Thursday, November 22, 2012

Climate change: The cost of delay

Governments will meet in Qatar next week for the next stage of climate change negotiations, which will no doubt see the usual deadlock between a rich world unwilling to accept responsibility and a poor world unwilling to be denied growth. Meanwhile, the UN reports a growing gap between what we're doing and what we need to do to solve the problem:

The gap between what world governments have committed to by way of cuts in greenhouse gases and the cuts that scientists say are necessary has widened, but in order to stave off dangerous levels of global warming, it should have narrowed. There is now one-fifth more carbon in the atmosphere than there was in 2000, and there are few signs of global emissions falling, according to the new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).


According to the United Nations report, drawing on research from more than 50 scientists, the widening gap between countries' plans and scientific estimates means that governments must step up their ambitions as a matter of urgency to avoid even worse effects from warming. "The transition to a low-carbon, inclusive green economy is happening far too slowly and the opportunity for meeting [scientific advice on emissions targets] is narrowing annually," said Achim Steiner, executive director of Unep.

The explicit goal of international policy is to prevent global warming of more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, which scientists say is the limit of safety beyond which climate change is likely to become irreversible and catastrophic. That goal that has been roughly translated as a concentration of carbon in the atmosphere of no more than 450 parts per million. To meet this, governments would have to ensure that no more than 44 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is emitted per year by 2020. The UN's latest research, published on Wednesday as the Emissions Gap Report 2012, shows that on current trends, emissions by 2020 will be 58 Gt CO2e.

This is basically the cost of delay: we've pissed around for two decades now, dragging our feet and avoiding taking real action while continuing to pollute. Which means we not only need to take the original action to reduce emissions, but extra to compensate for all the pollution we've spewed in the meantime. And this will of course be more expensive and disruptive. The do-nothings will no doubt use that expense and disruption as an excuse to keep on doing nothing - but the alternative is the expense and disruption of storms, famine, species extinction and sea-level rise - which is neither practically nor morally acceptable.

The good news is that we can still do it. We can solve this problem with the technology we have now, without a tremendous drop in living standards. It will be bad for a bunch of rich people at the top whose wealth is based on pollution - but we cannot destroy the world to protect their greed and selfishness.