming tolerable. This is a deep misunderstanding and inaccurate picture of what global warming really is and how it is impacting the planet and its ecosystems.
The temperature of a human body would be a better metaphor. Only a few degrees above your normal body temperature would undermine your regular functioning and vital activities. Any additional degree beyond that would mean reaching new dangerous tipping points. Too high a fever would be fatal. It does not matter if your body temperature drops afterwards: it cannot change what has been irreversibly done.
When it comes to rising temperatures, the complexity of the climate system makes the tiniest change have major impacts. Examples are quite easy to find: as we speak, the global temperature rise of at least +1.1 °C already means that average temperatures in Russia have risen by +6 °C during January-to-March 2020, compared to the same-months 1951–1980 average. In May 2020, a temperature above 25°C was recorded beyond the Arctic Circle, breaking by +13°C its previous record, while the seasonal normal is about 0°C. On the 20th of June, temperatures hit 38°C. Breaking temperature records in Europe and globally will be the new normal from now on.
Actually, temperature averages are deceivers because they do not reflect how wide the disparity and fluctuations (in terms of frequency and intensity) of the extreme climate phenomena are, and how much ecosystems can react and adapt. Recent massive wildfires in Australia are another evidence that even a small rise in global average temperatures can highly disrupt ecosystems and stress their recovery abilities up to hazardous tipping points. This is only a glimpse of what lies ahead for Europe, meaning ever-growing difficulties for local ecosystems to cope with, and a direct threat to our health, our economy, our agriculture, our infrastructure.
The Climate Law cannot compromise with the laws of physics
Current trends are leading us to a +4 to +6 °C world, hence every +0.1 °C we can spare matters. So we need to be more ambitious and adapt every single economic sector in our society right now.
Given the non-linear and irreversible nature of climate, part of the European approach of climate neutrality by 2050 – based for example on uncertain future technologies, such as carbon capture & storage technologies (CCS) – is hazardous. Even if we succeed in making the assumed technologies economically viable with additional incentives and breakthroughs in the next 10 to 20 years, the natural services, which support our health, our economy, our food system, our infrastructure would already be massively and irreversibly damaged.
Believing we can count on uncertain future solutions is not only hazardous, it also delays the urgent actions – based on existing and viable technologies, strong efficiency and courageous sobriety – we need to take now.
There is no room for political compromise on physics. European policymakers should base their decisions on a proper understanding of how our climate really works. As it stands now, the European Climate Law will not lead to the necessary decarbonisation of the European economy. Neither sufficient, nor exhaustive, The Shift Project designed a plan to decarbonise Europe in 2017 with nine indispensable sectorial proposals. Will the European policymakers be bold enough to make the required realistic decisions?