The climate crisis is intensifying. Created by human induced emissions, it is a crisis that humanity can avert. There are solutions, and ocean sequestration has the potential to be one of the most potent of them . . .
Source: "Don't Feed the Fossil Fuel Elephant" by Penny D. Sackett and Will Steffen.
Published on the Asia & Pacific Policy Forum, 7 Dec 2018; Graph designed by Bartek Urbański and the team at Improve Presentation in Warsaw
Despite the 2016 Paris agreement seeking to limit global temperature increases this century to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5°C, the climate crisis is intensifying. As the graph shows, despite policies aimed at promoting emissions reduction, both carbon dioxide emissions and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, continues to grow at an alarming rate.
Many scientists and climate policy experts are now coming to accept that achieving the Paris targets through mitigation alone is unlikely.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report in 2014 suggests that without emissions reduction, warming may be somewhere between 3C and 4C by 2100. Whilst these temperatures reflect global averages, the temperature changes at the poles and in other locations may be as much as double that.
What could be described as climate 'change' or the climate 'problem' is now a climate crisis.
Since industrialisation emerged in the mid 18th to early 19th century, the combustion of fossil fuels (predominantly oil, coal and gas) and emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) have led to atmospheric concentrations of these warming gases at a level unprecedented in human history.
Acting like a blanket, these gasses mean the atmosphere absorbs sunlight and solar radiation leading to a warming effect. The burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and industrial scale agriculture all add to the concentrations of these warming gases in the atmosphere.
With it being almost 40 years since the first global scientific assessment of the climate problem, greenhouse emissions continue to rise and observed warming is having effects close to some of the worst initial predications, the climate problem is now best described as a climate crisis or climate emergency.
Prior to the large scale burning of gas, oil and coal, atmospheric concentration of CO2 was around 280 parts per million. Total anthropogenic GHG emissions have continued to increase between 1970 and 2010 with larger absolute decadal increases toward the end of this period.
The need for concerted action to respond is now both urgent and intensifying.
Today the annual global temperature is almost 1°C (O.8°C) hotter relative to the 1951-1980 average. This average figure hides regional extremes. For example, warming in the Arctic has been as high as 4°C and – according the United States National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration continues to warm at twice the rate relative to the rest of the world. Arctic air temperatures for the past five years (2014-18) have exceeded all previous records since 1990.
Whilst gradual processes of warming and cooling have always occurred, the past five years are, collectively, the warmest five years on modern record. 1°C may appear small but it has already had a dramatic impact.
The first decade of this century has seen exponential growth in emissions, with gigatons of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere.
Annual anthropogenic GHG emissions have increased by 10 GttCO2eq between 2000 and 2010. Despite a growing number of climate policies, annual GHG emissions grew on average by 1.0 GtCO2eq (2.2%) per year from 2000 to 2010. This compares to 0.4 GtCO2eq (1.3%) per year from 1970 to 2000. Total anthropogenic GHG emissions were the highest in human history between 2000 to 2010.
If these trends continue global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 are expected to range from 3.7°C to 4.8°C compared to pre-industrial levels.
This would be catastrophic. In practical terms it would result in acidification of the oceans, caused by dissolved CO2, leading to mass die off of shellfish, plankton and coral. The mass die off of corals would occur decades before 2100.
Sea level rises will be two metres higher, and the world will be ice free with the loss of the Greenland and Antarctic sheets.
There are likely to be large scale changes to weather systems, with flooding predicted, particularly across Asia, and increased desertification from the Sahara up to south and central Europe. We are already in the beginning of the earth’s 6th mass extinction.
The United Nations has recently predicted that nature is declining globally at rates which are both unprecedented in human history and are accelerating. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive ever completed and concludes that up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction.
The report makes clear that although there are a number of threats including changes in land and sea use; pollution and invasive species, climate change is impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics with, in some cases, climate change surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.
With the world’s population expected to rise to as many as 11 billion by 2100, we may see large scale climate dislocation and mass human movement as large parts of the globe become uninhabitable. One estimate is that there will be 2 billion climate refugees by 2100.
Unlike other natural catastrophes like a tsunami or earthquake the global climate crisis is largely a result of human decisions leading to the combustion of fossil fuels and the emissions of greenhouse gases. Although it may be an 'inconvenient truth', it is also an enabling one. Humanity can take decisions and develop approaches which both reduce emissions and the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Climate change is a ‘stock and supply’ problem. It is the amount (or ‘stock’) of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that leads to the warming effect and the severe climatic and weather events associated with it. And despite all the scientific and policy effort, emissions (or the ‘supply’) continue to rise. As both the supply and the stock continue to increase so the problem and risks intensify.
Since the development of the first policies to tackle climate change, policy solutions have been (rightly) focused on reducing the supply of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Yet it is the stock which creates the warming effect and climate instability. Now the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are already at historically unprecedented levels. Consequently, the atmosphere is already ‘over stocked’.
Despite all the policy effort and growth in renewables, the supply of harmful greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow.
Any effective solutions to the climate crisis must involve both emissions reduction and drawing down and burying the CO2 already in the atmosphere.
There is a growing consensus that, emissions reduction will not happen fast enough to achieve climate security. Given the scale of the challenge we need to massively cut emissions as well as explore new ways to draw greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. While a global shift towards renewable energy is needed, sequestration will help mitigate less avoidable emissions.
Climate science and continued emissions growth reveal we need a capacity to draw down around 9-10 gigatons of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere each decade.
Baseline scenarios, in which explicit additional efforts to constrain emissions are not adopted, indicate that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 equivalent will exceed 450 parts per million (PPM) CO2 equivalent by 2030. The conventional scientific conclusion is that 450 PPM CO2 equivalent is what is required to keep warming below 2°C.
Therefore, to keep warming below 2°C, we have perhaps a mere eleven years to stabilise the amount of CO2eq in the atmosphere.
If stabilisation of the amount of CO2eq in the atmosphere is to be achieved, it will require the development of sequestration technologies and infrastructure with the capacity to draw down around a gigaton of CO2 eq each year (and around 9-10 gigatons of CO2 equivalent each decade).
Given the scale of the risk, we need to explore options beyond emissions reduction now. New and innovative ways to remove gases from the atmosphere are needed which take CO2 out of the carbon cycle at scale. This will help address what is missed in the emissions reductions goals and reduce the stock of carbon which is already in our atmosphere.
We believe that ocean sequestration through the large-scale growth and long-term storage of seaweed biomass has the potential to achieve carbon capture and sequestration at the required scale.