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The final report of the United Nation’s climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has come out at last. The desperate optimism that characterized the last few volumes has frayed away to almost nothing. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres bluntly called it a “survival guide.” But it’s not even that, really.
It lists all the things that the world’s countries could and should be doing, but so did every previous report and most countries are still falling far short of the minimum requirement.
The report’s authors even admit that the “aspirational” goal of never letting the average global temperature exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than the pre-industrial level will definitely be missed. It was formally adopted by the IPCC only five years ago, but it’s already too late to stop the warming short of 1.5 degrees.
“It has always been clear in the IPCC and in climate science that it’s not very likely that we will always stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said Oliver Geden, who was on the report’s core writing group. Well, it was always clear to me, too, but I don’t remember the IPCC ever officially admitting it before now.
The new buzz-word is “overshoot,” as in “Yes, we’re going to overshoot 1.5 degrees for a while, but don’t despair. We’ll get back down below that level as fast as we can.” Good luck with that.
They’re clutching at straws. The scientists pull their punches and sound positive because they have to keep the governments committed to the process. The governments can’t afford to get too far ahead of public opinion in their own home countries. And the last exits on the Highway to Hell are flashing by right now.
We already have all the technology, wealth and knowledge we would need to cut emissions fast now and stay below 1.5 degrees, but the political will is not there and even the IPCC now implicitly recognizes that. People aren’t yet suffering enough to give the issue their full attention.
By the mid-2030s, when we’re in “overshoot,” the political will and the sense of urgency will certainly be available, because wild weather of every sort will be hitting people hard. However, by then we will have left it so late that we will urgently need a technology that delivers results very fast and holds the heating down.
Carbon dioxide removal, also confusingly known as “negative emissions,” is the IPPC’s preferred “savior” technology at the moment. It can theoretically pull huge amounts of greenhouse gases back out of the atmosphere and it may be a big part of the solution in the long run, but it cannot save us in the short run.
CO2 removal is slow acting and expensive; the very opposite of a quick fix. By all means, build full-scale facilities to work the bugs out of the various proposed removal processes, but unless there is a miraculous fall in emissions, the amount of CO2 in the air will commit us to breaking through the never-exceed 1.5 degrees level by 2030.
If we are really expecting the heating to rise past 1.5 degrees so soon, there is only one thing that can temporarily hold the heat down, avoid crossing tipping points, and enable us to keep on with the essential work of cutting emissions is geoengineering. It is solar radiation management.
Reflecting 1 or 2 percent of incoming sunlight sounds dangerous and expensive, but it would actually be quite cheap, at least compared with the cost of CO2 removal. Any intervention into the workings of the Earth system is bound to have undesirable side effects, but so far no major showstoppers have been identified.
A large number of big, well-funded research projects should be underway right now to confirm solar radiation management’s potential and identify any risks, so that it is available to deploy by the mid-2030s if we need it (and it looks like we will). Yet any open-air research on it, even at the smallest scale, is still effectively banned. The Puritans still rule.