13. Paris Agreement: Can global warming be held to under 2oC?
John Austin
Policians celebrating Climate Agreement

Is there anything to celebrate, or is there more procrastination on the way? Image Credit: EPA.

In a landmark agreement made by almost 200 countries meeting in Paris from 30 November to 12 December 2015, it has just been agreed that greenhouse gas emissions will be restricted to hold global warming to much less than 2oC. However, following at least a decade of procrastination by politicians, is this now at all possible with current science and technological understanding?

Committed Warming

The inexorable rise in CO2 amounts just shows the enormity of the problem of reducing greenhouse warming. For the temperature to be stabilised, the concentration needs to converge to a plateau, but there is as yet no sign of it doing so. Credit: NOAA[1].

Recently, it was reported that global surface temperatures have increased by 1oC since the start of the industrial era[2]. While this seems small, it has of course been accompanied by much larger local changes especially in the Arctic. Because of the local risk, environmentalists have put the figure at which "dangerous" climate change will occur, based on the best scientific evidence, at 2oC warming. In advance of the meeting in Paris, however, plans put together by participating nations would have implied an increase of about 2.7oC[3] by the end of the century. Climate science is now very well developed so this sort of precision for the global average change is not unreasonable. Natural effects such as solar variability and volcanoes may adjust the figure by as much as a degree in the latter case, but these are all temporary phenomena, and the general increase in temperature would be expected to resume a few years after any significant eruption. The figure of 2.7 is not that different from the figure of 2.8 that I obtained here[4] following the China-US agreement on climate change at the beginning of the year.

So far, so good, but where is the extra 0.7oC reduction going to come from? That isn't specified in the recent Paris talks, which is fair enough as it the task of governments now to make changes to try to bring it about. However, there is a more serious issue and that I related to the concept of committed warming. I discussed this previously and current thinking is that there is at least another half a degree or so to come. In other words current temperatures are not "in equilibrium" heat has been going into the oceans, but it takes decades for the oceans to warm up and transfer more heat to the atmosphere. To view it from another perspective, the Earth reaches a steady state when the heat coming in from the sun equals the heat radiated out by the planet. At the moment there is an imbalance of about 1 W/m2 more heat coming in than leaving. Small, though this is, it is still sufficient to keep the surface of the Earth warming. In particular, if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gases literally tomorrow, the planet would still warm by another half degree to about 1.5oC or so above pre-industrial values. Nonetheless, the Paris agreement makes the target for warming "significantly below" 2oC with 1.5 as the target.

How Can the Paris Agreements be Achieved?

The only way that I can see a 1.5oC warming being achieved is literally to cease using fossil fuels immediately or to find ways of extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, from tomorrow! The former is impossible as all our cities are driven by fossil fuels. The latter is unknown technology and in any case might itself come with significant financial and energy costs.

Of course there is a very effective short and long term strategy for taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. That is by planting a lot of trees! A lot of trees..... A recent estimate suggested that there were as many as 3 billion trees already growing. Attempts to increase the mass of the biosphere would need to increase this number significantly by say 10%. But how can we plant 300 million trees? The number is astonishing. The danger is in fact that the forest is rather being denuded. Satellite observations show large regions of the Amazon being deforested all the time, in contravention to local laws. I spotted a remark on the BBC website which jokingly commented that trees were the best current technology for converting "solar power" to "fuel"! So true!

All these processes take time, even if you start immediately and wait for trees to grow. Politicians were warned about the effects of delays, but they did nothing. Indeed many have exacerbated the problems by increasing reliance on fossil fuels, continued to allow forests to be decimated or agreed to fracking. Obama amongst others is now trying to claim credit for the glacial progress[3].

The USA and Climate Change

It is quite nauseating that Obama is claiming that the climate agreement is a tribute to American leadership. How can it lead the world, when it can't even lead itself? Let's face it, the USA is a basket case. While the Paris conference was continuing, US congress was debating climate change and the Republicans did their usual bit of denying that climate change was a problem at all.

The republicans simply trotted out their usual tame "scientists" who told them what they wanted to hear, or in terms that were sufficiently open to interpretation. Of course we know that many republicans have vested interests in the fossil fuel industry. So we now have a problem, while the US representative in Paris was calling for "legally binding" conditions as a result of the Paris talks, he would not even be able to deliver any worthwhile agreement from his own country while Congress remains Republican.

Progress on Climate Change in Other Countries

China continues to drag its feet. In its drive for modernisation, it is increasing its reliance on coal-fired power stations as are other developing countries[5]. Beijing has been hit recently by some of the most polluting atmospheres at ground level ever known. More than 1200 coal-powered stations are being planned worldwide, with threequarters in China and India, meaning that all the countries involved hold two mutually incompatible positions simultaneously. They wanted the Paris agreement to settle on 1.5oC warming while introducing policies at home which will make that figure impossible. Another country, Brazil, seems not to be able to control its own biosphere, so the forest is declining faster than it can be replaced.

I'm not saying that the UK is a paragon of virtue. Far from it. Amber Rudd tries her best, poor dear, but she must know her position is untenable. Meanwhile our Prime Minister David Cameron can leave her to take the flack although it's his policies that are so ruinous to the country. She knows that the government are reducing costs anywhere it can, and frankly, climate change is seen as a luxury despite the rhetoric. For example, it quite rightly points out that coal-fired power stations are being phased out within 10 years, which sounds wonderful. However, that's because they are clapped out and need replacing, and the winner is natural gas! That will reduce slightly our CO2 emissions but not by much. Subsidies for renewables are being cut to the bone while industries such as fracking, which can only pollute the environment more, are allowed to go ahead. Amber, poor dear, knows all this, but she tries to put a brave face on it and pretends that "Britain is fully complying with its greenhouse gas agreements", or some such combination of weasel words. Well, dear, of course it was, but Paris has just moved the process on, supposedly. Please keep up, those at the back, yes you Amber!

Fracking is a problem faced by the USA as well. Fracking continues and the fossil fuel industry as a whole simply doesn't pay for the pollution it causes. This effectively subsidises fossil fuel companies. Of course those companies have been on the gravy train for a century or more in some cases and they are not giving up their privileged positions readily. Their strategy is to sponsor "scientists" whose job it is to undermine the work of quality science such as that produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is tiresome and I wonder if it will ever end.

The Drive for Renewables: Why isn't it Faster?

At least half the USA is at least populated by sensible people. As a result the amount of renewable energy generated has increased enormously over the last 10 years. In Britain we have less chance of success without continuing subsidies. Being further North, solar power is less effective. However, even in the south of England (51oN) sufficient power could be generated with a solar system and battery combination. Unfortunately, the capital cost of such a system is just at the edge of practicality for most home owners. Without this, I suspect Britain will remain a fossil fuel user for decades to come. In addition schemes to extract CO2 from the atmosphere have also had government support reduced.

What Will Happen to our Climate?

So, will we get "significantly less than 2oC" global warming? I suspect not. My expectation is 2.5oC, only slightly less than current projections. One highly-respected scientist has already suggested that the Paris agreement is a "fraud"[6] as there is still no means set out by which the agreement can be achieved. If other governments are like Britain's, they will talk big and do nothing. This is of course a recipe for paying in the long term. But then as far as Cameron is concerned, he and all the politicians congratulating themselves in the main image, will be out of office by then.


Article initially prepared 13 December 2015

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Website revised by John Austin, 13/12/2015. © Enigma Scientific Publishing, 2015.