Study: We’re Headed To 11°F Warming And Even 7°F Requires ‘Nearly Quadrupling The Current Rate Of Decarbonisation’

A new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers finds humanity has its foot on the accelerator as we head toward a cliff. The only hope is very rapid deployment of  carbon-free technology starting ASAP.

The title of the PWC report is sobering, “Too late for two degrees?” So is its main conclusion:

Our Low Carbon Economy Index evaluates the rate of decarbonisation of the global economy that is needed to limit warming to 2oC. This report shows that global carbon intensity decreased between 2000 and 2011 by around 0.8% a year. In 2011, carbon intensity decreased by 0.7%. The global economy now needs to cut carbon intensity by 5.1% every year from now to 2050. Keeping to the 2oC carbon budget will require sustained and unprecedented reductions over four decades.

Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2oC appear highly unrealistic.

Here are two more conclusions that can kill — or maybe cause — a hangover:

We have passed a critical threshold – not once since 1950 has the world achieved that rate of decarbonisation in a single year, but the task now confronting us is to achieve it for 39 consecutive years….

Even to have a reasonable prospect of getting to a 4°C scenario would imply nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation.

Despite the many hand-wavers who assert the optimal climate strategy is more research and development, this is yet another independent analysis that makes crystal clear such a do-little approach would be suicidal (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, R&D, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“).

It bears repeating that warming of 7°F or beyond is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e.  4°C [7°F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level,” as climate expert Kevin Anderson explains here. Tragically, that appears to be the likely outcome of business as usual.

No wonder the report states bluntly:

The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS, removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation. This suggests a need for much more ambition and urgency on climate policy, at both the national and international level.

Either way, business-as-usual is not an option.

Leo Johnson, PWC’s Partner for Sustainability and Climate Change, rather dryly concludes his letter introducing the report:

Business leaders have been asking for clarity in political ambition on climate change. Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2ºC, but 4ºC and, at our current rates, 6ºC.

Of course, planning for 4°C [7°F] in 2100 — let alone 6°C [11°F] — is tantamount to planning for the end of civilization as we know it (see this review of more than 60 recent studies — “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

Such a world would likely mean:

  • Permanent Dust Bowl conditions over the U.S. Southwest, parts of the Great Plains and many other regions around the globe that are heavily populated and/or heavily farmed.
  • Sea level rise of some 1 foot by 2050, then 4 to 6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity.
  • Much more extreme weather

These will all be happening simultaneously and getting worse decade after decade. A 2009 NOAA-led study found the worst impacts would be “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”

In such a world there would be little prospect for feeding 9 billion people post-2050 given current dietary, economic, and agricultural practices. The word “adaptation” simply doesn’t apply in any meaningful sense:

Of course, there is every reason to believe that the earth would just keep getting hotter and hotter:

Steve Easterbrook’s post “A first glimpse at model results for the next IPCC assessment” shows that for the scenario where there is 9°F warming by 2100, you get another 7°F warming by 2300. Of course, folks that aren’t motivated to avoid the civilization-destroying 9°F by 2100 won’t be moved by whatever happens after that.

As I said, humanity has its foot on the accelerator as we head toward a cliff. This climactic climatic cliff makes the much-talked-about fiscal cliff seem like a bump in the road. Yet here we are on election day after a campaign with relentless silence on climate issues. The “Slowly Boiling Brainless Frogs” live — for now.

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28 Responses to Study: We’re Headed To 11°F Warming And Even 7°F Requires ‘Nearly Quadrupling The Current Rate Of Decarbonisation’

  1. What will it take for the major business news outlets to start covering climate as a significant economic indicator? WSJ, Economist, even Mad Money on CNBC need to start talking about it or nothing will change.

  2. Finally, some reality about the futility of “adaptation.” Planning to adapt to a 2C world is like planning to adapt to a permanent state of war. Planning to adapt to a 7C world is like planning to adapt to another Chicxulub asteroid.

    No serious resources should be spent on adaptation unless and until we start the rapid decarbonization described here, because there is no chance the adaptation will be effective unless the carbon in the air is stabilized.

    And how are we going to accomplish this? Despite the fact that polls says that 70%+ of Americans want action on climate change, I really don’t think they’re imagining this level of dislocation to their way of life. Removing 5% of fossil fuels from the latticework of the American economy, without similar concurrent actions from other industrialized countries, could well provoke armed resistance unless we can legitimize this effort in the minds of the unreasoning, ideological deniers who would take up arms, and the powerful vested interest who would support them.

    This moment in history reminds me of the 1850s, minus the slaves. The depth of the hard-core deniers’ antipathy shouldn’t be underestimated. Implementing the above plan, which I fully think needs to happen, nonetheless risks provoking a violent backlash. Think of the plan five years in: a 25% reduction in fossil fuel use. How is that not equivalent to a 25% or greater reduction in economic activity? To a 25% unemployment rate? The time frame is simply too compressed. We cannot replace that power, watt for watt, in that short a time frame, even if we employed every unemployed man and woman to attack every wedge in the Pacala and Socolow decarbonization plan, from conservation to nuclear.

    The only Hail Mary we have is for this deployment to be directed by the government, with the attendant sacrifice of we citizens, just as it directed the economy and as we sacrificed in WW2, except on a much larger scale. Meanwhile, a sufficient part of the population would have to engage in this build-out. It may seem superficially like a full-employment program, but what will the money supply do as fossil fuels, the very predicate of our way of life, are going away at 5% per year?

    At the very least, it will kick most investments into the cellar.

    I apologize for this harsh reaction. I fully understand this report reflects reality. Somebody tell me how this is going to happen without shattering democracy as we know it.

    I know the response: we have no choice. Democracy is over in either case.

  3. “Paleoclimate data suggests CO2 “may have at least twice the effect on global temperatures than currently projected by computer models”

    Yes. For what it’s worth, my own thinking is that the IPPC’s 2ºC threshold is dangerously off. (I think Hansen has said this also, giving some scientific credibility to my common sense approach.)

    My common sense approach is to look at what we’re already witnessing at 0.8ºC overall global warming. That includes Arctic amplification and the great ice melt, all the droughts, storms, food shortages and so on. Now, let’s double the current global temperature to 1.6ºC. I should think that at the very least we could expect a “doubling” of the affected conditions — longer, hotter heat waves, more tornados, bigger big storms, locked in, dust-bowl type droughts… etc.

    But it will probably be worse than that because as these things happen feedback mechanisms will be locked in, not just prodded as they are now. Methane releases from permafrost thawing, clathrate melting and so on could easily get “out of control” — literally. Forests will die or burn and become carbon sources rather than carbon sinks. Surprises such as the degree of direct warming in the Arctic ocean discussed by Wadham will add to the mix.

    So, here’s a little headache for you: I think the PWC article and Joe’s article are a tad optimistic, with with 1.6ºC possibly being the new 2ºC.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Very good, if disheartening article, Joe, but as it becomes more and more evident we’ve blown it…we need to know it…so, thank you.

    It’s hard to imagine a 5.1% carbon decrease every year through 2050 even being plausible.

    This is also insuring that when (if) we finally do panic and start doing things, all the crackpot geo-engineering cards on the table will be actively grasped at (since we will have waited far too long before doing anything) since they will be looked at as our only way to keep warming in check while we decarbonize.

    Makes me think of this article from November of 2011:

    “Global warming 2°C target “no longer attainable” from an insurance related firm that’s been studying climate change for 40 years…°c-target-no-longer-attainable/

  5. Aaron Lewis says:

    Over optimistic as does not include carbon feedbacks. Yes, clathrate decomposition has been less than tiny in the past, but it is increasing in an exponential function, and there may be more dramatic step functions as geographic areas cross the melting point.

  6. One alternative is a steep carbon tax. The linear implementation curve of 5.1% per year would have to be back-loaded to give the tax time to produce the necessary behavioral adjustments and innovations.

    Back-loading the goal is a huge risk. It doesn’t give the measurable progress of direct intervention. If it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.

    There’s not enough time to revive cap-and-trade, excellent idea it once was.

    Belt and suspenders: do both.

    This is a drop-everything issue for all of humanity. How do we convey that in a way that gets the desired results?

  7. Mike Roddy says:

    All news outlets, not just business ones, are terrified of their advertisers, either the oil companies or companies that depend on them.

    Pressure will have to come from outside.

  8. Mike Roddy says:

    We can decarbonize at 5% a year if the people’s welfare were what governed. All we would have to do is double the price of carbon, including deforestation.

    The problem, as usual, is big money.

  9. SecularAnimist says:

    Sasparilla wrote: “It’s hard to imagine a 5.1% carbon decrease every year through 2050 even being plausible.”

    As a matter of technology and economics, it is not only “plausible”, it’s easy. We have the technology at hand to phase out virtually all CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels in 10 or 20 years.

    Repeat after me: concentrating solar thermal power plants on five percent of the USA’s deserts could generate more electricity than the entire country uses. The same is true of the wind energy resources of just four midwestern states. Distributed solar photovoltaics on all the flat commercial rooftops in the USA could generate more electricity than all the nuclear power plants in the country. And those represent just a small fraction of the USA’s vast solar and wind energy resources.

    How long would it take to build the infrastructure to harvest that energy, using today’s readily available technology? Years, not decades.

    Of course, what we CAN do and what we WILL do are two different things.

    Bill McKibben and are right. The ONLY real obstacle to achieving a zero-carbon-emissions energy economy within a decade or two is the entrenched wealth and power of the fossil fuel corporations.

    It’s time to take them on, directly and without compromise, as the enemies of humanity that they are, and break their death-grip on the economy and our political system.

  10. john atcheson says:

    Sadly, we are not hardwired to handle threats that aren’t proximate. We discount the future consequences in favor of current indulgences not because we are ignorant or immoral, but because we are wired to do precisely that.

    Ironically, we are unlikely to react to the very real threat of climate change until it becomes palpable, by which time it is likely to also be irreversible.

    Barbara Tuchman wrote a book called “The March of Folly” about just this kind of phenomena. Whereas Ms Tuchman’s follies were limited both geographically and temporally, this one is global and essentially timeless, lasting for geologic epochs, once triggered.

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The Earth is a system and Thom did the basic maths nearly 50 years ago. Change in a system is far from linear, ME

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sorry John but there have been and are other cultures where people are governed by the long term common good, not short term self interest. When people cannot imagine anything but what they have, they attribute it to human nature but in this case they are wrong, ME

  13. That is the essence of this solvable problem. Yes, technically we can replace fossil fuels. But it is damned hard to imagine, if we don’t replace them, that what is going to happen is really going to happen. I just came in from lunch. A beautiful day. Perfect. A day to be alive. Absent my intellectual awareness that the ice cap is melting due to anthropogenic carbon injected into the atmosphere, my senses would be telling me there’s nothing to worry about.

    Now couple this with peoples’ normal resistance to change, and couple it again with suddenness, and again with the economic shock of the transition, and again with a significant minority who absolutely refuses to acknowledge this reality–in fact views it as anti-American and a direct threat–and those who are driving the change become the proximate threat.

    This is going to take great courage.

  14. NJP1 says:

    There’s an even bigger horror than the effects of climate change to consider in the short term
    Things are undoubtedly going to get bad for all of us, no matter where we live. But the USA is particularly vulnerable to chaos. As the truth dawns that no government can fix things, there will be a return to the irrational belief systems en masse, believing any whackjob political figure who promises salvation, jobs and cheap gas in return for prayer and return to righteousness. All crazy of course, but in few years time there will be nothing else on offer
    Already politicians are insisting that prayer will solve everything, and as things get worse the government will shift itself into a form of theocratic dictatorship “to preserve law and order”
    It couldn’t happen?
    The military is already infected with the theology virus, when the government is seen to be powerless in the face of energy shortage and climate catastrophe, it is inevitable that the military will take up, particularly as the nation will start to break up in the absence of the necessary (energy) means to hold it together.
    All empires break up when their energy sources are no longer there as a binding factor. The USA will be no different
    This will be the visible reality of climate change as storms and starvation begin to decimate the population and force disparate groups into conflict for resources

  15. Brian R Smith says:

    In May, Jorgen Randers, co-author of the Club of Rome’s 1972 “Limits To Growth”, published “2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years” (If it was reviewed here, it doesn’t come up on a CP site search, nor does Randers’name). His research concludes there will be no saving international actions to limit emissions to levels allowing a sustainable civilization; that we will pass 2C in 2050 and reach 3C by 2080; and that the inherent, intentional short-term-ism of both democracies and market capitalism are the fatal drivers.

    Randers’ message, along side this post from Joe and so many other reports confirming the trend to inevitable disaster, has put me in a tough spot, a new place I’ve been trying to avoid, emotionally and every other way. I no longer see a way out. No path to mitigation that looks possible. The only glimmer of hope I have now comes from believing that public knowledge of the truth about climate disruption, and the truth of the root causes in elite control of markets for self interest, will spark enough outrage and sense of purpose in Americans that there will be overwhelming grassroots action to demand science based policy on climate…and at least the beginnings of an open conversation about what to do about the earth-destroying path of liberal capitalism.

    When, and from whom, will the public get understanding of the consensus on the science and the grave urgency of action? It ain’t going to be Obama or corporate media, so who does that leave?

    Robert Brulle has described the environmental/climate movement as the largest social movement in US history. It includes scads of institutions with tremendous resources and networking potential, as we all know. It includes millions of already concerned citizens who have no idea what to do and are famished for leadership and hope for solutions. It includes scientists from almost every discipline. And it includes thousands of cities and community action groups doing what they can incrementally in relative local isolation. This is an impressive mega-constituency for political influence, EXCEPT THAT IT HAS NO EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP.

    For want of unity (or perhaps imagination?) among the parties, there is apparently no plan, no collaboration, no summit, no clarion call to organize the the entire membership of this movement into a political force. Considering the difference high level collaboration could make, there is a case here for a moral obligation to undertake it.
    Personally, it’s my last hope for getting us beyond analysis to real national action. So I encourage CP to spotlight this potential and invite climate leaders to post on what more can be done, especially w/ regard to media strategy.

  16. That is my nightmare, too. A right-wing authoritarian Millennialist coup is all but inevitable, given the right circumstances. Private militias based in religious schools become deputized to keep law and order as it all unravels and the tax rolls collapse, leaving police and fire severely underfunded.

    What will the disappearance of the ice cap and the consequent collapse of agriculture look like but the end times? Nature, the very face of God, will be altered irrevocably and forever. Someone will surely be blamed for causing God to withdraw His favor. The only question is, who will that be? Actually, there’s no question. It’ll be the usual suspects: gays, pro-choicers, atheists, dissenters, and anybody associated with them.

    It’s some comfort to know someone else can imagine this.

  17. Artful Dodger says:

    This statement is misleading:

    The global economy now needs to cut carbon intensity by 5.1% every year from now to 2050.

    That is the required reduction in carbon intensity to have a 50% chance of remaining under 2C warming.

    What is the reduction required to have a 95% chance? That’s the information needed for a public policy debate.

  18. Ken Barrows says:

    Why apologize? You are one of the few people who is trying to match the solution to the magnitude of the problem. It’s better than saying huge problem but easy solution.

  19. I’m not sure I’d call it “easy”, but I agree with the general thrust of your comment. People who point to history and say “we’ve never done it before” forget that we can move very quickly when we’re really motivated. And the potential for decarbonizing technologies is huge, as has been demonstrated over and over again since I started studying climate mitigation in the late 1980s. For the best latest thinking about our options, check out “Reinventing Fire” by RMI. You can also look at my book “Cold Cash, Cool Climate”, where I explicitly address issues of logistic feasibility in Chapter 5.

  20. David Moore says:

    Fight specific carbon use expansions like the huge coal, natural gas and oil shale fracking in the Rockies and Appalachians. Sierra Club has dug in with their Beyond coal battles The Tar Sands in Alberta need to be designated carbon storage parks. Less theories and more battles. Take it to Obama not just Romney.

  21. NJP1 says:

    Not many have noticed this oncoming nightmare, most focus on the problems associated with food and energy.
    My thinking tends to fast forward the 2016 or at the latest 2020 when a theocratic nutcase is likely to get elected. We had a few trying it this time around, people like Inhofe are still around to cause trouble

  22. Solar Jim says:

    I believe the framing is not fully productive, re: “what reduction?,” although the report is very helpful. If instead, we think in terms of production of end-use service needs, then we might find that 100% year-to-year growth (a doubling) of cleantech, including end-use improvements as well as solar/wind/etc., could provide the required transformation in one generation.

    Obstruction is found in the entrenched/legacy/stranded asset investments that speculative nation-state-sanctioned capital has foolishly misallocated on a monumental scale.

  23. Solar Jim says:

    By the way, is anyone else concerned about the possibility of atmospheric oxygen depletion when the “bio” part of “biogeophysical response” is manifested through further forest and phytoplankton reductions as temperature and acidity rises?

    I’ve read that we oxygen dependent mammals do not do well below about nineteen (and a half) percent. We are currently around 20.9, decreasing. Seems rather a foolish thing to do: oxidize prehistoric carbonaceous substances into carbonic acid gas.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We have to not just decarbonise as fast as humanly possible (thereby, sadly, destroying late capitalism)but also reduce the current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases by mass reforestation and physical extraction of CO2 and methane from the troposphere and embark on a global plan to restore the planet’s albedo to a pre-Industrial configuration. No corporation will do that, so it must be governmental and it must be fair, just, effective and global. The added benefits of equitable and just global co-operation will be incalculable, and, for those reasons alone, the Right will resist it to the bitter end. And they must lose, preferably by changing their ways, but lose they must.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We’ll get an idea if your dark vision (which I find eminently plausible) will descend from the reaction of the loony Right to Obama’s second term. Judging from Fox News’ crazed behaviour on election night, and the continuing deranged denialism of Murdoch’s hate rags here in Australia, the omens are not good, but they have been dire for forty years if not, in fact, for forty centuries. This is the final battle, really, between good and evil in human society and within the minds of humanity, because, inevitably and at last, the stakes are infinite.

  26. Bruce S says:

    Carbon intensity, Tcarbon/mill GDP is hard to convert into personal goals. We need to each use about 1/8 the carbon we currently use in about 35 years. And that gets us a 50/50 chance to keep temperature change at less than 2C. I am trying my best to figure out how to achieve a < 1 ton carbon lifestyle , feed my family and not walk away from some responsibility to try to make it an appealing choice to my wife and anyone else willing to listen. Feeding a few people, staples,staples,staples isn't as tough as trying to keeping up with taxes, insurance, dental ,and medical bills in an economy based on growth. Feeding a few people at +2 C will be harder, at + 10C ??

  27. us writing them letters is a VERY good start:

  28. The thing that gives me hoe is that innovation is impossible to forecast. Yes we can do it now, if we wanted top pay the (realtively low up-front cost), and who knows how quicly we’ll be able to do it once we have a price on carbon.

    Economists are ALWAYS wrong. Costs are easy to estimate, and are always overdone, innovation is impossible to estimate and is always underdone.

    We’ve decarbonized the entire planet’s economies a little, without really trying. Imagine how fast we can move when we decide to (in India, China and the US).

    For hope and action: