Summary: We have squandered our opportunity to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. To cope, we will all have to become explorers.
Part of the attraction of being an explorer is pitting oneself against the elements and the unknown.
Amudsen and Scott’s race to the South Pole would not have become legendary without the cold and the fact no one had been there before. If the summit of Mt. Everest was a pleasant 20°C with plenty of oxygen, summiting would be nothing special.
Exploring involves taking calculated risks and testing your resilience. It is a raw, honest, and beautiful interaction with nature, but it can also be scary.
When you are on drift anchor mid-Atlantic in a rowing boat being tossed around your cabin like a rag doll waiting out a storm you feel small. Very small. And it is gut wrenching when you realise that despite having the best boat and all the right gear, you are not in control. Not even close. Against nature’s power, you are nothing. You will only survive if nature lets you.
Since I do not have a particular death wish, I spend a lot of time understanding different weather forecasts and how systems interact in order to minimise risk and avoid the worst of nature’s wrath. This is not unlike what I did in my consulting days except focus has shifted from how to optimise profit to how to survive nature.
The climate change weather forecast is unusual because it is for the whole planet and not just a particular location like, say, the Azores or Paris. Even more unusual, we have the ability to impact this weather forecast, which begs the question:
What have we done with this unique, once in humanity, opportunity to play God and influence the weather forecast? Can we limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and avoid triggering an irreversible man-made climate change disaster?
To answer this question, we need to understand our climate change avoidance efforts over time. Using the analogy of a kitchen sink is a good way to illustrate this, but before we dive into the kitchen sink, we need to define what “pre-industrial levels” and “net zero” mean.
What are “pre-industrial levels”?
Believe it or not, there is no universally agreed definition for what “pre-industrial levels” means. One could be inclined to think politicians have left this out on purpose to ensure they can always claim that the temperature rise has stayed within 1.5 – 2.0°C regardless of what happens to the planet. In this way they can always claim success and blame science for the lack of a definition.
Anyways, simply put, “pre-industrial levels” means the last time planet earth was able to absorb the Greenhouse Gasses “GHG” emitted by all of mankind and his activities and the only factors that impacted the climate were “acts of god” like volcanic eruptions, massive forest fires, and small ice-ages, i.e. plant earth was in a net zero state.
What is “net zero”?
Net zero means that the earth’s total GHG emissions, natural and man-made, is equal to the amount of GHG that the earth can absorb.
Now that we have these definitions in place, let us get back to the kitchen sink.
The kitchen sink problem
Imagine a kitchen sink, which is, say, half full. The tap is dripping, but the drain is slightly leaking, so if left alone the water level in the sink stays the same. That was planet earth in pre-industrial times. The earth emitted and removed its own natural GHG at the same rate and it could accommodate a lot more GHG without any problem.
Then industrialisation started and the tap was turned on ever so slightly. The water level in the sink began to rise a tiny bit, but it was nothing to worry about because the sink was so big that it was not going to overflow any time soon.
Then industrialisation and population growth started to gather pace and the tap got turned on some more.
It started to become obvious that the sink would sooner or later overflow. A meeting was called where it was agreed that the tap was indeed a problem. A “watch the sink” committee was established (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change “UNFCCC”, 1994).
The water level kept rising and another meeting was called. Not everyone showed up at the meeting and no one could agree how to pay for the plumber to fix the problem, but it was agreed that the tap problem should be monitored more thoroughly. It was (almost) agreed that whatever the water level was in the sink in 1990 should form a baseline against which further rises should be measured. It was also agreed that everybody should start to think about solutions (Kyoto Protocol, 1997).
The sink could still hold a lot more water before it would overflow, so no real cause for alarm just yet despite the tap being turned on more and more by global demand and rising living standards.
Then someone had a bright idea: “Wow, this sink has no overflow drain. Why don’t we put one in? That would solve everything!” Everyone thought that was a great idea, but no-one knew how to really do it. All they managed to do was to create a tiny, tiny hole, through which hardly any water could drain so the water level kept rising (carbon capture technology).
Someone else noticed: “It is not just the tap, which is a problem. We also have a problem with the drain. The sink is starting to drain less!”. It turned out that the diameter of the plug had somehow expanded, and that this reduced the flow of the water out of the sink. Further investigation showed that there was a correlation between the diameter of the plug and how much mankind expanded cities and agriculture at the expense of for example wetlands and forests, which have a natural ability to absorb GHG.
With all that focus on planting trees, recycling, sorting rubbish, cleaning up the ocean, saving the rain forest, and re-wilding nature it seemed hard to believe. But at a global level it turned to be true, as can be seen from the graph below. For a healthy trend, the green area (Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry “LULUCF”) should be below zero, pulling the black Total Net line down with it. However, every year since 1990, we have changed the way we use land so that it absorbs less GHG, which is as clever as sawing off the branch you sit on.
Everyone got sucked into an almost two decades long global-supply-chain-consumption-fest. Cheap price was king, and focus was off the kitchen sink, apart from an almost US president releasing a documentary about climate change in 2006 called “An inconvenient Truth”, which won two Oscars. One for Best Documentary Feature and one for Best Original Song, which, aptly, was called “I need to Wake up”.
Together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “IPCC” Al Gore also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.
The UK commissioned a landmark study for how to turn off the tap, but was most interested in the finding that “climate change is the result of the greatest market failure the world has ever seen” as this could be used to exonerate government inaction (Stern Review, 2006).
It took a while for everyone to “wake up” from the global-supply-chain-consumption-fest, and when they did, the water in the kitchen sink was even closer to overflowing.
A meeting was called, and it was decided to a put a measure band on the side of the sink to track the remaining water level rise until the sink would overflow. The unit of measure chosen was °C and there was much debate whether the top mark should be called 1.5°C or 2.0°C. It was also agreed that the tap problem should be 43% fixed by 2030 and 100% fixed by 2050. Lastly it was agreed that the tap had to start to be turned off no later than 2025 (Paris Agreement, 2016).
Then someone quietly said (on page 33 of 616 pages long report) that they had measured the remaining volume left in the sink before it would overflow. Since the annual volume of water being poured into the sink was known and so was the annual volume of water being drained from the sink, it would be a piece of cake to calculate when the sink would overflow (IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C, 2018). Page 33 reads:
This assessment suggests a remaining budget of about 420 GtCO2 for a two-thirds chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, and of about 580 GtCO2 for an even chance (medium confidence). The remaining carbon budget is defined here as cumulative CO2 emissions from the start of 2018 until the time of net zero global emissions.
Pretty important stuff, but the world leaders chose to gloss over this and insisted everything would be fine as long as net zero was achieved by 2050 (UN Climate Action Summit, 2019). Greta Thunberg spoke at the conference and begged to differ:
“For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying you are doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight … how dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions … if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you.” Watch
It was a bizarre exchange. An underaged angry Swedish schoolgirl with Asperger Syndrome telling off the world leaders and in return receiving a standing ovation from the word leaders. It would have made more sense to have a climate change expert scientist address the world leaders. Anyways, opinions had been exchanged and the schoolgirl’s opinion was logically discarded.
But what happens if we do the math on the warning made public by the IPCC in 2018, a year before Greta Thunberg implored world leaders to act decisively and without further delay at the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019?
Based on IPCC data, the graph below shows when the sink is likely start overflow and we trigger a man-made irreversible climate change disaster.
As can be seen, there is a 33% risk of overflow by 2025 and a 50% risk of overflow by 2028.
It looks like the year the world leaders want to have reduced GHG emission by 43% (2030) may instead become the year when we reach the temperature tipping point and set off our man-made irreversible climate change disaster. Yeah…
The 43% reduction arguably should have been on 1990 emission levels (the baseline agreed in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) to have any hope of not going over the tipping point, but that was too hard for everyone to agree on, so 2019 was chosen as the new base year instead. If the world is able to deliver on the Paris Agreement target for 2030, then 1990 emission levels will only have been reduced by 13%, but the likelihood of achieving even this unambitious target seems slim.
After the Paris Agreement came into force in 2016, nothing much has changed. Global emissions have kept going up, apart from in 2020, when there was a huge dip due to COVID lock down (graph below).
COVID could have been an excellent excuse to implement the radical changes needed to ensure emissions would keep falling year on year, but instead world leaders and politicians opted for business as usual, and emissions shot back up. The world has never emitted as much GHG as in 2022.
Essentially, our world leaders and politicians simply pretend that the emissions above the black dotted line have never poured into the sink, and it is only the emissions above the red line, which have been poured into the sink, so everything is fine.
Another way to look at the enormity of this problem is to look at how much GHG we can emit annually between now and 2050, when we target to reach net zero, without risk triggering the temperature tipping point (graph below).
To reduce GHG emissions that much that fast will require immediate COVID-type lock down restrictions times about a factor 15. Does that seem likely to you?
Ever since 1990 (that is 33 years ago), when it became apparent, we had a once in a humanity opportunity to play God and influence the climate change weather forecast, we have squandered the opportunity.
By now we have a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping the temperature rise to within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels.
Mankind may be fooled by world leaders and politicians’ grand speeches and gradual GHG reduction targets for some time to come. Nature will not.
You may not be an explorer, nor have any interest in becoming one, but the choice is no longer yours. Wherever you are, nature will increasingly seek you out and force you to endure raw encounters with it, whether you like it or not.
Consider hiring Christian Havrehed as an inspirational speaker for your company to bring the ESG agenda alive or infuse can-do energy into a corporate event. See testemonies. Our expeditions always have a philantropic component and promote the UN Sustainable Development Goals. If you like our current expedition, consider donating or becoming a sponsor and use the investment to enhance your employer branding.