Dangerous runaway warming could be much closer than we think. According to new research, the world’s carbon budget is smaller and global emissions will rise more steeply than previously believed.
In order to avoid dangerous climate “trigger points” such as the melting of the Arctic permafrost, the world needs to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. At the UN climate summit in Paris in December, a new, supposedly “groundbreaking” agreement was made that aims to achieve this.
It was clear from the start that this was more rhetoric than reality. Even if all the emissions reduction pledges made at the summit were kept, which going on past experience is highly doubtful, emissions would keep increasing through to at least 2030.
Seen in the light of the latest research, the Paris agreement seems more like a death warrant.
The new study, “Differences between carbon budget estimates unravelled”, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the world’s carbon budget has been overestimated by up to 200 percent. Where previous research found that the safe upper limit of total global carbon emissions from 2015 onwards was as much as 2,390 gigatonnes, the study concluded that the absolute most we could release is half that.
But to be assured of keeping warming to below 2 degrees, the limit is just 590 gigatonnes. To put this in perspective: the agreement made in Paris allows for total emissions of 723 gigatonnes through to 2030.
New research on the rate of emissions growth, published in the journal Plos One, suggests the overshoot could be even bigger. The study, “Trading off global fuel supply, CO2 emissions and sustainable development”, by researchers at the University of Queensland and Griffith University, found that existing modelling of future carbon emissions fails to properly account for increases in energy consumption per person.
According to the research, per person energy consumption is on track to rise by up to 600 percent through to 2050, as hundreds of millions more people in rapidly developing countries like India are drawn into the modern, carbon-intensive economy. As the report puts it, “even relatively conservative assumptions put severe upward pressure on forecast global energy demand”.
The research predicts that by 2020, world temperatures could already be 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and that the “safe limit” of 2 degrees could be reached as soon as 2030. These alarming forecasts come as “average temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere have breached the 2 degrees Celsius above ‘normal’ mark for the first time in recorded history”, according to an article published in Slate magazine in early March.
To have any chance of avoiding potentially catastrophic climate change, we need to apply the emergency brake. Yet, despite, the rhetoric surrounding the supposed “breakthrough” in Paris, ruling classes around the world still have their feet firmly on the accelerator.