Two months since COP21, where are we now?
By Robert Lowe, on 21 January 2016
In December 2015 immediately following the publication of the COP21 Paris Agreement I wrote a short note on the competing reasons for pessimism and optimism. What follows expands on that theme. I am going to focus on three things: COP21, the confirmation that 2015 has been the warmest year on the instrumental record, and continued reports that coal consumption in China may have peaked.
In contrast to the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen talks there is clearly more to celebrate with the Paris Climate Deal. The achievement of getting all 195 countries to commit to emission reduction was a diplomatic success. But it is also clear that the wording of the Paris deal – and in particular the introduction of a 1.5°C warming target – displays a profound unreality about the position that global climate has now reached. It has just been confirmed that global average surface temperature in 2015 was the highest on the instrumental record, at around 1°C above the 1850-1900 average. Temperatures over the last 40 years have risen at around 0.19°C per decade. At this rate, the world will cross the 1.5°C limit in about 2040, well before likely reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions will begin to impact significantly on the rate of increase in global temperature. A paper published last year by Professor Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, captures some of the consequences of this analysis for energy and environmental policy.
It appears likely that at some point global climate will shift from being driven primarily by fast feedback mechanisms – exemplified by the idea that radiative forcing due to increased CO2 raises temperatures, which increases humidity, which raises temperatures further – to being driven increasingly by slow feedback mechanisms, exemplified by, but not limited to the ice-albedo effect. One of the consequences of such a shift would be that simple abatement measures – such as reducing CO2 emissions from the global energy system – would no longer constrain the rate of change of climate. The fact that we do not yet know when this shift will take place is one of the reasons for continuing to do the work we do at the UCL Energy Institute – there may still be a significant probability that we can contribute to delaying such a shift either indefinitely, or for sufficiently long that measures to deal with slow feedback mechanisms can be developed and deployed.
My reasons for guarded optimism include:
- Continued reports that coal consumption in China may have peaked – unabated coal combustion has to stop in the near future, if climate change is to be contained. The latest news from China, together with news of a downturn in US coal stocks, is at least not inconsistent with the possibility that global coal production is close to its peak.
- The impact of the very high rates of growth in electricity generation by wind and pv. This suggested that sustained growth at recent rates would see global fossil fuel consumption peak shortly after 2025. This peaking would take place at a relatively low global renewable energy fraction, precisely because renewable growth rates were so high.
So how to sum this up? It seems to me that things are getting better roughly as fast as they are getting worse. And in terms of humanity’s dynamic relationship with its ecosystem, that is probably as good as it ever gets. It probably is all still to play for.
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