Monday, 7 February 2011

Tipping Points and the top 1% OR “if you hope for 1° C don’t act for 4°C”

A week or so ago Prof Kevin Anderson, from Tyndall Manchester gave a talk to 4CMR entitled: Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous.  The talk assessed the numbers and the models used to determine policy on decarbonising the economy.  The consensus view, he argued, is as follows - an increased global mean temperature of 2°C (on pre-industrial levels) is the point at which climate change was considered a major problem, and the lowest stabilisation point that we could manage though practical and expedient policies. 

Assessing the latest research findings and analysing the data in great detail his conclusion was twofold:

2°C is likely to have dangerous (or extremely dangerous) consequences, and hence 1°C should be the upper limit if we are to avoid dangerous climate change (i.e. the consensus view is too optimistic: the target should be lower)

In practice, 2°C is becoming less likely, with 4°C a more likely stabilisation point if we implement even the more ambitious carbon emissions reduction strategies that are available to us AND assumes:

  • IPCC’s link between cumulative emissions and temperature is broadly correct
  • Non-Annex 1 nations peak emissions by 2025
  • There are rapid reductions in deforestation emissions
  • Food emissions halve from today’s values by 2050
  • No tipping points occur
His conclusion is that 2°C is nearly impossible and that 4°C is likely by 2070 and depending on the effects of various tipping points, there is a chance that stabilisation will be even higher (i.e. the consensus view is too optimistic: the target reduction is unobtainable).

The 2°C target is thus doubly pessimistic, but is there any room for optimism? Well, failure to reach a 1°C target assumes that policies and agreements are directed towards the global population, divided into countries and regions, which leads to the more profound question: If we are to meet a 1°C stabilisation point, how many people need to make the necessary changes to?
Using the Pareto Principal (suggesting that around 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes) it can be estimated that around 50% of emissions come from 1% of the population, which is where I would like to begin.

Assuming the analysis is roughly correct (and Kevin Anderson does make a thoroughly scholarly analysis of the data) and the Pareto Principal holds, then the key questions are:
Who comprises the 1% of the population responsible for 50% of emissions?
What do they have to do to reduce these emissions to avoid dangerous climate change?

The first question is rather easier than the second - if you are reading this on a fancy computer, then chances are you are probably in this 1%, especially if you:
  • Earn above $50000 (£30,000)
  • Travel by airplane
The irony, of course, is that most experts on climate change policy and the policy makers and their advisors fall comfortably within this 1%, among the most frequent of frequent flyers.

The second question is a little more tricky; those most responsible for high carbon emissions are those most sheltered from the effects, either by living in a country more able to adapt to climate change or by having access to more resources to avoid the most dangerous effects.  Let me qualify this – the most sheltered for the moment; however, as a group they share other characteristics relevant for emission reductions: they have, in financial terms, the most to lose from the negative effects of climate change, they are among the most knowledgeable about the causes and consequences of climate change, and the most aware of the changes required for mitigation and with access to substitutions to high emission activity.  They also have more opportunity to coordinate an influential response to climate change risk.  Put together, it seems that this 1% can identify the problem, take ownership of the response and leverage the policies and behaviour changes necessary to sufficiently reduce carbon emissions for a low stabilisation point, but it would require some type of action tipping point.

Normally in climate change discourse, a tipping point is a feedback mechanism likely to amplify the emission problem, such as associated with Arctic sea ice; Greenland ice sheet; West Antarctic ice sheet; Gulf Stream; El Niño; Indian monsoon; West African monsoon; Amazon rainforest; Boreal forests; Permafrost thaw etc.  The one tipping point that is most likely to be decisive is the one that forces this 1% to do everything in its power to rapidly decarbonise.  Once on track, there would be the prospect of meeting the most optimistic reductions for 2050.  

At present the prospect of this happening seems as improbable as global cooling, and the choices remain stark: if those with the most to offer in terms of emissions reduction pass the buck, don’t expect the other 99% to do anything except aspire to unsustainable lifestyles.  Now if only the rest of this 1% could follow Prof Kevin Anderson’s lifestyle i.e. refusing to fly or drive and keeping his carbon footprint to an absolute minimum, he would have to rip up projections about needing to plan for 4°C.

No comments:

Post a Comment