COP26: Net zero 2050 and 1.5°C are not compatible

Photo: Cristian Ibarra / Pixabay

Most of the media coverage and advocacy at COP26 has been severely misinformed. Politicians, business leaders, journalists and NGO advocates talk about “net zero 2050” and the 1.5°C Paris goal in the same breath, and get away with it. 

This gross underestimation of the climate condition is delusional, and very few seem to be calling it out.

“Net zero 2050” (NZ2050) is a con, as Climate Code Red has reported  and over , as did this . Central bankers have NZ2050 scenarios in which fossil fuels constitute 50% of primary energy use in 2050. 

When the Murdoch media endorses the NZ2050 climate goal, you know it is the problem and not the answer. 2050 is so far away it’s a reason for procrastination. Judging by the G20 outcome, even NZ2050 and a coal phase out may not pass muster in Glasgow.

China is on net zero by 2060 and India on net zero by 2070.

But 2050 is not the critical goal: 2025 and 2030 need to be the focus and, on these targets, there is no reason to think COP26 is going to be within cooee of what needs to be done.

The models producing 1.5°C scenarios are not up to scratch. Current climate models , including the , polar ice melt and the uptick in extreme weather events. Carbon dioxide and methane release from deep permafrost  in climate models.

Climate models do not account well for increased warming due to loss of Arctic sea ice: “Losing the reflective power of Arctic sea ice  by 25 years”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2021 report gives “a best estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3°C” but  (carbon stores) and reflectivity changes, warming may be as high as 5–6°C for a doubling of carbon dioxide for a range of climate states between glacial conditions and ice-free Antarctica.

Beyond the make believe of 1.5°C scenarios full of overshoot, technological dreaming, high risks of failure and not fully accounting for carbon cycle feedbacks, there are some basic realities.

1.5°C by 2030?

The first is that the world is likely to hit 1.5°C average global warming by 2030, regardless of the emissions path over the next decade. Warming is already at 1.2°C, and the  shows that current climate models project on average a warming of 0.3°C for the decade to 2030.

Secondly, there is  for a 1.5°C target; it is a figment of modellers’ imaginations. Renowned climate scientists and former head of climate at NASA, James Hansen,  that the rate of global warming during the next 25 years could be double what it was in the previous 50 years. Rising emissions, declining aerosols (air pollution) and natural climate cycles , as will  with a hotter layer of water on top.

Thirdly, to have a low risk of not overshooting 2°C, . Even with a higher risk of overshoot, , and that scenario includes a substantial amount of carbon drawdown.

By way of comparison, it is likely that national emissions reduction pledges that actually have policies to go with them will result in global emissions by 2030 not being substantially lower than in 2020, and perhaps much worse.

In September, the IPCC reported that under governments’ plans put forward since the start of 2020.

So, where does this lead us? 

At the opening COP26, British Prime Minister Boris Johnston warned that we are at one minute to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. At the G20 meeting he : “Humanity, civilisation and society can go backwards as well as forwards and when they start to go wrong, they can go wrong at extraordinary speed … You saw that with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire … It’s true today that, unless we get this right in tackling climate change, we could see our civilisation, our world, also go backwards.”

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director Emeritus of the Potsdam Institute, is even  “I'm telling you that we’re putting our kids onto a global school bus that will with 98% probability end in a deadly crash”.  

The reason is simple.

Glasgow will not get within a mile of pledges to halve emissions by 2030 and any reputable climate scientist will say that means warming is going to shoot past 2°C. That then gets us into the land of accelerating carbon-cycle feedbacks of such magnitude that another degree becomes likely.

Hothouse Earth

Potsdam Institute Director Johan Rockstrom : “If we go beyond 2°C it’s very likely that we have caused so many tipping points that you have probably added another degree just through self-reinforcing changes … The moment that the Earth system flips over from being self-cooling — which it still is — to self-warming, that is the moment that we lose control.”

This is the “, with its existential risks, in which system feedbacks and their mutual interaction could drive the Earth System climate to a point of no return, whereby further warming would become self-sustaining (without further human perturbations).

The problem, elaborated in the 2019 paper , is that time is close to running out. Timothy M Lenton, Johan Rockström, Owen Gaffney, Stefan Rahmstorf, Katherine Richardson,  Will Steffen and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber state: “We argue that the intervention time left to prevent tipping could already have shrunk towards zero, whereas the reaction time to achieve net zero emissions is 30 years at best. Hence we might already have lost control of whether tipping happens. A saving grace is that the rate at which damage accumulates from tipping — and hence the risk posed — could still be under our control to some extent.”

This was  by Steffen: “Given the momentum in both the Earth and human systems, and the growing difference between the ‘reaction time’ needed to steer humanity towards a more sustainable future, and the ‘intervention time’ left to avert a range of catastrophes in both the physical climate system and the biosphere, we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse … the intervention time we have left has, in many cases, shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to transition to a more sustainable system.”

I should not have to add that 1.5°C is not a safe target.

The Great Barrier Reef is in a death spiral: at the current level of global warming, it will , whereas recovery takes a decade or more. West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) glaciers have  and Greenland .

The Paris Agreement temperature target of 1.5°C is  of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Parts of East Antarctica . Three-quarters by volume of summer Arctic sea ice , and it . One-quarter of the  and  ice sheets have already been lost.

The forest systems are  in eastern, southern and central Amazonia. A safe climate is one within the Holocene range, with warming no more than 0.5°C,

Of course little of this will be muttered in Glasgow, even softly. Thirteen years ago, Philip Sutton and I wrote a book called Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action. Slowly the nature of the climate emergency is being understood, thanks to the activism of many people, not least Greta Thunberg, Bernie Sanders and millions more. This year UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez sounded the “climate code red” alarm as the IPCC report was released. 

If this change in rhetoric is to mean anything, it is this: forget about 2050, what we do in the next one, two, three, four, five year matters most.

Former British chief scientist Sir David King is : “It is the short term which matters most, what global leaders do in the next three-to-five years will determine the future of humanity”. He says we also need to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and provide cooling to preserve critical parts of the Earth system while we still can.

This three-lever approach — zero emissions, large-scale carbon drawdown and cooling — is advocated by the  and by the  of leading scientists, initiated by King, with the meme “reduce, remove, repair”.

The Cambridge Centre’s work on how to cool the Arctic is supported by Sir David Attenborough, who  “Refreezing the Arctic, were it possible, would be a huge defence against the global catastrophes currently threatened by continued global warming”.

If Glasgow could get to grips with this approach, the clock could be wound back by a minute or two.

[This article was first published at David Spratt’s blog .]