"The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed" - William Gibson.
After 200 years of unabated growth in populations and consumption per capita enabled by burning fossil fuels, we now face a wicked problem that has no easy solution. We need to immediately reduce our use of fossil fuels in order to mitigate the impact of climate change and avoid the risk of triggering tipping points which would result in an irreversible cascade of climate change leading to a hot-house Earth.
In an industrial society, we are totally reliant on high-grade energy for our survival, so we need to transition from fossil fuels to high-grade renewable energy and infrastructure. Investment in and manufacturing of high-grade renewable energy and infrastructure such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines requires the use of energy and materials. We will need to continue using fossil fuels during an initial transition to renewable energy and infrastructure because our current level of renewable energy sources is insufficient.
Reducing our use of fossil fuels is imperative in order to mitigate the impact of climate change. We therefore have no choice but to divert use of fossil fuels from unnecessary and frivolous consumption to investments in renewables and infrastructure within a limited and reducing budget of fossil fuels. This applies especially to the well-developed countries like New Zealand.
The Problem Explained
A century later, virtually every nation in the world agreed to work together to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The 2015 Paris Agreement was adopted by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. The target of the 2015 Paris Agreement was to hold the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Reductions would be undertaken in accordance with the best science and on the basis of equity. It was recognised that the less-developed nations would require financial assistance from the well-developed nations. The 2015 Paris Agreement recognised that business-as-usual emissions of greenhouse gases must be curbed. Adoption of a carbon budget was agreed upon. The budget is an annual reducing budget, the total size of which is represented by the area under the curve of projected reductions in CO2 emissions.
Renewable energy cannot scale up to the same energy levels per capita that we currently enjoy in the well-developed countries because photovoltaic panels and wind turbines requires the use of increasingly scarce minerals which in turn takes increasingly more energy to mine. We have already mined the low hanging fruit of minerals which are highly concentrated.
We will need to learn how to live well on a much-reduced budget of energy during and after a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and infrastructure. It is possible to do this because much of our current consumption of energy in the form of goods and services does not lead to greater well-being. It is as supportive localised communities that we can continue to thrive.
What is possible will not happen unless we face up to realities and respond to the urgent need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without delay. Our submission to the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment (MFE) provides a detailed argument to target Net Zero Emissions by 2030 instead of 2050 which is backed up by the most up-to-date peer reviewed publications in top ranking international journals and reputable research organisations such as the International Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations. Download here
The role of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and the greenhouse gas effect was known over a century ago by scientists and published by Svante Arrhenius in a peer reviewed international journal as early as 1896. A few years later, the general public was also aware of the global warming effect of CO2 in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. Here is an example of a publication in a New Zealand newspaper, The Rodney & Otamatea Times, published in 1912.
Unfortunately, there is a smoke and mirror difference between agreement by world leaders and actual action. Action by our world leaders to mitigate the impact of climate change have been repeatedly delayed until the next meeting. Meeting after meeting has resulted in a lot of hot air. Greta Thunberg has summarised these meetings as being "blah, blah, blah:. The COP26 meeting held in November 2021 was no different. Over the last 50 years there have been over 34 climate conferences, a half dozen major international climate agreements and various scientist’s warnings. Greenhouse gases emissions have continued to accumulate in the atmosphere unabated. Action to match the words have so far been a dismal failure. In 2019, New Zealand declared a Climate Emergency. As of November 2021, there has been so far no sweeping and rapid social change in New Zealand towards mitigating the impact of climate change.
New Zealand’s Net Zero Carbon by 2050 policy essentially supports incremental adjustments to business as usual.
As of November 2021, climate warming is 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In a best case optimistic scenario which assumes full implementation of all announced targets, our climate would be heading towards 1.8 degrees Celsius and as high as 2.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. More commitment is required to keep under 1.5 degrees Celsius. In a real world action scenario based on current policies, our climate would be heading towards 2.7 degrees Celsius and as high as 3.6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This scenario represents a severe existential threat to all life forms on Earth.
Urgent action is now more than ever necessary, but the focus of world leaders is currently on COVID-19. Most people in many countries agree that climate change in the long-term is as serious a crisis as Covid-19. However, focus of attention is on the short-term and immediate impact of Covid-19.
Climate change is not going to go away, and the longer we delay in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, the more greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, and the more dire the impact of climate change becomes. Immediate action is required on both fronts.
Our planet Earth has a carrying capacity which supports myriads of life forms in various ecosystems, including that of humans. The survival of humans depends on the survival of ecosystems and the life forms supported by those ecosystems. If we overshoot the carrying capacity of our ecosystems, then that carrying capacity degrades. Earth would no longer be able to support the same number of life forms, including that of humans.
In 2009, Johan Rockström and colleagues identified 10 planetary boundaries which must not be exceeded in order to ensure a sustainable future for life on Earth. These boundaries are interlinked and crossing certain biophysical thresholds can only but have disastrous consequences for humans and other life forms. Human activity has the potential to overshoot the threshold of all these planetary boundaries. Climate change is but only one of many boundaries of overshoot. Other planetary boundaries include ocean acidification, ozone depletion, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, freshwater use, deforestation, biodiversity loss, particle pollution, and chemical pollution.
In 2015, Will Steffen and colleagues identified the extent that planetary boundaries are at risk. The safe thresholds of three of the planetary boundaries – genetic diversity, flows of phosphorous, and flows of nitrogen – have already been well exceeded. A critical boundary is phosphorous which is essential as a nutrient for all life forms. Climate change is in a zone of uncertain increasing risk. Continued climate change will exacerbate the overshoot of several other planetary boundaries.
Mathis Wackernagel and colleagues researched the ecological footprint of humans and estimated that in 2020, the demand of humans on biological resources exceeded the amount that Earth’s ecosystems produce by at least 56%. Moderate business-as-usual can only but further exceed our demands on biological resources. We need to rapidly reduce our demands. To do otherwise will result in degradation of the carrying capacity of biological resources upon which we rely on for our survival.
Tipping elements at risk
A tipping point in our climate system is a threshold which, if exceeded, leads to abrupt and large changes in the state of the system. Some of these changes can be irreversible. Timothy Lenton and colleagues identified nine tipping points and Will Steffen and colleagues have identified which tipping elements are most at risk.
Because different climate systems are interconnected, one system can have an impact on another. Each increase in global warming risks a domino like cascade where a series of tipping point thresholds are exceeded. The Greenland ice sheet, Arctic summer sea ice, alpine glaciers, coral reefs, and West Antarctic ice sheets are already undergoing change with a 1.0 degree Celsius increase in global warming above pre-industrial levels. Sea ice reflects more sunlight into outer space than uncovered water where sea ice used to be. With each melting of sea ice, the oceans absorb more heat which increases the level of global warming. The melting of sea ice involves a positive feedback loop where the melting of sea ice results in an acceleration in the melting of more sea ice.
An existential life-threatening tipping element is the thawing of permafrost. Tundra is located in a large treeless plain in the Arctic regions where the subsoil is frozen.
This frozen subsoil, or permafrost, holds a vast amount of carbon accumulated from dead plants and animals over thousands of years. The atmosphere holds about 589 Petagrams and permafrost stores about 1,700 Petagrams. There is much more carbon locked in permafrost than is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. There is already evidence of permafrost thawing. Large scale thawing of permafrost would result in irreversible change in climate. The result would be a hothouse Earth where no life forms can survive.
There is a side issue here. Carbon is also stored in the ground in the form of fossil fuels reserves. These reserves include gas (383 - 1,134 Petagrams), oil (173 - 264 Petagrams), and coal (446 - 541 Petagrams). The carbon locked in these fossil fuels far exceed that of carbon in the atmosphere. A year before the 2015 Paris Agreement, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins cautioned that most of these fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground. At the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations agreed to restrict their use of fossil fuels and keep within a carbon budget in order to achieve net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. But many countries have continued to explore for more reserves of fossil fuels. By doing so, these countries contravene the spirit of the 2015 Paris Agreement and use part of the agreed global carbon budget in exploration for more fossil fuels which should be used to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and infrastructure.
In their study of tipping elements at risk, Will Steffen and colleagues conclude: “Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions - Hothouse Earth”.
Reports by the IPCC are couched in terms of risk and probability because any field of science does not and cannot provide absolute certainty. All knowledge based on science is provisional. What distinguishes genuine science from pseudoscience is its willingness to allow evidence to confirm or challenge its theories. A strong pattern of climate science has developed over the last number of decades. With each increase in the understanding of our global climate systems, the more dire are the conclusions of climate scientists as to where our global climate system is currently heading due to insufficient action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Taleb and colleagues (2014) summarise the Precautionary Principle as follows:
“The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. Under these conditions, the burden of proof about absence of harm falls on those proposing an action, not those opposing it.”
The action of burning fossil fuels accompanied by greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere falls well within the category of applying the Precautionary Principle because failure to cease burning fossil fuels sufficiently quickly would result in an existential threat to all forms of life on Earth. When confronted by a lack of absolute certainty, and especially when risks involve existential threats, the Precautionary Principle as adopted by the United Nations must be abided by all nations, including New Zealand.
The Precautionary Principle
We have a choice to make here for the sake of the survival of our own species and all other species on Earth.
The choice we have is either a Hothouse Earth where we are currently heading or a Stabilized Earth.
Lack of absolute certainty must not be allowed to be an excuse for any further delays in necessary action to mitigate the impact of climate change.
The longer we delay action, the greater is the risk of a Hothouse Earth.
In order to avoid the prospect of a hot-house Earth, we need to reduce and eliminate our use of fossil fuels as an energy source
The following is a precis of our report which is based on our submission to the MFE and our SCAN video. This report provides a full list of references and can be downloaded here.
The longer we delay in reducing our use of fossil fuels,
the greater will be the accumulations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
and the subsequent increasing risk of irreversible climate change.
We need to avoid overshooting the carrying capacity of our planet Earth
Climate change is but only one of many boundaries of overshoot.
We have already exceeded the safe thresholds of three planetary boundaries
Our ecological footprint exceeds what Earth can safely provide by over 50%
We need to reduce our demands on biological resources
A tipping point in our climate system is a threshold which, if exceeded, leads to abrupt and large changes.
Some of these changes can be irreversible.
Each increase in global warming risks a domino like cascade where a series of tipping point thresholds are exceeded
An existential life-threatening tipping element is the thawing of permafrost.
There is already evidence of permafrost thawing
Large scale thawing of permafrost would result in a hothouse Earth where no life forms can survive
To keep within our 2015 Paris Agreement fossil fuel budget, most of our fossil fuels must be left in the ground
Exploration and drilling for more fossil fuels contravene the spirit of the 2015 Paris Agreement
In 2021 the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that global temperatures are likely to rise by more than 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels over the next two decades. This would cause widespread devastation and more extreme weather. Only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gases in this decade can prevent climate breakdown. Every fraction of a degree of further heating is likely to compound the accelerating effects of climate change.