Over on the Azimuth Forum, Staffan Liljegren pointed out a good article in The Economist:
• Facing the consequences, The Economist, 25 November 2010.
I’m going to quote the beginning, and hope that lures you into reading the rest. This is important stuff!
Adapting to climate change
Facing the consequences
Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it.
ON NOVEMBER 29th representatives of countries from around the world will gather in Cancún, Mexico, for the first high-level climate talks since those in Copenhagen last December. The organisers hope the meeting in Mexico, unlike the one in Denmark, will be unshowy but solid, leading to decisions about finance, forestry and technology transfer that will leave the world better placed to do something about global warming. Incremental progress is possible, but continued deadlock is likelier. What is out of reach, as at Copenhagen, is agreement on a plausible programme for keeping climate change in check.
The world warmed by about 0.7°C in the 20th century. Every year in this century has been warmer than all but one in the last (1998, since you ask). If carbon-dioxide levels were magically to stabilise where they are now (almost 390 parts per million, 40% more than before the industrial revolution) the world would probably warm by a further half a degree or so as the ocean, which is slow to change its temperature, caught up. But CO2 levels continue to rise. Despite 20 years of climate negotiation, the world is still on an emissions trajectory that fits pretty easily into the “business as usual” scenarios drawn up by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The Copenhagen accord, a non-binding document which was the best that could be salvaged from the summit, talks of trying to keep the world less than 2°C warmer than in pre-industrial times—a level that is rather arbitrarily seen as the threshold for danger. Many countries have, in signing the accord, promised actions that will or should reduce carbon emissions. In the World Energy Outlook, recently published by the International Energy Agency, an assessment of these promises forms the basis of a “new policies scenario” for the next 25 years (see chart 1). According to the IEA, the scenario puts the world on course to warm by 3.5°C by 2100. For comparison, the difference in global mean temperature between the pre-industrial age and the ice ages was about 6°C.
The IEA also looked at what it might take to hit a two-degree target; the answer, says the agency’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, is “too good to be believed”. Every signatory of the Copenhagen accord would have to hit the top of its range of commitments. That would provide a worldwide rate of decarbonisation (reduction in carbon emitted per unit of GDP) twice as large in the decade to come as in the one just past: 2.8% a year, not 1.4%. Mr Birol notes that the highest annual rate on record is 2.5%, in the wake of the first oil shock.
But for the two-degree scenario 2.8% is just the beginning; from 2020 to 2035 the rate of decarbonisation needs to double again, to 5.5%. Though they are unwilling to say it in public, the sheer improbability of such success has led many climate scientists, campaigners and policymakers to conclude that, in the words of Bob Watson, once the head of the IPCC and now the chief scientist at Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “Two degrees is a wishful dream.”
The fight to limit global warming to easily tolerated levels is thus over. Analysts who have long worked on adaptation to climate change—finding ways to live with scarcer water, higher peak temperatures, higher sea levels and weather patterns at odds with those under which today’s settled patterns of farming developed—are starting to see their day in the uncomfortably hot sun. That such measures cannot protect everyone from all harm that climate change may bring does not mean that they should be ignored. On the contrary, they are sorely needed.
For more see:
• World Energy Outlook 2010, Azimuth Project.