A Look at Climate Change and the Talks in Lima

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - There is an info-graphic put together by Friends of the Earth (FOE) in the UK that does an excellent job of summarizing the current state of atmospheric carbon. It locates us on a carbon timeline, showing how much carbon can safely be emitted before hitting the two degree Celsius level that many associate with catastrophic irreversible changes.

Basically, what the chart says is that we have a total “budget” of 3,000 GT of CO2 equivalents that can be emitted, of which two-thirds are already in the atmosphere as the result of fossil fuel burning since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Most of that was contributed by the industrialized countries of the Northern Hemisphere, despite the fact that they account for only one seventh of the global population.

That leaves us with something in the range of 700-1000 GT left. If we can stay below 700, that should produce a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, giving us some margin of safety.

But the world is currently emitting 50 GT per year. That means that if we maintain the current rate, we will use up our remaining allowance in only 14 years. A more conservative estimate, given by the Wall Street Journal, claims that the number is 30 years. Even that would require a reduction of 2.57% per year, starting right now, even as populations and economies grow.

Looking more closely at who the emitters are, the chart shows that almost a quarter of all emissions to date were produced by 25 corporations, a group led by the largest energy companies. In fact, according to The Guardian, a total of 90 entities, which includes both private and nationalized companies as well as nation states, have produced 63% or almost two-thirds of all carbon emissions. While such a small number of players produced so much of that carbon, a much larger group, of which all of us are a part, has consumed it.

What the chart shows that if we are going to stay within the budget, we’ll need to get our emissions downs to 10GT, or one-fifth of today’s level by 2050, despite the fact that the population is growing and many countries are becoming developed.

Which brings us to Lima, where close to 200 countries are attending, hoping to make progress on a binding climate agreement. The central conflict this year, is once again, the expressed need for a difference of approach between rich and poor countries. Big announcements recently made by the EU, the US, and China will hopefully inspire movement by others.

There has already been a good deal of news coming from Lima, though it’s not necessarily good news. The Ecuadorean environmental activist José Isidro Tendetza Antún, was killed just a few days before the conference. He had been expected to denounce President Raphael Correa at the conference for his support of an open pit copper and gold mine that will allegedly devastate some 450,000 acres.

Australia earned the dishonor of being named the worst-performing industrial country on carbon emissions after dropping their carbon tax. Only Saudi Arabia scored lower, but it is not considered industrial. The top spots went to Denmark, Sweden and Britain.

The US, which received a grade of Poor, received pressure from several quarters, some questioning whether our targets were ambitious enough, while others challenged whether we could meet those we’ve set, given the increase in carbon last year.

Regional powers, Brazil and Peru are hopeful for a meaningful agreement at the next summit in Paris next year, while they have been criticized for inaction at home, including continuing deforestation.

In one concrete action, eight South American countries have pledged to replant 20 million hectares of deforested land in trees by 2020. That’s an area twice the size of Great Britain. That’s a little more than half of the land that has been deforested to make room for farms and ranches since 2001. Still, it’s a significant step. Generally speaking, the cleared land deteriorates after a few years, which means more land will be needed to maintain cattle production. The problem is exacerbated in places like Brazil where the law allows a speculator to gain title to a piece of rainforest by cutting down the trees and placing cattle on it.

Deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change, accounting for roughly 10% of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is a dual effect, since dying trees emit both CO2 and methane, and the lost trees no longer pull carbon from the air through photosynthesis.

What is needed is a model for carbon-free development, based on smart, highly efficient city planning, innovations across all walks of life, especially in industry, transportation, housing and agriculture and a rapid shift to renewable sources of energy to drive, not only our electrical needs, but transportation as well.

There’s no question in my mind that it can done, but the big question is whether it can be done quickly enough. That's where an international agreement prompting goverhment action across the globe could really make a difference.


Image credit: bayucca: Flickr Creative Commons