Emissions: The Reality of the Carbon Countdown

The 2015 International Paris Agreement on carbon emissions (COP21) had set a target to limit the average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial times. Five years on we can say that the Paris Agreement has failed. Its targets with inbuilt failure expectations of 34 per cent to 50 per cent were ridiculous when they were set and have now proved to be useless.

Image of carbon emissions that are increasing year on year

carbon emissions are increasing year on year

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 report set out the results of a scientific calculation of the amount of carbon toxic emissions that humanity could continue to release into the atmosphere, the carbon budget, while limiting the increase in warming at below 2°C, with efforts to limit warming further to 1.5°C by 2030. The science is there and it is clear. Just pretending to do something about it is not good enough.

We can understand better the carbon emissions threat, and what these temperature measures and target dates mean, in down-to-Earth terms by looking at the facts on the ground. At the end of 2019 the Earth passed the 1°C increase threshold. The increase of 1°C in average global temperature is by definition an ‘average’ and hides the reality of extreme weather conditions. This happens as even a small overall temperature increase has the potential to destabilise the balance that exists in nature’s ecosystems.

The mountain glaciers and the ice cover over the Arctic and Antarctic are melting at accelerating rates causing havoc to the cryosphere ecosystems they used to maintain. Cyclones (hurricanes) have become more frequent and more violent. Extreme rainfalls are causing devastating floods. The forests in all continents are burning and pushing hundreds of thousands of species to extinction. Droughts are becoming more frequent, hotter and longer causing desertification with famine killing nine million people annually. Storms at sea are now more violent causing flooding of coastal areas. Animal and fish populations are collapsing – the biodiversity losses are incalculable.

Image of a dead coral in the ocean caused by carbon emissions

the oceans are losing oxygen and are becoming more acidic

Ocean waves are higher. The seas and oceans are getting warmer, loosing oxygen and becoming more acidic. The oceans pH is changing. Coral reefs are dying. Fish populations and other marine life are rapidly decreasing as all marine life needs oxygen and a certain pH level in order to survive. Warming oceans are changing the flow of surface and deep water currents that redistribute heat and cold around the globe. This is having a direct impact on the benign and predictable global weather conditions we are familiar with. Four million people annually across the world are dying prematurely from pollution every year. Insect populations globally are plummeting.

Nature is increasingly more unpredictable as people’s disruption of the pre-existing order continues relentlessly. Chaos has set in. This is nature’s way to maintain a dynamic equilibrium. Careful, we may not be part of the emerging natural order.

There is more, however this should be enough to illustrate the horrific impact that a 1°C increase has already had and will continue to have as it spirals out of control and becomes much, much worse. The IPCC estimates do not include feedback loops. One such feedback loop is the melting of the permafrost that could release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If this happens the battle is lost as there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. The disruption to human civilisation will be total.

Almost all of the models used in the IPCC report rely on carbon removal to some extent. Carbon removal would hypothetically be carried out using technology. The use of carbon removal technologies at the scale that would be necessary is totally untested. Given the risks and uncertainties related to various carbon removal options, rolling out these technologies would have to be done in a safe and prudent manner. If the speed and scale of deployment is restrained, as caution would dictate, reliance on this strategy to meet the 1.5°C goal, especially for those scenarios that overshoot 1.5˚C, would be foolhardy. On the other hand should these options be recklessly and prematurely implemented on a large scale, in a panic, the consequences are most likely to be tragic.

Greta Thunberg, climate activist, addressing the U.S. House of Representatives on the 5th December 2019

Carbon budgets are necessarily estimates, albeit the best estimates that our scientific community can come up with. The debate on whether the actual carbon budget is smaller or larger than stated in the IPCC report is irrelevant. Logic dictates that we accept the fact that a carbon emissions countdown exists and for this purpose the IPCC report’s estimate is as good as any. It is fairly clear that the impact on the planetary ecosystems is already dramatic at just 1°C increase in average global temperature. The Earth’s ability to sustain life as we know it has already been impaired.

We do not need any more science or any more studies. The only question now is will we do anything to stop this ecocide. Bear in mind that not doing enough in time is as bad as not doing anything at all. Humanity, our children and grandchildren, will not be spared. The solutions are known and they are not technological. We must protect and restore all ecosystems. We must fundamentally re-evaluate what is means to be human on this Earth. Just one species amongst many, not superior or better, just different. We must find ways to exist in full respect of all other life forms and seek collaboration for mutual benefit. We have much to learn. We must start now as time is fast running out.


This article was published in the Times of Malta on the 30th June 2020, CO2 Removal Technology is No Silver Bullet

Other related articles:

Carbon Pollution Countdown (1) – The Failure

Climate Change is Ecocide