From the TUC

There’s a finite amount of carbon we can burn – UN

28 Sep 2013, by in Environment

There’s no equivalent to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in any other area of science. Its latest study shows that human influence on the climate system is clear and unequivocal. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. But the coalition has yet to provide a single coherent response to the UN’s report. Energy Secretary, Ed Davey , said, “The risks and costs of doing nothing today are so great, only a deeply irresponsible government would be so negligent.” But the Chancellor said Britain should not be ‘in front’ of the world in tackling climate change. And yesterday, for good measure, Cuadrilla, drilling at Balcombe, reported it had struck oil and gas at 2,700 feet below the Sussex village.

The Energy Secretary, who is speaking at the TUC’s annual climate change conference on 21 October, remarked yesterday, “The gases emitted now are accumulating in the atmosphere and so the solutions must be set in motion today… This strengthens the case for international leaders to work for an ambitious, legally binding global agreement in 2015 to cut carbon emissions.”

UN points way to a single global carbon budget

Perhaps the most startling analysis from the UN’s report is that we have burned our way through more than half of the carbon emission we can “safely” use to keep the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees above pre-industrial days. In straight terms, we have emitted 545 billion tonnes of carbon gases from coal, oil and gas since the 1860s, and cant safely go beyond 1000 billion tonnes without leading ourselves into dangerous territory. This is a direct challenge to companies and governments controlling fossil fuels, whose known resources are at least five times this upper limit.

This, of course, is a local example: yesterday, Cuadrilla Resources, happily drilling away at its Balcombe site, confirmed the presence of hydrocarbons beneath the Sussex village. Andrew Quarles, Cuadrilla’s Exploration Director, said that “the well was a success and we are very encouraged by the findings so far.” On-site operations involved the drilling of a vertical exploration well to a depth of 2,700 feet. He added: “We appreciate that the Balcombe community has had to bear the strain of protest…”. Arguably, since 85% of Balcombe residents have opposed this operation, they and the protection camp have had to bear the strain of the drilling rather than the protest.

Key points from UN’s 5th science report

  • The UN report shows that CO2 concentrations increased 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions.
  • Annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production were 8.3 billion tonnes a year averaged over 2002–2011. They reached 9.5 billion tonnes in 2011, 54% above the 1990 level.
  • From 1750 to 2011, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production and deforestation resulted in cumulative anthropogenic emissions of 545 billion tonnes.
  • Limiting planetary warming caused by man-made carbon emissions to a two-in-three chance of  less than 2°C will require a maximum cumulative CO2 emissions of about 1000 billion tonnes.
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.

What is happening to oceans, ice, weather, planet?

  • Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any  preceding decade since 1850.
  • In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years.
  • The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.
  • Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass. Glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.
  • Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.
  • Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950.
  • It is very likely that the number of cold days and nights has decreased and the number of warm days and nights has increased on the global scale6. It is likely that the frequency of heat waves has increased in large parts of Europe, Asia and Australia.
  • Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010.

Looking to the future

  • Depending on the scenario, about 15 to 40% of emitted CO2 will remain in the atmosphere longer than 1,000 years.
  • There is high confidence that sustained warming without restraint on carbon emissions would lead to the near-complete loss of the Greenland ice sheet over a millennium or more, causing a global mean sea level rise of up to 7 m.
  • Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.
  • Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system.
  • Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales as global mean temperatures increase. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and duration. Occasional cold winter extremes will continue to occur.
  • Depending on how we respond, global mean sea level rise for 2081−2100 relative to 1986–2005 will likely be in the ranges of 26 centimetres to 55 centimetres. But with lower ambition, the sea level could rise by one metre by 2100.

Challnge to UK’s Fourth Carbon Budget

By the mid-21st century the magnitudes of the projected changes are substantially affected by the choices we make on tackling carbon emissions. The UK is one of the few nations that has already established a system of carbon budgets. The five-yearly budgets started in 2008, following the passage of the Climate Change Act, with all Party support, and currently stretch out to 2023-2027. They serve as stepping stones on the way  to our CO2 redutcion targets. The UK is currently in the second carbon budget period (2013-17). The firdst four budgets are:

  • 3,018 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) over the first carbon budget period (2008 to 2012): average 603 million tonnes of CO2 a year (MtCO2).
  • 2,782 MtCO2e over the second carbon budget period (2013 to 2017): average 556  MtCO2.
  • 2,544 MtCO2e over the third carbon budget period (2018 to 2022): average 509 MtCO2.
  • 1,950 MtCO2e over the fourth carbon budget period (2023 to 2027): average 390 MtCO2.

The Budgets are drafted by the independent Committee on Climate Change and the first three have been adopted by successive governments on advice. But the Chancellor has questioned the fourth carbon budget, claiming that the system threatens British jobs.