The Six Degrees of Warming in a Decarbonizing World

5 years ago


We are all familiar with the terms climate change and global warming, yet the process of identifying the cause and then effectively agreeing on best practices to reduce the issue has been an ongoing dialogue for over three decades. While commitments to reduce environmental impacts vary, it is important to achieve a declining average carbon intensity, or amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy consumed, from primary energy over time. These primary energy sources include fossil carbon fuels, solar energy, gravitational and rotational forces of tides and oceans, geothermal heat and wind energy are converted into energy carriers and then energy services. A major contributing factor to decarbonization is the substitution of cleaner fuels with low carbon content, with fossil fuels having a high carbon content.

How to limit warming to 2ºC

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) newly-published fourth edition of the Low Carbon Economy Index, we have not taken the necessary steps globally to increase the rate of emissions cuts in major emerging economies to effectively slow down the warming trend. The PwC points out the brevity of the situation in a world that is far from being on target to achieve a sustainable or resilient energy future:

“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.”

Each year the global carbon budget is evaluated to assess the amount that has been ‘spent’ and how much emissions reductions are needed to achieve below the 2 target. The internationally agreed upon warming target of 2ºC above the pre-industrial levels which, according to analysts, is the threshold that could prevent the world from experiencing ‘at least six degrees of warming’ by the end of this century. The critical issue is that the 2º scenario is no longer valid. The PwC research stated that even if we achieve an improvement in our rate of decarbonization by six-fold, we still gain only a 50% chance of avoiding the 2 degree threshold. Note that an increase by 6ºC of warming is the equivalent to 10.8ºF.

An area of concern stems from the growing energy demands of emerging economies such as Russia, Mexico, and India. The rising GHG emissions from emerging economies have far exceeded the record decarbonization levels of industrial countries such as France, Germany and the U.K. According to the International Energy Agency, its figures published in May stated that C02 emissions in 2011 rose to 31.6 gigatons, an increase of 3.2 per cent from 2010. Although many countries have stepped up their efforts to reduce emissions, without a radical policy shift we are on track for a warmer planet.

Opportunities for Low Carbon Technologies

For countries seeking new sources of economic growth, the next wave of growth could be derived from investment in low carbon technologies such as solar panels, electric cars, carbon capture and storage and innovation in biofuels. According to Reuters, in late 2010, China has committed to an investment of $1.5 trillion toward the advancement of seven strategic sectors through 2015. They identified several emerging sectors that accounted for approximately 3 per cent of the GDP at the end of 2010 which outpaced the growth of traditional industries. The strategic sectors include low carbon technologies, renewable energy, new-energy vehicles, bio-technology and next-gen IT.

The Reality

PwC concluded that business-as-usual is not an option and cites the need for more urgency on climate policy. Much of the reporting on climate change is calmly described through published studies and scientific journals hoping to garner the attention of those who will change the predicted outcome. Upon reading the Rolling Stone article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, one feels a jolt to reality and thinks beyond the daily bubble where we filter out the negative realities of life. What rings true is we have only one planet. As extreme weather events become more and more common, it is no longer someone else’s problem or experience we are reading about. Climate change has hit home and is the responsibility of consumers, policy makers and business as we enter a new age of uncertainty.

Tamar Burton



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