Paris Agreement: Science points both ways

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

You could forgive anyone for being confused.

Two weeks ago, scientists were all over the news saying it’s going to be easier to meet the Paris Agreement targets than previously thought. Last week, they (well, not the same ones, obviously) were saying the opposite.

Could science please make up its mind?

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Is climate change advancing faster or slower than previously thought? Answers on a postcard please... Image: LiveOnceLiveWild, CC licence

There’s going to be a lot more of this over the next year or so.

When governments included (against expectations) the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 Celsius in the Paris Agreement, they also asked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to write a special report detailing what a 1.5ºC goal means. It's coming out next year. 

But much of the science it requires hadn't been done, because a 1.5ºC goal previously seemed politically unrealistic. Now, scientists are busy supplying the necessary analysis and putting it into the scientific literature.

Added to which, as the IPCC report comes closer, any press officer worth his or her salt will think about using the Paris Agreement framing as a way of stimulating interest in new bits of research. 

So – prepare for your glass to be half-filled and half-emptied again on a regular basis.

When trees go bad

Last week’s two papers were quite straightforward in their aims and conclusions.

One re-calculated emissions of methane, the second most important greenhouse gas, from cattle around the world, and found it’s about 11% higher than previously estimated. 

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At the 2015 UN climate summit, Western governments faced pressure to agree the 1.5ºC goal. Image: Takver, creative commons licence

Numbers of cattle are rising; but also, breeding programmes are producing bigger animals which burp out accordingly bigger volumes of methane. This is probably one of the reasons why the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is rising again.

Last week’s other paper other looked at forests – historically a great absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and so a natural brake on man-made climate change. 

Those days may be over, these scientists found – the latest in a number of papers to suggest that globally, forests now emit more CO2 than they absorb. 

That’s partly due to impacts of climate change – warming and drying - and partly due to degradation of forests through logging, burning and other activities.

The big caveat on both of these papers is that it’s a lot harder to make precise measurements of emissions (and indeed absorption) in forests and farming than in industry or transport. But… there it is. 

And yes, both findings, if confirmed, will indeed make it harder to achieve the Paris Agreement's 1.5ºC goal. Unless you take the view that it's easier for humankind to reduce methane emissions from cattle than it would be to curb methane release from melting permafrost, were that the cause of rising concentrations.

Model argument

The paper that emerged the week previously is a very different beast. Herein, a team of mainly British researchers recalculated the maximum ‘carbon budget’ for 1.5ºC.

It created a mini-storm both inside science and in the media, with interpretations varying from ‘oh good, it makes the Paris Agreement more achievable’ to ‘scientists admit to having exaggerated global warming because climate models don’t work’.

The cause of that confusion mainly lies in the way it was presented to the media, although there’s a fair bit of confirmation bias at work as well. But, all of that matters much less than what the paper actually says.

Its main conclusion is that the ‘carbon budget’ for 1.5ºC – that is, the maximum amount of CO2 we can emit for a good chance of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5ºC – is considerably larger than previous estimates. The old estimates were roughly equivalent to seven years of global carbon emissions at current levels, as of the beginning of 2015 - the new one to about 20 years.

While it’s entirely understandable that some reports drew the ‘models are wrong’ conclusion given how the research was presented, the paper doesn’t show that. It shows the reverse: the amount of surface warming since pre-industrial times is within the range projected by the models. Towards the low end, for sure – but within range.

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Climate models are by definition imperfect - but not 'wrong'. Image: Climate Lab Book/Ed Hawkins

If this new carbon budget isn’t down to rubbish models, then why is so much higher than previous estimates?

There are three key reasons. One is that this team looked at the issue with considerably more precision. Given that 1.5ºC isn’t far away, they decided to begin where we are now – well, 2015, which is pretty much ‘now’ – rather than using projections starting way back when. It’s like switching from telescope to microscope. It wouldn’t make much difference to the outcome if you were dealing with a target way off in the future, but it makes a big difference when the target’s already looming on the horizon.

So: the amount of warming since pre-industrial times is 0.93ºC, the study says. That means there’s about 0.6ºC left to go, and the budget for that works out at about 200-240 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon – about 20 years, at current rates of emissions.

The second reason is that they used a very precise definition of ‘temperature rise since pre-industrial times’. The lay meaning of that phrase is pretty obvious, but if you’re looking for something very precise, there’s a huge range of choices available.

Newcomen Engine By Elliott Brown

Thomas Newcomen built the first practical steam engine in 1712. Image: Elliott Brown, creative commons licence

Does ‘pre-industrial times’ mean the years immediately before Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine in 1712? Does it mean 10,000 years ago? Does it in fact mean a period some way after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when much more accurate temperature measurements were being made but before coal-burning had a significant impact on the climate?

And how are we assessing ‘temperature rise’ – with any one of the four main temperature records now in existence, or with an average of them all, or with some other definition?

In their analysis, the scientists chose the definitions used by expert advisors to the United Nations negotiations in the run-up to the Paris summit. This means a baseline of the years 1861-1880, and the UK’s HadCRUT temperature record. Other researchers might make other choices, but you can see the rationale for this one if the Paris Agreement goal is your focus.

The third factor is that these calculations assume faster reductions in non-CO2 emissions (methane, nitrous oxide, HFCs etc) than previous ones. There are some signs that this is realistic, such as the 2016 Kigali Declaration on phasing out HFCs… but still, as the new cattle research mentioned earlier shows, it’s very far from being a given.

Final answer?

The analysis comes with three big caveats.

  • If those bigger-than-previous cuts in non-CO2 emissions don’t happen, the carbon budget shrinks accordingly
  • It’s possible, though unlikely, that governments will decide they’d like to use a different baseline and/or temperature record – which would also change the carbon budget
  • Recent research indicates that sea surface temperature measurements used in the HadCRUT record show a cooling bias, suggesting it underplays recent temperatures – which would mean we are closer to the 1.5ºC level than the existing record indicates. 

The really big takeaway is this: keeping carbon emissions within this budget, even if it is more ‘generous’ than previous calculations, is still a major task. As an indication of how major, one way to meet the budget is to have emissions fall, in a straight line, to absolutely zero, within about 40 years. Starting right now.

Meanwhile... that other science tells us that cows are belching out more greenhouse gases than we thought, and forests have turned from friend to foe.

There will be lots more of this to come over the next year, and much of it will doubtless consist of fascinating science.

But the really striking thing will be how little it changes the big picture: if governments really want to meet the most ambitious goal they agreed at the Paris summit, the science shows they need to step up the pace of emission-cutting, and to do so urgently.