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IPCC Final Report: We've Blown Two-Thirds of Our Carbon Budget

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 3:08 PM GMT on November 02, 2014

"Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems", said the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today, in the final installment of their once-every-seven-year report on the climate. Today's Synthesis Report summarizes the key messages from Parts I, II, and III, issued in September 2013 - April 2014. The Synthesis Report warns that "continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks." During the press conference accompanying the report release, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said "action on climate change can contribute to economic prosperity, better health and more livable cities,” but warned that inaction would “cost much, much more.” I'll comment on just three key themes from today's report:

We're Blowing Our Carbon Budget
The IPCC said today: "Limiting total human-induced warming to less than 2°C relative to the period 1861-1880 with a probability of >66% would require cumulative CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources since 1870 to remain below about 2900 GtCO2. About 1900 GtCO2 had already been emitted by 2011."

Keeping warming below the agreed-upon definition for the threshold of dangerous climate change, 2°C above pre-industrial levels, will be very difficult, since we've already blown two-thirds of our budget, and there is little time to act. Despite growing efforts to slow them down, CO2 emissions increased by 2.2% per year between 2000 - 2010, hitting the equivalent of 38 Gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year in 2010. If we continue to follow this "business as usual" course, we will reach the 2,900 Gt limit just 17 years from now, in 2031, according to an analysis done by the Carbon Tracker Initiative. The International Energy Agency warned in 2012 that "almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time."

The combined value of all fossil fuel reserves is $27 trillion, as estimated by The Capital Institute. According to three groups who have done carbon budget analyses, the IPCC, the International Energy Agency, and the Carbon Tracker Initiative, between 66% - 86% of those proven fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we are to have at least a two-in-three chance of keeping warming below 2°C. The fossil fuel companies, whose stock value is based on burning all of those $27 trillion worth of reserves, are fighting very hard to keep to preserve their stock value, and plan to burn all of those unburnable fossil fuel reserves.

Figure 1. Of the proven fossil fuel reserves still in the ground (equivalent to emitting 2795 Gt of CO2, dark grey oval with a black oval of the maximum we can burn embedded in it), between 66% - 86% must stay in the ground if we are to have at least a two-in-three chance of keeping warming below 2°C, according to three groups who have done carbon budget analyses, the IPCC, the International Energy Agency, and the Carbon Tracker Initiative. Reserves are those quantities able to be recovered under existing economic and operating conditions (split as 63% coal, 22% oil, and 15% gas, according to the International Energy Agency.) These reserves were valued at $27 trillion (nearly 40% of the global yearly GDP), according to The Capital Institute. The IPCC, quoting Rogner et al., 2012, Global Energy Assessment–Toward a Sustainable Future (Chapter 7: Energy Resources and Potentials), says that these reserves are a factor of 4 - 7 more than what can burned. Fossil fuel resources are those where economic extraction is potentially feasible, and could become reserves in the future (e.g., methane hydrate deposits under the ocean floor.) The IPCC estimated these resources were an additional factor of 31 - 50 higher than the maximum we can burn. If only a small fraction of the these resources are developed and burned, Earth would have a hot-house climate like occurred during the age of the dinosaurs.

Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change is Affordable if We Act Now
The cost of keeping global warming under the "dangerous" level of 2° C will only reduce "consumption growth" of the global economy by 0.06% per year if we start immediately and act strongly. Since consumption growth is expected to increase between 1.6% and 3% per year in the coming decades, we’re talking about annual growth that is, for example, 2% rather than 2.06%. This is a small price to pay to greatly decrease the risks of increased hunger, thirst, disease, refugees, and war that will result otherwise.

We're On Course For 4°C (7°F) of Warming By 2100
Our current business-as-usual emissions path (RCP 8.5) is more likely than not to cause 4°C (7°F) warming by 2100. That amount of warming is expected to result in "substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, consequential constraints on common human activities, and limited potential for adaptation in some cases (high confidence). "

In a world that is 4°C warmer, the regional summertime temperatures in the continental United States will be of order 6°C (11°) hotter, wunderground's climate change blogger Dr. Ricky Rood pointed out in a 2012 post, The World Four Degrees Warmer: A New Analysis from the World Bank. Think about the crazy hot summer of 2012; now add ten degrees. It's going to be tough to grow crops in that kind of heat, and provide water to all 450 million Americans. The past 12 months--October 2013 through September 2014--was Earth's warmest consecutive 12-month period among all months since records began in 1880, said NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) on October 20. We are on pace for 2014 to be the warmest calendar year on record, and many more warmest years on record are on the way.

Even an increase in Earth's temperature below the agreed-upon definition for the threshold of dangerous climate change, 2°C above pre-industrial levels, carries huge risks. As of 2014, the 0.85°C (1.5°F) of global warming that has occurred since 1880 has likely contributed to deadly and destructive heat waves, droughts, and heavy precipitation events that have killed tens of thousands of people and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. Further warming to the "dangerous" 2°C threshold will be capable of provoking unprecedented droughts and storms that could challenge civilized society, leading to the conflict and massive suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. There is no “critical threshold” that will be crossed when warming exceeds 2°C, sending us into a dangerous climate regime with greatly increased risks. Given the wildly erratic behavior of our jet stream in recent years, I believe we have already crossed one critical threshold into a more dangerous climate. The 2°C limit is more like a speed limit--a convenient mark to set, above which the dangers are much greater. A more reasonable speed limit for the climate is 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a level we passed back in 1987. The climate activist group 350.org based their name on this lower speed limit. Since CO2 levels passed 400 ppm this year, I argue that we are already traveling 15% higher than the "safe" speed limit of 350 ppm. If we do manage the very unlikely feat of keeping warming to 2°C, atmospheric CO2 levels will stabilize near 500 ppm--like traveling 100 mph on an expressway where the speed limit is 70 mph, an extremely risky proposition. If an ambitious global legal climate agreement is signed at the critical December 2015 Conference of Parties (COP) negotiations in Paris, and followed up with strong action over the next twenty years, we have a fighting chance of keeping warming to 3°C (about 700 ppm of CO2.) Otherwise, we are more likely headed for a future with warming of 4°C (1000 ppm of CO2)--like careening down the highway at speeds of 200 mph or greater. If we are to preserve any hope of a livable climate for our children, the fossil fuel industry cannot be allowed to burn anywhere close to the $27 trillion worth of fossil fuel reserves on their books, or be allowed to develop significant new resources. Given the massive wealth and political power of a fossil fuel industry intent upon preserving this $27 trillion stock value, it's no wonder that the dire messages on climate change given by the Nobel prize-winning IPCC, a volunteer organization with almost no PR budget, are drowned out by a stupendous amount of industry-funded misinformation, echoed by politicians they help elect and sympathetic media outlets.

The World Four Degrees Warmer: A New Analysis from the World Bank, a November 2012 post by wunderground climate change blogger Dr. Ricky Rood.

9 Significant Scientific Findings too Recent to Be Included in the New IPCC Report, today's post from the World Resources Institute.

New Blockbuster IPCC Climate Report: Comprehensive, Authoritative, Conservative, my September 2013 post on who the IPCC is, and how they write their reports.

Landmark 2013 IPCC Report: 95% Chance Most of Global Warming is Human-Caused, my September 2013 post on Part I of the 2013 - 2014 IPCC report: the physical science behind climate change.

IPCC: Climate Change Increasing Risk of Hunger, Thirst, Disease, Refugees, and War, my March 2014 post on Part II of the 2013 - 2014 IPCC report: climate change impacts and how we can adapt to them.

IPCC: Cost of Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change Super-Affordable if We Act Now, my April 2014 post on Part III of the 2013 - 2014 IPCC report: how we can mitigate (reduce) climate change impacts.

The Burning Question: We Can't Burn Half the World's Oil, Coal, and Gas. So How Do We Quit? by Duncan Clark, an excellent analysis of the issue of unburnable fossil fuels.

Video 1. The IPCC released this video to accompany the release of their 2014 Impacts and Adaptation report.

I'll have a new post Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.

Jeff Masters

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.