The Great Pause Week 95: Our 2021 Report Card
The report card arriving at the start of 2022 is … well … disappointing. We could be doing much better.
These are tough times for a lot of people. This past year touched many of us in painful ways because of the pandemic, the economic fallout from that, and a string of horrible climate events took lives, livelihoods, homes, and lifetime memories. This coming year promises only more of the same.
None of those are the toughest challenge we face.
That challenge is the 2-degree test. Pass it and our grandchildren survive to make more of our line. Fail, and they don’t. Simple as that.
Oh, human extinction may not suddenly happen at 2 degrees, although that would be hotter than mammals of our kind have experienced in our evolutionary history. But what scientists have been saying for more than 30 years is that 2 degrees is a threshold and a trigger. It marks the start of a cascade of reinforcing feedbacks that get us to 3, which gets us to 4, etc. There is some speculation that 5 would find a new stable state of Hothouse Earth but it is just that — speculation. By then it would not matter for our kind. If we don’t disappear at 2, we’ll be gone by 3. Four at the latest. Our current trajectory will take us 4.6 to 4.9 degrees warmer by 2100.
In August 1981, James Hansen and co-authors published a paper in Science entitled “Climate impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide,” that predicted, among other things, accelerated surface warming in the Arctic, leading to global shifts in climate patterns with pronounced droughts and wildfires in some areas and ice storms and floods in others. Hansen said that the signal would become strong enough by 2000 that most people would be able to directly observe the change. We might have listened, 8 years later, when Hansen testified to Congress, saying it was then 99% certain that anthropogenic climate change was already happening, or a few years later, when he began a TED talk, “It’s as if an asteroid were heading towards Earth…,” but we didn’t.
That hesitancy had a cost. The most recent IPCC report and a host of similar studies say we have to halve emissions by 2030 to have a 50 or 60 percent chance of not going over the no-going-back threshold. We are left, in 2022, with an 11 percent glide slope to get out of fossil fuels or lose the 2-degree race. Who can deny, just looking out the window of the Chuck E Cheese, that our 1-degree passage has been truly catastrophic?
The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, Earth was in the P.E.T.M. — the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. After all the land animals who couldn’t burrow went extinct, the oceans acidified and even organisms below the thermocline in the deep sea went extinct too. That pretty much ended the global food supply for a hundred million years, but then worms led to reptiles and reptiles led to mammals and avian and fish species and before you knew it you had smart monkeys blogging and making podcasts.
Although there is a large gap between how long it takes to change radiative forcing by chemically changing the atmosphere and the actual change of Earth’s surface temperature, the speed of warming now is more than ten times faster than the transition into the P.E.T.M. It is more than ten times faster than any climate transition.
At the beginning of 2021 we got some great news. It was like bringing home a report card with straight A’s. After rising steadily for decades, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4%, or 2.3 billion tonnes, in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic squelched economic and social activities worldwide. While that is not 11 percent, and we would need to make up for the shortfall in 2021, we were at least headed in the right direction. You can’t expect to hit 11 percent per year straight out of the starting blocks, after all.
Moreover, 2020 showed that the pundits who said suddenly removing global dimming would spike the heat and kill us all were wrong and the scientists who said the brightening shock would be brief and recoverable were right. Suddenly, all over the major shipping routes of the world, whales recovered their hearing and began to sing again. Without all the gawking tourists, Giant Pandas in Chinese zoos began mating again.
The report card arriving at the start of 2022 is … well … disappointing. Straight F’s. I don’t know if disappointing is really the right word. Global fossil carbon emissions in 2021 were 36.4 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent, a rise of approximately 4.9 percent compared to 2020. China emitted 11.2 billion tCO2 in 2021, up 4% from 2020 and 6% higher than in 2019. In the US and Europe the rebound was 8 percent. India’s fossil emissions jumped almost 13 percent. This rebound almost returns us to 2019 levels, when the world emitted 36.7 billion tons.
Coal use in 2021 rose above 2019 levels, and is only slightly (<1%) below the 2013 peak. At Glasgow, more than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal use. Missing from that list were China, India, Australia and the United States. CO2 emissions from natural gas rebounded above 2019 levels. More disturbing are the unchecked methane emissions from wells, pipelines and refineries as the new natural gas industry becomes the designated coal substitute. All that methane goes on top of the spike in emissions from natural sources as Earth warms, forests burn and permafrost melts.
Fully one third of the $15–20 trillion in global economic stimulus packages already passed globally is going to fossil fuels and carbon-intensive heavy industries. Here in the U.S., unless the Build Back Better bill passes, very little of our stimulus spending will go to green energy and clean tech.
This is where we find ourselves at the start of 2022. Back where we were at the start of 2020. We needed more than one Covid to get to 11 percent but we only got one. And when that was past (or so we imagined) we went back to “normal.” Normal is the asteroid still approaching.
Next week I will propose eight relatively simple and straightforward solutions for the next 8 years that will achieve the 2030 target and keep us within the 2-degree boundary.
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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