No one ever said avoiding catastrophic climate change would be easy. Perhaps that’s why we keep sleep walking toward disaster, year after year failing to take action to curb our emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, when each year of inaction just makes the problem all that more impossible to solve.
At this point, new research confirms, our only hope to to avoid the catastrophic climate change that 1.5°C of global warming before the end of this century would trigger, is to take immediate, significant, sustained action on five different key fronts to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In other words, nothing short of rapid, radical transformation of the ways we produce and consume energy, food, and goods plus meaningful deployment of certain carbon dioxide removal technologies will do.
The 2018 IPCC Report
Back in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a Special Report that showed that even just 1.5°C of warming would be a disaster for humanity and the planet, triggering increasingly frequent and devastating heat waves, floods, droughts, crop failures, famines, hurricanes, cyclones, super typhoons, economic shocks, political unrest, and failed states, thereby causing considerable suffering, unnecessary loss of life, and trillions of dollars in losses, as well as widespread ecological damage.
The report went on to point out that by then we’d already added nearly enough greenhouse gas to the atmosphere to guarantee a minimum of 1.5°C of global warming before the end of this century. But the report also offered solutions, identifying 50 different scenarios we could follow, in terms of how quickly and extensively to reduce our net yearly additions of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, to keep us under 1.5°C of global warming.
None of those pathways, which called for reaching net zero emissions by 2030 to 2050, depending on the scenario, was easy. But, still, at that point we had between twelve and 30 years to bring our net emissions of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere down to zero.
Our Options Dwindle
Of course, three years on, we haven’t reduced the amount of greenhouse gas we release to the atmosphere each year at all, nor do we appear to be on track to begin anytime soon. And a new study has shown that the situation is even worse than the IPCC report suggested. Upon close inspection, fewer than half of the IPCC Special Report’s 50 scenarios for avoiding 1.5°C of warming turn out not to rely on unrealistically optimistic assumptions about the power of certain techniques to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
According to the peer-reviewed study accepted for publication at the respected journal Earth and Planetary Sciences Letters, All options, not silver bullets, needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C: a scenario appraisal, by Lila Warszawski and her co-authors, only 22 of the IPCC Special Report’s pathways to net zero could actually get us to there in time to avoid 1.5°C of global warming. The second critical finding of the study is that they all require strenuous effort in, not one or two, but five key areas:
- artificial removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for storage in various geologic reservoirs
- change in land use (including reforestation and changes to agricultural practices) to turn land into a notable net sink of carbon
- reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide released by our energy production, transportation, industrial, and construction sectors
- reduction of consumption and shift toward sustainable products
- reduction of emissions of methane and other short-lived but potent greenhouse gases
And their third finding is that not only do we need to seriously engage in all five of these different actions, the absolutely most important ones, in terms of the size of their potential impact, is to reduce carbon emissions from the energy and agricultural sectors.
Let’s Crunch Some Numbers
What all this means is that firstly and foremostly, to remain below 1.5°C of warming, we need to halve net global emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every ten years between now and 2050. Since we emitted an average of 10.9 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year from 2010-2019, then from 2020-2029, we need to average less than 5.5 billion tons per year. (The not exactly news flash here is that we’re not off to a great start; even with the lockdowns and lack of air travel during the pandemic, fossil fuel emissions alone clocked in at more than 9 billion tons of carbon in 2020.)
Then we’d need to keep going, dropping to less than 2.7 billion tons per year over the decade 2030-2039, a value the human race hasn’t operated at since we had several billion fewer people and didn’t use much in the way of fossil fuels beyond coal. Then by 2050, we’d need to hit net zero emissions.
The other not exactly news flash here is that achieving such a profound rapid drop in carbon emissions will take nothing short of revolutionary transformation of the ways we produce and consume energy. We need to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible while massively improving our ability to produce energy renewably and in ways that emit as little greenhouse gas to the atmosphere as possible (wind and solar, we’re looking at you, mainly). But we’re not yet really making anywhere near sufficient progress on this front.
Sustainability is the Only Way Forward
And it’s just the most important thing we need to do, because, so dire is our situation, even if we succeeded, it wouldn’t be enough to save us from severe climate change. Another thing we need to immediately start doing in a major way is behaving more sustainably as consumers, slamming our own personal brakes on consumption starting today and making sure what we consume has been produced sustainably and without producing a lot of greenhouse gas. This also means replacing a good chunk of the fish, meat, eggs, and dairy in our diet with grains, fruits, and vegetables.
This is yet another not exactly news flash, but if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we all really need to sit ourselves down and ask ourselves what’s holding me back?
Which bring us to the next thing we need to be doing now if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. We also need to quickly and significantly change to a more sustainable use of land. Instead of continuing to deforest the planet, we need to allow wilderness in all its messy, carbon-storing glory to regrow, and that doesn’t mean pine plantations, it means all sorts of roaring ecosystems, from tropical rainforests, to boreal forests, to marshes and peat bogs.
As with the overhaul of our energy production system, this is a change so big, it can really only be brought about with funding and regulations established by entities as big and powerful as governments.
Carbon Sequestration as Part of the Solution
But given the realistic amount of all the above that we could do and the realistic amount of carbon dioxide it could keep from entering the atmosphere, we still can’t reach net zero emissions in time to avoid 1.5°C of warming if we don’t also start actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via reliable techniques and storing it in geologic reservoirs.
Thus, while such geologic carbon dioxide removal can’t be taken as a knight in shining armor who will swoop in and save us from all the global warming, without engaging in a significant amount carbon dioxide removal to geologic reservoirs (such as the antacid ions carbonate and bicarbonate, for instance, produced from carbon dioxide by dissolving rock powders), we simply cannot realistically keep enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic climate change.
A Change in Diet to Improve Our Chances
At least the one other crucial task, reducing methane emissions, at least happens hand in hand with our reduction in meat eating (given that the burps and rotting dung of livestock are a major source of methane and other powerful short-lived greenhouse gases to the atmosphere) and with our exit from the use of fossil fuels (whose mining and refining results in major emissions of methane to the atmosphere).
To sum up, the conclusions of this interesting new research paper are that while keeping global warming under 1.5°C is not impossible yet, there are only a few pathways left that we could take to get there and these pathways require serious attack on all five key fronts of the fight to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Succeeding will take strenuous, although attainable effort on our parts, as individuals, nations, and a global community.