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Too Late? Why Scientists Say We Should Expect the Worst
by David Adam
09 December 2008
As ministers and officials gather in Poznan one year ahead of the
Copenhagen summit on global warming, the second part of a major series
looks at the crucial issue of targets.
At a high-level academic conference on global warming at Exeter University
this summer, climate scientist Kevin Anderson stood before his expert
audience and contemplated a strange feeling. He wanted to be wrong. Many
of those in the room who knew what he was about to say felt the same. His
conclusions had already caused a stir in scientific and political circles.
Even committed green campaigners said the implications left them
Head of the world's top climate scientists Rajendra Pachauri, seen here on
October 23, 2008, says he is stunned at the trillion-dollar cheques that
have been signed to ease the banking crisis when funding for poverty and
global warming is scrutinised or denied.
Anderson, an expert at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at
Manchester University, was about to send the gloomiest dispatch yet from
the frontline of the war against climate change.
Despite the political rhetoric, the scientific warnings, the media
headlines and the corporate pro mises, he would say, carbon emissions were
soaring way out of control - far above even the bleak scenarios considered
by last year's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) and the Stern review. The battle against dangerous climate change
had been lost, and the world needed to prepare for things to get very,
"As an academic I wanted to be told that it was a very good piece of work
and that the conclusions were sound," Anderson said. "But as a human being
I desperately wanted someone to point out a mistake, and to tell me we had
got it completely wrong."
Nobody did. The cream of the UK climate science community sat in stunned
silence as Anderson pointed out that carbon emissions since 2000 have
risen much faster than anyone thought possible, driven mainly by the
coal-fuelled economic boom in the developing world. So much extra
pollution is being pumped out, he said, that most of the climate targets
debated by politicians and campaigners are fanciful at best, and
"dangerously misguided" at worst.
In the jargon used to count the steady accumulation of carbon dioxide in
the Earth's thin layer of atmosphere, he said it was "improbable" that
levels could now be restricted to 650 parts per million (ppm).
The CO2 level is currently over 380ppm, up from 280ppm at the time of the
industrial revolution, and it rises by more than 2ppm each year. The
government's official position is that the world should aim to cap this
rise at 450ppm.
The science is fuzzy, but experts say that could offer an even-money
chance of limiting the eventual temperature rise above pre-industrial
times to 2C, which the EU defines as dangerous. (We have had 0.7C of that
already and an estimated extra 0.5C is guaranteed because of emissions to
The graphs on the large screens behind Anderson's head at Exeter told a
different story. Line after line, representing the fumes that belch from
chimneys, exhausts and jet engines, that should have bent in a rapid curve
towards the ground, were heading for the ceiling instead.
At 650ppm, the same fuzzy science says the world would face a catastrophic
4C average rise. And even that bleak future, Anderson said, could only be
achieved if rich countries adopted "draconian emission reductions within a
decade". Only an unprecedented "planned economic recession" might be
enough. The current financial woes would not come close.
Anderson is not the only expert to voice concerns that current targets are
hopelessly optimistic. Many scientists, politicians and campaigners
privately admit that 2C is a lost cause. Ask for projections around the
dinner table after a few bottles of wine and more vote for 650ppm than
450ppm as the more likely outcome.
Bob Watson, chief scientist at the Environment Department and a former
head of the IPCC, warned this year that the world needed to prepare20for a
4C rise, which would wipe out hundreds of species, bring extreme food and
water shortages in vulnerable countries and cause floods that would
displace hundreds of millions of people. Warming would be much more severe
towards the poles, which could accelerate melting of the Greenland and
West Antarctic ice sheets.
Watson said: "We must alert everybody that at the moment we're at the very
top end of the worst case [emissions] scenario. I think we should be
striving for 450 [ppm] but I think we should be prepared that 550 [ppm] is
a more likely outcome." Hitting the 450ppm target, he said, would be
A report for the Australian government this autumn suggested that the
450ppm goal is so ambitious that it could wreck attempts to agree a new
global deal on global warming at Copenhagen next year. The report, from
economist Ross Garnaut and dubbed the Australian Stern review, says
nations must accept that a greater amount of warming is inevitable, or
risk a failure to agree that "would haunt humanity until the end of time".
It says developed nations including Britain, the US and Australia, would
have to slash carbon dioxide emissions by 5% each year over the next
decade to hit the 450ppm target. Britain's Climate Change Act 2008, the
most ambitious legislation of its kind in the world, calls for reductions
of about 3% each year to 2050.
Garnaut, a professorial fellow in economics at Melbourne Un iversity, said:
"Achieving the objective of 450ppm would require tighter constraints on
emissions than now seem likely in the period to 2020 ... The only
alternative would be to impose even tighter constraints on developing
countries from 2013, and that does not appear to be realistic at this
The report adds: "The awful arithmetic means that exclusively focusing on
a 450ppm outcome, at this moment, could end up providing another reason
for not reaching an international agreement to reduce emissions. In the
meantime, the cost of excessive focus on an unlikely goal could consign to
history any opportunity to lock in an agreement for stabilising at 550ppm
- a more modest, but still difficult, international outcome. An effective
agreement around 550ppm would be vastly superior to continuation of
business as usual."
Henry Derwent, former head of the UK's international climate negotiating
team and now president of the International Emissions Trading Association,
said a new climate treaty was unlikely to include a stabilisation goal -
either 450ppm or 550ppm.
"You've got to avoid talking and thinking in those terms because otherwise
the politics reaches a dead end," he said. Many small island states are
predicted to be swamped by rising seas with global warming triggered by
carbon levels as low as 400ppm. "It's really difficult for countries to
sign up to something that loses them half their territory. It's not going
A ne w agreement in Copenhagen should concentrate instead on shorter term
targets, such as firm emission reductions by 2020, he said.
The escalating scale of human emissions could not have come at a worst
time, as scientists have discovered that the Earth's forests and oceans
could be losing their ability to soak up carbon pollution. Most climate
projections assume that about half of all carbon emissions are reabsorbed
in these natural sinks.
Computer models predict that this effect will weaken as the world warms,
and a string of recent studies suggests this is happening already.
The Southern Ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide has weakened by
about 15% a decade since 1981, while in the North Atlantic, scientists at
the University of East Anglia also found a dramatic decline in the CO2
sink between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.
A separate study published this year showed the ability of forests to soak
up anthropogenic carbon dioxide - that caused by human activity - was
weakening, because the changing length of the seasons alters the time when
trees switch from being a sink of carbon to a source.
Soils could also be giving up their carbon stores: evidence emerged in
2005 that a vast expanse of western Siberia was undergoing an
The region, the largest frozen peat bog in the world, had begun to melt
for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago. Scientists believe
the bog could begin to release billions of tonnes of methane locked up in
the soils, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The
World Meteorological Organisation recently reported the largest annual
rise of methane levels in the atmosphere for a decade.
Some experts argue that the grave nature of recent studies, combined with
the unexpected boom in carbon emissions, demands an urgent reassessment of
the situation. In an article published this month in the journal Climatic
Change, Peter Sheehan, an economist at Victoria University, Australia,
says the scale of recent emissions means the carbon cuts suggested by the
IPCC to stabilise levels in the atmosphere "cannot be taken as a reliable
guide for immediate policy determination". The cuts, he says, will need to
be bigger and in more places.
Earlier this year, Jim Hansen, senior climate scientist with Nasa,
published a paper that said the world's carbon targets needed to be
urgently revised because of the risk of feedbacks in the climate system.
He used reconstructions of the Earth's past climate to show that a target
of 350ppm, significantly below where we are today, is needed to "preserve
a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed and to which life
on Earth is adapted". Hansen has suggested a joint review by Britain's
Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences of all research
findings since the IPCC report.
Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the IPCC, argues that suggestions the IPCC
report is out of date is "not a valid position at all".
He said: "What the IPCC produces is not based on two years of literature,
but 30 or 40 years of literature. We're not dealing with short-term
weather changes, we're talking about major changes in our climate system.
I refuse to accept that a few papers are in any way going to influence the
long-term projections the IPCC has come up with."
At Defra, Watson said: "Even without the new information there was enough
to make most policy makers think that urgent action was absolutely
essential. The new information only strengthens that and pushes it even
harder. It was already very urgent to start with. It's now become very,
-- David Adam has been environment correspondent for the Guardian since
2005, before which he was science correspondent for two years. He
previously worked at the science journal Nature. He decided on a career in
journalism after a PhD in chemical engineering convinced him it was more
enjoyable to write about other people's research than to carry out his
Â© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
Published on Tuesday, December 9, 2008 by The Guardian/UK
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