Climate change will be catastrophic

I want you to act as you would in a crisis.
I want you to act as if our house is on fire.
Because it is.

Greta Thunberg

All the available evidence indicates that the planet is heading for a climate catastrophe but governments are not responding accordingly. In the words of UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, “Climate change is moving faster than we are.”

When considered over a geological timescale, atmospheric CO2 is increasing at an extraordinary rate. The lower line in the graph below shows that by 1960 the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was greater than it had ever been over 800,000 years. And since 1960 it has continued to soar.

It is generally accepted that we should be trying to keep the global temperature increase to 1.5°C. In 2017, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated the net amount of carbon that the world could add to the atmosphere through emissions and keep the temperature rise to 1.5°C, i.e. the remaining carbon budget. IPCC determined that if the world reduced annual emissions the carbon budget would not be used up until around 2050, the time by which global emissions would need to be net zero (emissions balanced by removals into carbon sinks, particularly forests).

The remaining carbon budget for a 1.5°C increase was estimated for 2017 with a 50% probability to be 580 billion tonnes of CO2 or, with a 66% probability, 420 billion tonnes.

Current estimates are that the remaining carbon budget will be used up within about a decade. That means the global temperature is expected to be 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels soon after 2030. And that will happen unless we take immediate and drastic action to reduce emissions. If we carry on ‘business as usual’ the global temperature rise will be greater, potentially much greater, than 1.5°C. Transformational change is required in virtually everything we do.

Since 2017, emissions have continued to increase thus reducing the remaining carbon budget. The increase in emissions in 2021 was the largest ever recorded. IPCC reported the remaining carbon budget in 2020 as 500 billion tonnes with a 50% probability or 400 billion tonnes with a 66% probability. A recent report, by 94 scientists from 70 research centres around the world including CSIRO, puts the remaining carbon budget in 2021 at 420 billion tonnes with a 50% probability.

Despite the warnings from IPCC and many others, our political leaders still talk about net zero emissions by 2050. We need to reach net zero by 2030 or very soon after. Or else!

At the COP26 Conference held in Glasgow in November 2021, the Parties were exhorted to not only commit to net zero emissions by 2050 but to raise their 2030 commitments. Australia declined to change the 2030 commitment of 26–28% reduction having just managed to get the National Party to agree to net zero by 2050.

The newly elected Labor government has a commitment to a reduction of 43% by 2030, far short of what is necessary.

It is virtually inevitable that global temperature will increase by more than 1.5°C. IPCC predicted a range of consequences, some of which have already been experienced, e.g. extreme weather events including severe bushfires in Australia, North America, the Amazon, Indonesia and Siberia, extreme temperatures (50°C in Canada), flooding in Asia and Europe, drought in eastern Australia followed by severe flooding. The Great Barrier Reef, along with other coral reefs around the world, is predicted to suffer severe impacts from a rise of 1.5°C with some damage being irreversible.

Given the likelihood of the temperature increase being 2°C or more, the Great Barrier Reef will almost certainly die.

The graph below which is reproduced from IPCC 2018 indicates the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions have to be reduced to reach net zero by 2040. An even greater rate of reduction is necessary to reach net zero by 2030 or soon after which now needs to be the objective.

Could anyone believe that governments around the world will turn emissions around within a couple of years and achieve a rate of reduction greater than that at which they have been recently increasing? According to Simon Sharpe, University College of London, we need to decarbonise five times faster than we have been carbonising. Catastrophe looks inevitable.

Australia’s role

Our political leaders like to tell us that Australia is responsible for just 1.4% of global emissions so it doesn’t matter what we do about emissions. It won’t make any difference! But that ignores the contribution we make to global emissions through coal and gas exports. These ‘Scope 3’ emissions are not counted in our Nationally Determined Commitment.

Coal and gas together are responsible for around 60% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal when thermal and metallurgical coal are combined and is now the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. A study by Climate Analytics in 2019 concluded that when emissions from our exported coal and gas are included, Australia’s contribution to global emissions was around 5%. And that is not counting the impact of flaring and methane leakages. Methane is 84 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and whereas it has a short life, around eight years, it is converted in the atmosphere by oxidative reactions to CO2.

While all evidence points to an urgent need to reduce the use of fossil fuels, Australia plans large-scale expansion of coal mining and gas extraction. And the newly elected federal Labor government has promised not to block any new coal mines.

Based on projected increases in Australia’s exports of fossil fuels, Climate Analytics found that Australia could contribute 13% of global emissions in 2030 assuming a 45% reduction occurs globally as determined by IPCC to be required to keep temperature increase below 1.5°C.

Biofuels

Burning wood for electricity production has been growing around the world, especially in the European Union. Advocates claim replacing coal with wood will reduce emissions. Burning wood from forests has been considered ‘carbon neutral’ because the trees regrow and sequester the carbon that is released by burning. An EU report in 2020 put the contribution of forestry to total renewable energy at 37%. The simplistic argument is that wood is a renewable resource so the energy produced by burning it is renewable energy.

But burning wood immediately adds CO2 to the atmosphere and it will not be removed by regrowth for decades. We don’t have decades to wait for the carbon to be removed.

European countries have been determining their CO2 emissions and hence their national commitments under the Paris Agreement on the assumption that burning wood for electricity generation produces zero emissions. Huge volumes of wood, largely from forests in USA and eastern Europe, are imported to be burned in European Union countries and UK. It is commonly claimed that the wood burned for electricity generation comesfrom ‘residues’ but there is ample evidence that whole trees are being used and forests devastated.

Whole logs stacked at Drax plant in Mississipi ready for conversion to wood pellets for export to UK.

Cutting down native forests for biofuels destroys the very carbon sink critically needed to remove the CO2already emitted which otherwise would remain in the atmosphere for up to tens of thousands of years.

Recently, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament voted in favour of removing subsidies for woody biomass and excluding it from counting towards renewable energy targets. The recommendation will go before the parliament possibly later this year. The overall process is amendment of the Renewable Energy Directive. This month, the parliament’s Energy Committee will make a separate recommendation.

In the UK, the Drax power station uses wood to generate electricity and is the country’s biggest carbon emitter. It is reported to use 7 million tonnes of wood every year.

We note the Queensland Government has been exploring harvesting native forests to produce biofuels (wood pellets).

Leadership is sorely needed

The world is in need of brave leaders. As teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said, “What do we do when the politics needed are nowhere in sight?”

The forces against urgent climate action are strong. The fossil fuel lobby and the timber industry lobby affect government decisions. They affect the final reports of IPCC which are negotiated outcomes after the scientists have provided their input. We need political leaders with the strength to reject the lobbying.

In Australia we need politicians with the ability to lead the required just transformational change and to take the community with them, with the ability to show the coal community that they can have a different and better future.

We need a leader who understands that Australia can set an example, develop a plan that rapidly phases out fossil fuel production and exports and provides a just transition for industries and communities that have depended on fossil fuels. Gaining the support of the Australian people will require a true leader. Do we have one?

Aila Keto and Keith Scott

References for this article can be found at https://rainforest.org.au/references.html

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