The smokescreen of outdated emissions reduction targets

In a week where the Poznan climate conference barely registers in the international media, two new reports on the climate crisis have been released in the UK. George Monbiot reviews them both, here and here for the Guardian. Talk about chalk and cheese.

One of the reports, developed by the Public Interest Research Centre, evaluates recent trends in human industrial activity and the response of the Earth system, and concludes that we’re near or beyond the climatic breaking point already. Nothing short of transformational change, at all levels of society, will be sufficient to avoid a calamitous outcome. World War II++ scale action where all resources necessary to fix the problem are devoted to it. The analysis and recommendations in this report draws inspiration from the Climate Code Red scenario developed by Melbourne-based businessmen David Spratt and Philip Sutton. Presented in an interesting, persuasive and very readable 50 pages, it’s worth getting hold of. You can download the Climate Safety report here. Get it. Read it. Spread it around. This stuff must be widely understood.

The other report is an official paper produced by the Committee on Climate Change called Building a Low Carbon Economy: the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change. You can get it here. As Monbiot points out, it’s a decent acknowledgment of the seriousness of climate change, and the authors argue strongly that the UK must make deep cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions: 80% reduction by 2050 (the current Australian target – a nation with a per capita emissions rate almost twice that of the UK – is a laughably inadequate 60%). You see, as is explained the Climate Safety report and elsewhere, even 80% cuts for a developed nation like the UK throws caution very much to the ever warming wind. This is because we are already over the ‘safe’ level of CO2, and with each incremental addition to the atmospheric pool of greenhouse gases, we edge closer (or perhaps well beyond) the point at which we set in train Earth system feedbacks that rapidly take the problem out of our collective hands.

The problem is somewhat analogous to this. Imagine you are riding a bicycle along a flat stretch of road. If you keep pedalling (emitting CO2 to the atmosphere), you maintain your forward momentum (continue accumulating excess CO2 in the atmosphere). If you take your foot off the pedals, your bicycle starts to slow due to wind resistance and friction with the road surface (natural carbon sinks), and eventually you stop (get back to a ‘safe’ level of CO2 that maintains a Holocene climate). Ideally, you’d also apply pressure to the brakes to make you stop faster (produce large volumes of biochar or enhanced weathering to geoengineer a rapid CO2 drawdown).

But what if you go over the crest of a steep hill? At that point, the force of gravity (biotic and oceanic release of CO2 and methane due to carbon cycle feedbacks) overwhelms the slowing effect of resistance and friction, and indeed even if you take your foot off the pedals at that point (halt anthropogenic emissions) you don’t slow down, because the slope of the hill is now doing the ‘work’ for you. Your only chance to avoid a painful injury is to squeeze those brakes hard (geoengineering to cool the planet), but of course this runs the risk of locking the wheels and flipping yourself head-over-heels (I don’t think I need explain what this translates to in the real-world). Suffice to say, we don’t want to get to that steep hill.

Okay, the analogy, as always, is imperfect, but you get the general point. Any official report that weds itself to emissons reductions targets that are years old and fail to give due recognition to observed trends or the risks posed by Earth system tipping points, will lead to grossly inadequate public policy. Welcome to Poznan. Can we really expect the dialogue at Copenhagen 2009 to have faced reality? I have my doubts.

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  1. Could many members of our culture be “fixated” on the fantasy of limitless economic growth? Are we suffering from a sort of illness, something like amnesia, that is resulting in our forgetfulness with regard to the necessity of the finite Earth and its frangible environs to the preservation of life as we know it, a functional global political economy and the human species? Alternatively, have we been mesmerized by a modern rendition of the ancient Tower of Babel? Or have all of the above and more somehow been occurring?

    Perhaps we are forever forgetting about Earth and its environment because too many people, especially the economic powerbrokers, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and their minions in the mainstream media, are worshipping a “totem”. At least to me, there appear to be many too many people for whom the economy, in and of itself, is the primary object of their idolatry. This behavior is observable, obvious and flagrant. In many instances, these worshippers make what they evidently believe are rational arguments that suggest manmade financial and economic systems are somehow essential to, and an integral part of, God’s Creation; that indicate the growth of the global economy will occur from now on, even after the Creation is ravaged and its frangible climate destabilized by unbridled overproduction, unchecked overconsumption and unregulated overpopulation activities of the human species. Aside from the “Economic Colossus” nothing else seems to matter much to them.

    Today, it appears that the financial system of the economic powerbrokers is collapsing like a “house of cards” and the real economy of the family of humanity is threatened. Experts in political economy are saying internally inconsistent and contradictory things. Communications about financials and the economy are generally confused and in disarray. Confidence and trust in the operating systems of finance and the global economy have been undermined by the invention of dodgy financial instruments and unsustainable business models as well as by the promulgation of con games and Ponzi schemes. Transparency, accountability and honesty in business activities have been largely vanquished. A great economic system is being undone by con artists, gamblers and cheats. In such circumstances, does the manmade colossus we call the global political economy remind you in some ways of a modern Tower of Babel?


  2. Ouch. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about any of this stuff and could just laugh and say that AGW is a total hoax propegated by vested interest groups.

    Seriously there is zero chance of the kind of cuts needed being committed to by the global leaders, at least not any time soon. We will be very lucky indeed to get even the outdated targets committed to.

    I mean seriously I’m supposed to sit at work and happily try and reduce car commute trips from 20,000 students by a few percent a year after reading that? I gotta get out of here and do something useful instead. At least I’m not a hard core climate researcher – I’d need some serious drugs to get me through each day. (Barry I’m sure you’ve been accused of smoking a bit by skeptical detractors in your time:)

    On the flip side – a lot of hard core cyclists would speed up heading to the slope and hope to learn some new gnarly stunts on the wild ride down, get to the bottom, brush themselves off and make radically enthusiastic hand geastures and whooping noises to his mates still at the top of the slope. Is that like the Lomborg (sp?) approach?

    As a side note: Did anyone see that Prof. Jorg Imberger from UWA just won WA Scientist of the year… No criticism of a decent water expert, but his climate views are well known and certainly not in accordance with the cuts suggested here. Not a denialist but not one who thinks we can avoid temp rises, or that they are worth avoiding (I could be misrepresenting the man a bit I’m not sure).


  3. Dear Barry Brook of the BraveNewClimate Community,

    The human-induced predicament visible in our time to the family of humanity makes one thing clear: people with eyes to see, ears to hear and no speech impediments have got to speak out loudly, clearly and often now. Silence, the greatest power the rich and powerful possess, cannot be allowed to prevail. The reckless way a few people with wealth and power maintain a “golden” silence, one that protects their greed, gluttony and hoarding, is dangerous and cannot longer be endured because a good enough future for our children and coming generations is being mortgaged and threatened by these leading elders in my not-so-great generation.

    Regardless of whether or not other human beings choose to accept the “answers” to one question, I believe we must ask ourselves, “Can we teach one another to live within limits?”

    It is necessary, I suppose, for human beings to recognize and affirm human limits

    and Earth’s limitations

    To do otherwise and, by so doing, choose willfully and foolishly to ignore the practical requirements of biophysical reality runs the risk of putting life as we know it and our planetary home as a fit place for human habitation in peril, even in these early years of Century XXI.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001


  4. These are two very interesting reports.

    I find the phrase “Agree and Ignore” used in the Stockholm Network’s Climate Scenarios Report a pithy and useful phrase to sum up the approach of most governments to climate change. Under it, governments agree on the science calling for urgent action to address climate change (e.g. by accepting the validity of IPCC reports) but they largely ignore it in framing their policies. See

    The Stockholm Network uses the tag, “Step Change” to describe a future policy scenario where natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina cause rapid changes in the policy response. Joseph Romm also uses the metaphor of “Pearl Harbor” (sic) in a similar way:


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  6. Here’s something I wrote for Australian Science Media Centre (there are also comments there from plenty of other climate change scientists and economists:

    I suppose most sensible people will be happy with the upper-end emissions reduction targets outlined today by the Australian Government in the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) white paper – a 14% reduction by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, which equates to a per capita drop of 41%. These are ambitious and deeply challenging goals, and equal to or better than the per capita targets proposed by other developed nations such as the EU, UK and US. Australia’s 2050 target of 60% is unmoved from past policy, but it is the short-term targets that matter right now. [technically, we’re worse, because our per capita emissions are so much higher than other developed nations such as those of the EU – over twice as high in fact]

    To achieve these sort of cuts, there will need to be nothing short of a revolution in the way we generate and conserve energy – sharply turning around, in a mere 12 years, decades of rampant growth in carbon emissions and energy supply from fossil fuel industries. Whether the CPRS plan is sufficiently revolutionary and robust to realise this goal, even in combination with the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET), is a matter that will be debated thoroughly over the next year.

    But of course there is a rather large elephant in the room that every political decision maker is still pretending isn’t there. It’s an African bull elephant that’s already breaking chairs in the sitting room and is about to burst into the dining area and start smashing all the crockery with increasing rage. That’s the scientific reality of the physics, chemistry and biology of climate change and climate feedbacks, a process which cares nothing for these bold ambitions or how hard we might be trying. The laws of nature cannot be bargained away and they do not compromise. So we either muster a rouseabout team, lasso the elephant, and drag it from the house, or we attempt to placate it, in the vain expectation that we may be able to rescue a few pieces of our finest porcelain. Our only hope is to do the former, but it seems we’re resigned to accept that only the latter is possible.

    Put more directly, the 14% cut in our total emissions by 2020 announced today is such a pitifully inadequate attempt to stop dangerous climate change that we may as well wave the white flag now. That’s because such a goal – even if fully achieved (and it will take some mighty effort) – will still commit to global temperature rises of 3 or more degrees Celsius, setting in motion a slew of climate feedbacks that take the planet to a state unfit for humanity for all future generations, and for most species. The science tells us we need at least 40% by 2020, 90% by 2030 and zero emissions as soon as possible thereafter; with the real aim of restoring CO2 levels to what they were in the early 1950s. The CPRS targets will not achieve 450 ppm CO2, as the government hopes, and even 450 ppm has a little chance of avoiding 2°C warming, will not restore the polar ice, and will not stop sea level rise.

    It’s going to take a truly revolutionary set of policies and strong political will to rapidly wean ourselves off carbon-based energy. Yet from both a fossil-fuel supply (peak oil, gas and coal) and a climate perspective, this is exactly what must be done. Even to achieve the cuts announced by the government today, we must implement radical improvements in our energy efficiency and develop a whole new infrastructure of energy supply. So one has to ask the obvious question – why not commit to going ‘all the way’ and actually solve the crisis before it has time to happen, rather than merely half-solve it, such that the best we can do is delay the inevitable crunch?


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