CLIMATE CHANGE: FEELING THE HEAT IN 2011
It’s been a fast and furious start to the year on the climate front. Here’s a quick round up of news and links that have caught my eye so far.
Hot, hot heat
Last week both NASA and NOAA confirmed in independent studies that 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year on record globally. This builds on news that:
Each of the last three decades has been much warmer than the decade before. At the time, the 1980s was the hottest decade on record. In the 1990s, every year was warmer than the average of the previous decade. The 2000s were warmer still.
Silent momentum and/ or a new path(s)?
Despite clear evidence of a warming planet and soaring costs associated with more frequent natural disasters the world has yet to sign a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions (GHGs) to a level necessary for a safe operating space for humanity. December’s COP16 meeting in Cancun, Mexico achieved what the United Nations (UN) termed silent momentum on a number of issues including deforestation and the creation of a global fund to assist developing nations adapt to our changing climate. However, the UN and the world’s governments have little to show in terms of what ultimately matters:
A significant emissions gap exists between what is being promised by countries and what is needed to keep the rise in global temperature below two degrees Celsius, let alone move towards the 1.5-degree threshold needed to protect low-lying island states.
For those wondering, the remaining gap in the optimistic scenario is about the equivalent to the emissions of all of the world’s car, trucks and buses combined. And that’s despite the developed world likely having reached peak travel in recent years.
It is also worth noting that the lack of meaningful progress is raising questions about the effectiveness of the 20-year-long UN COP process and carbon pricing as a vehicle to reduce GHGs. Some are advocating instead for aggressive investments in research and development to drive down the price of clean energy and make it cost competitive with dirty fossil fuels. Others are pointing to getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies as a key step in accelerating the transition to a clean energy and climate resilient future. While others, including prominent NASA climate scientist James Hansen, think a combination of a revenue neutral carbon tax, citizen activism and legal action are what is required. From what I’ve read these are issues that will not be resolved quickly.
Of course, all of this is occurring at a time when weird and wild weather around the world is spurring more debate about what is and isn’t caused by climate change. Much of the US and Europe have had massive winter storms; flooding in Brisbane and much of Queensland has been called the costliest disaster in Australian history; Brazil is currently experiencing its own worst natural disaster in history with deadly flooding and mudslides; Pakistan is still reeling from last summer’s flooding that put one-fifth of the country under water and cost $9.5 billion; and Russia’s record heat, drought and fires are playing a role in spiking global food prices and resulted in an estimated 56,000 premature deaths.
Is all of this evidence of climate change? According to climate scientists it’s impossible to say that any one particular event is definitively caused by our warming climate. However, they explain it is also likely having an influence. For example, Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics at at Potsdam University and Department Head at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, explains that:
While it cannot be scientifically proven (or disproven, for that matter) that global warming caused any particular extreme event, we can say that global warming very likely makes many kinds of extreme weather both more frequent and more severe.
He also points out:
The fact that heat waves like the one in Russia become more frequent and extreme in a warmer world is easy to understand. Extreme rainfall events will also become more frequent and intense in a warmer climate, owing to another simple fact of physics: warm air can hold more moisture. For each degree Celsius of warming, 7% more water is available to rain down from saturated air masses. Drought risk al0so increases with warming: even where rainfall does not decline, increased evaporation dries out the soils.
In terms of warming to date Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, explains that:
There is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.
Clean Energy Progress
Of course, all of the above is just the tip of the iceberg on the climate front. I have not written about recent developments in climate science (e.g. climate change unstoppable for 1,000 years; current CO2 emissions on path to warming last seen 30 to 100 million years ago by 2100) or local and national mitigation or adaptation achievements. Those will be addressed in a later post. Instead, I want to close by highlighting some notable developments related to clean energy.
The big news is that clean energy received a record $243 billion in investment in 2010, which is certainly encouraging and could have huge climate implications if the trend continues over the coming years. In an interview with Bloomberg New Energy Finance Chief Executive Officer Michael Liebreich explains the significance of the funding:
We have been saying for some time that the world needs to reach a figure of $500 billion per annum investment in clean energy if we are to see carbon emissions peak by 2020. What we are seeing in these figures for the first time is that we are halfway there.
Leaders in this area include Scotland, Brazil and Portugal, which have all taken big steps forward in the last year. But, there are none bigger or more important than China, which reduced its energy intensity per unit of GDP by an impressive 20% and set out a new 5-Year Plan, which has an explicit sustainability agenda. How this figures with their huge energy demand and efforts to build a consumption based economy remains to be seen though. Perhaps this will be explored in another post…