How much time do we have left?

In 2010 at Cancun world leaders accepted that average global temperature had to be kept to under 2 degrees above pre-Industrial Revolution levels for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change.  But by that time, scientists had calculated that we could only afford to burn another 1000 gigatonnes of carbon if that target were to be achieved, and since the world was  already burning 40 gigatonnes per year the target would be breached  well before mid-century.  At Paris, therefore, the politicians adopted a strategy designed to bring emissions down. The idea was that they would be brought down gradually over five year periods.  Even if the nations all kept the promises they made at Paris and reached the 2020 targets they had set themselves, it would still result in 3-4 degrees of rising temperature by the end of the century.  So,  the 2020 targets having been reached, more stringent ones would be set for 2020-25, more stringent ones still for 2025-30 and so on.

 

How is the world doing? Very, very badly indeed.  There is now virtually no hope of even meeting the 2020 targets.  In 2016 there was no increase in emissions, largely because the effects of the 2008 economic slowdown were still being felt.  But 2017 was the worst year for emissions ever, 2% above those for 2016, largely because of increased economic activity in China and the emerging Asian economies.  In April 2018 emissions of 410 carbon parts per million of overall atoms in the atmosphere  were recorded, the highest monthly amount ever and the highest for at least 800,000 years. Without doubt, at time of writing,  2018 will be worse than 2017. 

Even as late as 2010 it was not unreasonable to think that climate change could be contained without too much difficulty. According to the Hubbert Curve, oil production would peak between 2008 and 2014, its price would rise and renewables would come into their own. But Hubbert has turned out to be completely misleading. Since 2010 astonishing amounts of oil have been discovered, more in the Permian Basin in Texas alone than there is in Saudi Arabia. The London based Carbon Tracker Initiative – a body of accountants who advise companies about future financial trends – have calculated that the oil companies already have nearly 3000 million tons in proven reserves, with more being discovered the whole time.   In other words, the oil companies already have enough oil in reserve to derail any attempts to curb emissions. Tracker calculated that if all that oil is left in the ground the oil companies would lose 60% of their share value. Even worse, much of it has already been sold on the futures markets.   Serious action to prevent global warming would mean huge sums of money being lost, and, since oil is its basis, the world’s whole financial system becoming destabilized. You can see why the politicians are reluctant to take that serious action.

What could happen?

The scientists are solemnly warning us that 2 degree of temperature increase, and even more 4, could mean far more violent and frequent hurricanes, floods and droughts; whole countries going under water; hundreds of millions homeless refugees short of food and water, especially in South-east Asia and Africa; and, what they fear most, vicious resource wars that could well go nuclear and acts of terrorism using WMD in the cities of the developed world, as desperate people seek to force the haves to share what they have.   Even a hundred thousand asylum seekers have reduced Europe to desperation. What will it be like when there are hundreds of millions? Even worse, once runaway climate change sets in it will be unstoppable.  Because of feedback mechanisms, each increased degree of temperature will set the stage for the next one, and we will be on the way to an uninhabitable world.  We must avert this total breakdown of the world at all costs and we have to do it now.