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Why COP17 will not succeed

November 29, 2011
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As world leaders meet in Durban, South Africa for the next two weeks for the COP17 Climate Change Conference, I am struck by the overwhelming sense that nothing good will possibly come of it.

Rather than being miffed with politics in general, this is a far more measurable sense of impending doom. It is hard to expect success from a project aiming for an impossible target.

From the Washington Post today,

International climate negotiators have pledged to keep the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels.

Granted, that goal sounds wonderful, as 2 degrees C has been paraded around as the upper bounds on “safe” climate change. There is only one problem–for all intents and purposes it is not possible.

Last year, I interviewed Brian O’Neil, a climate modeler with the National Center for Atmospheric Research after a Congressional briefing on global warming.

The full interview is interesting, but O’Neil’s key quote highlights the futility of COP17’s agenda. He said,

If we say, no, we’re not allowed to go above 2 degrees at any time, then we find that it is, in fact, today, not technically feasible to achieve the 2 degree target with 50% likelihood. If we did as much as we could, starting today and for the rest of the century, all technically feasible reduction options, we would have a 1 in 3 chance of staying below two degrees at all times. That’s what we found in our analysis.

While O’Neil’s understanding still leaves the slightest of windows of success (though I’d be interested to see how his appraisal has changed in the past year), a paper published earlier this year by scientists with the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis knocks even that 33% out the window barring an absolutely overwhelming international effort.

The research summary I wrote  for Eos back when the study first came out reads,

When it comes to modeling climate change, researchers rely on the specification of plausible emissions scenarios to explore how climate will change over the coming century. Using a standardized set of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas scenarios allows researchers from different modeling centers to compare results and allows more methodical assessment of uncertainty in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. The set of emissions scenarios used in the past two IPCC reports were published in 2001 and need to be updated to take into account more recent socioeconomic modeling results.

In a new study, Arora et al. use a completely new set of scenarios, referred to as representative concentration pathways (RCPs). These will form the basis for new climate projections to be assessed in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (due out in 2014). Using an upgraded Earth system model—which takes into account carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, aerosols, land use change, and the flow of carbon between the atmosphere and the underlying ocean and land surface—the researchers are able to calculate the carbon dioxide emissions compatible with each RCP and, in particular, the emissions reductions required to meet certain levels of global warming.

The authors find that even under the lowest concentration scenario, global average temperature increases exceed the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) limit agreed to by various governments in the Copenhagen accord. The researchers note that limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 will require global carbon dioxide emissions to be reduced to zero over the next 50 years, followed by measures to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before the end of the century.

It is exceedingly difficult to anticipate success when the conference’s goal, at its most fundamental, is essentially a scientific impossibility.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 30, 2011 1:04 pm

    I think the notion that we are on track for truly amazing amounts of warming (6C) is finally going mainstream. For example:

    World on track for nearly 11-degree temperature rise, energy expert says

    I think I’ve seen Romm say that >2C takes us to 600+ppm even without further emissions just because of natural feedbacks. If that’s true and IEA projections are also true, what’s the reality going to be? 1000ppm?

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