Paris and Magical Thinking

Following a vote by the European Parliament, the Paris climate agreement negotiated late last year has now become legal reality far faster than even the negotiators of the agreement expected. This is good news in an area of science and politics that tends to deliver increasingly grim pronouncements.

A very useful synthesis of what this means for climate politics and the physical reality of climate change is provided in this report by Chris Mooney in the Washington Post. However, as he points out, while climate policy wonks are slapping backs and popping champagne, the implications for climate outcomes this century are not so marvellous.

A range of analysts have already noted how the politically defined ‘target’ of 2 degrees Celsius as constituting ‘dangerous climate change’ is itself seriously flawed. However, even this misjudged estimate has become an increasingly unlikely reality. As climate scientists like James Hansen note, even if the countries which are signatories to the agreement deliver on their intended emissions mitigation commitments (itself a big ‘if’ – see below), this will still ensure a world that will warm around 3 degrees Celsius this century! There is thus a major disconnect between the signatories’ much-vaunted commitment to avoid 2 degrees of warming (let alone the aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees), and the scientific reality (highlighted in a recent report by Oil Change International) that we have already exceeded the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees and probably also for 2 degrees! This means that to have a better than even chance of avoiding greater than 2 degrees of warming in coming decades, global emissions need to peak now and reduce rapidly over the coming decades. It also means no new fossil fuel developments. Given the fact that fossil fuel extraction globally continues largely unabated, as David Roberts points out ‘No country on Earth is taking the 2 degree climate target seriously’.

Indeed, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson notes much of the future vision of the Paris agreement hinges on yet to be realised ‘negative emissions’ technologies such as ‘biomass energy carbon capture and storage’ (BECCS). This involves sequestering carbon in bio-energy crops which are used to fuel power stations, with the resulting emissions captured, compressed and stored deep underground for thousands of years. However, the physical realities of such technologies are daunting. As Anderson argues:

‘The sheer scale of the BECCS assumption underpinning the Agreement is breath taking – decades of ongoing planting and harvesting of energy crops over an area the size of one to three times that of India. At the same time the aviation industry anticipates fuelling its planes with bio-fuel, the shipping industry is seriously considering biomass to power its ships and the chemical sector sees biomass as a potential feedstock. And then there are 9 billion or so human mouths to feed.’

So, the fact that the major nations of the world are now focused on mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions is clearly an advance on the political gridlock and lack of engagement of previous decades. Unfortunately, however it appears too little too late to avoid an increasingly unstable and likely catastrophic climate future.

Why we have ended up in this situation is something that my own research has sought to uncover. As Daniel Nyberg and I argue in our book Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction, the answer lies in the trajectory of our political-economic system; a system which has exercised a powerful ideological grip on humanity’s response to the greatest threat it has ever faced. This is a worldview divorced from the realities of climate and Earth system science. It is a belief that business as usual can continue, economics can trump physics and that capitalism’s technological mastery will fashion a future increasingly divorced from nature. Brace for impact, this is unlikely to end well!

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