Paris & the ‘Carbon War’

Co2 scenarios

Co2 scenarios

The United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Paris from 30th November to 11th December. The task before the politicians is immense. Humanity must reduce CO2 emissions very rapidly if it is to survive. The only known safe future lies in getting atmospheric CO2 back below 350 ppm (parts per million) as quickly as possible and then to return to the long term historical norm of 285ppm, the level which provided humanity a climate in which it has flourished. Levels are now at 397.64 and still rising at about 2ppm per year.

The graph shows various scenarios of possible future emissions. Essentially the red scenarios are game over for humanity. The grey and yellow scenarios would still entail billions of climate refugees as rising seas flood low lying land, deserts replace arable farmland and climatic patterns become dangerously unpredictable. Only the green and blue scenarios are somewhat more hopeful. However what would be best is for humanity to be able to reach net-negative emissions by 2040 or 2050, which is a more radical scenario than any of those represented here.

Such radical and rapid reductions in emissions are theoretically, technologically and philosophically possible. Political will is overwhelmingly the greatest stumbling block. The fossil-fuel incumbency is still fighting tooth and nail to keep polluting. We see this in Volkswagen cheating emissions laws, Australia allowing the Carmichael coal mine or George Osborne’s attacks on renewables and energy efficiency: such bad actions cumulatively threaten humanity’s future.

However the arc of history is firmly bending towards a better future. Those of us arguing that a low carbon renewables based economy is necessary, possible and desirable were once a tiny minority: now we are the huge majority. A tidal wave of opinion is flowing our way: the Papal encyclical, the statements of Mark Carney (governor of the Bank of England) and Jeremy Leggett’s ‘Winning the Carbon Wars’ are a few of the millions of examples of this tide.

The Paris talks will be a major battle in the Carbon Wars. At which point the scales tip irrevocably toward climatic catastrophe or toward something better will only become evident in retrospect. We have much to do to get emissions to stop rising, to decline and to enter the net negative zone and then eventually to stabilize the atmosphere, probably back at the pre-industrial norm of 285ppm.

See Jeremy Leggett