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Getting Below Two Degrees Celsius

Dec 10, 2015

The COP21 talks in Paris are underway, and an imposing number looms over the negotiations. That number is two degrees Celsius – the amount of warming that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that humanity needs to stay under if it intends to avert catastrophic global warming within the 21st century. Media outlets generally present COP21 as humanity’s last best chance to avoid disaster, but many environmentalists suggest that it is unlikely that any agreement reached will be capable of meeting the IPCC’s targets. The reason for this pessimism is simple: when you compare the basic math of staying below two degrees of warming to the political commitments of negotiating states, it doesn’t add up.

The IPCC is a large body of international scientists that requires consensus for its reports and recommendations, including the much-repeated warning about staying below two degrees of warming. Because the IPCC’s reports require this consensus, some climate scientists suggest that its forecasts are actually quite conservative. In fact, over the past decade the IPCC’s “worst case scenario” predictions of carbon emissions, temperature increases, and melting ice caps have all been exceeded by reality.

In order to keep warming below the two-degree Celsius limit, we need to reduce carbon emissions. This does not mean we need to reduce the growth of emissions. We need to engineer an absolute decline in total global emissions, and we need to do it very quickly. When economic activity creates carbon emissions, and it does, any economic growth means that carbon emissions will rise if all else holds equal. It takes resources and energy to produce virtually any commodity. Even “immaterial” services like counseling require computers and phones, which rely on electric lighting, power plants, and mining.

Carbon emissions are closely correlated with economic growth – emissions fall during recessions and rise during recoveries. Unsurprisingly, the countries whose carbon emissions are growing fastest are those countries with rapid economic growth driven by industrialization. China is now the largest emitter of CO2. The “carbon intensity” of GDP is a measure of the average carbon emissions required to produce one dollar in GDP. As Ulrich Hoffman notes, global carbon intensity actually fell 23% from 1980 to 2008. However, emissions still rose faster than ever because economic growth far outpaced the gains in efficiency.

This is the real, fundamental problem with negotiations like COP21. As long as growing economic output produces emissions, which it does, then economic growth in general contributes to our potentially catastrophic global warming problem. As Hoffman writes, if current trends of population and income growth are extended to 2050, we would need to reduce carbon intensity 21-fold. If the developing nations were to catch up to European standards of GDP per capita, this number would skyrocket to almost 130-fold. Reductions in carbon intensity on this scale have never been seen in history, and there are few reasons to believe that they are at all likely.

The United States and China are the two largest carbon emitters in the world, and as such they are perfect candidates for analyzing the politics of global warming. The legitimacy of both governments is staked heavily on their ability to ensure consistent economic growth. In a capitalist economy, growth is essential for maintaining employment and producing rising living standards. Just as importantly, continuous growth can postpone looming questions about the equitable distribution of wealth. One need only look to Europe, which suffers from low growth and high unemployment, to see how these maladies can threaten the future of any government or political party.

As long as booming economic growth is seen as the key to enduring legitimacy and political success, it may be politically impossible to avoid catastrophic global warming. Consider Jeb Bush, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush has repeatedly promised to increase U.S. economic growth to 4% per year. However laughable this pledge might be, it would certainly have disastrous effects on climate stability if achieved. China is currently suffering from economic turbulence, and continued steady growth is likely seen as being key to the Party’s political legitimacy. Just as is the case with the United States, this very same growth imperils the stability of the planet even as it shores up the stability of the Chinese government.

Another problem with international climate negotiations is that they are based on misleading premises. There are no “American” or “Chinese” emissions. There are simply carbon emissions, which are produced through the operations of the global economy. The emissions of developing countries appear to be growing faster than those of the developed world because that is where new factories and power plants are being built. Companies in the developed world rely completely on these emissions sources for their own “green” operations. Apple would not be what it is without Chinese factories and rare earth mineral refineries. Developed nations are not actually getting much greener. They have simply outsourced their emissions to the developing world, merely postponing the hard choices that will be necessary if we intend to stay below the two-degree limit.

The pledges submitted to COP21 by the world’s countries will not meet this target. Even if every country sticks by its pledges religiously, which did not happen after previous accords, then we will still be on course for around three degrees of warming by the end of the century. That rate could still create unstoppable melting of the world’s ice caps, leading to a massive rise in global sea levels. Some parts of the world would endure catastrophic flooding, while others would suffer from droughts and famine as fresh water dries up. Fluctuations in local climates would be severe, and millions would likely migrate away from unbearably hot regions around the equator.

Avoiding catastrophe will require more than international negotiations like COP21. It requires a political shift away from pursuing economic growth at the expense of all other considerations. This means that countries will need to tackle questions of employment and the equitable distribution of wealth without the panacea of infinite future growth. Social movements will need to shift the basis of political legitimacy toward a concern for climate and ecological stability. Otherwise, we will condemn ourselves and our children to an increasingly hostile world.

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