By Gwynne Dyer
You can tuck your head between your knees and kiss your target of ‘not-more-than-1.5-degrees-Celsius-warming’ good-bye.
Trump is out and Biden is in, and you will hear a lot of talk about meeting that never-exceed +1.5°C limit. The blather began on Thursday, when the US president convened his ‘Climate Leaders’ Summit’ (virtual), and ends in November in Glasgow with COP-26, the five-yearly United Nations climate meeting where the commitments actually get made.
Cutting greenhouse emissions is still important and urgent, but the issue is now also how to deal with much more dangerous warming. We will need new strategies and new technologies to contain the damage, but first – how can we know for sure that we will go through +1.5°C by 2035, or possibly even by 2030?
By the numbers. The scientific consensus is that 430-435 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will commit us to +1.5°C. The world is now at 415 ppm, and in an average year we put about another 2.5 ppm into the atmosphere. At our current rate of global emissions, we would reach 435 ppm in 2029.
It’s very late, and we have to cut our emissions in half by 2030 if we want to be safe. But even in the plague year of 2020 we only cut our emissions by 7%. Most years we don’t cut them at all.
The theory was that at this summit (originally scheduled for 2020) every country would raise its target for emissions cuts. We need 50% emissions cuts by 2030 to stay below the +1.5°C limit. How’s that working out?
The whole European Union will make 55% cuts compared to 1990. The United States says 50-52% cuts and Canada says 40-45% cuts, but only compared to 2005. (They moved the goalposts.) Japan says 46% cuts, but only compared to 2013. If everybody else did the same, we’d be home and dry by 2030.
But China says it will try to ‘peak’ its emissions by 2030 (i.e. they will continue to grow every year until 2030). India and Indonesia won’t set a number at all, and neither will most other rapidly developing countries of the global south.
Historical justice says they should be allowed to get rich too, using the same fossil-fuel route the old rich countries took, but that’s an expensive form of suicide. Even if those who make promises actually keep them, we will end up in 2030 with a global cut of 30% at best. So wave good-bye to ‘no more than 1.5°C of warming’.
What do we do now? Starting with COP-26, we start developing ways to get carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere (Carbon Dioxide Removal – CDR), and to hold the heat down while we work on that (Solar Radiation Management – SRM). And we work as fast as we can to get our emissions down, because the other stuff is just short-term techno-fixes.
CDR and SRM were both discussed at the 2015 summit, but now we need to start spending serious money on them. We’re going to need them in the 2030s, and neither the science to make them safe nor the technology to make them work can be ready overnight. Ten years might be enough. It had better be enough.