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Breaking the Climate Deadlock, the G8's 50 by 50 Plan and Copenhagen
Alex Steffen, 15 Jul 08

The argument could be made that COP 15 -- the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen at the end of next year -- may well be the most important diplomatic meeting of the century. That's because Copenhagen (as insiders call it) may well be our last, best hope for decisive action on climate change within a timeline that matters.

In the run up to that meeting, then, it's really worth noting the good arguments emerging in support for radical action, and the good thinking about what radical action might look like. Tony Blair's Breaking the Climate Deadlock is a step in the right direction, laying out a mainstream plan for achieving the new G8 goal of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2050 (the so-called "50 by 50" plan) without damaging the global economy:

"We are talking of a global 2050 target of at least a 50% cut in emissions. But let’s be clear. This date is decades away and decades beyond the political life of any government.

The key challenge is to describe a realistic pathway to it.

That implies shorter term goals. But these are immensely demanding, asking developed economies to move from growth in emissions to significant cuts within 10-15 years."

The biggest contribution the report makes -- and it's well worth reading if you read these sorts of things -- is that it makes a 50% reduction over four decades look absolutely reasonable, achievable and sensible.

The biggest problem with it is that 50% by 2050 is a laughably inadequate goal. What we instead need to be aiming for is the cessation of net new emissions as soon as possible, with a stabilization target of 350 ppm CO2e.

That's going to take acknowledging that business-as-usual approaches just won't work here. 50 by 50 is radical today: our job is making 60, 70 or 80 by 2020 look practical by the end of next year. We have some work to do.

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I know you guys try to be optimistic, but that only makes sense if you are also responsible. The "key challenge" of the G8 plan is not how to get there- it is the utter recalcitrance of the leaders of global capitalism. It Cannot have escaped you that the IPCC has called for EIGHTY PERCENT REDUCTIONS IN CARBON EMISSIONS BY 2050, and that the G8 plan deliberately ignores and tries to bypass that goal in the service, not of Earth, but of capitalism and the concentration of wealth in a few hands at ANY cost.

Be responsible. Don't endorse the plans of killers.

Posted by: Juan Santos on 20 Jul 08

Well, my apologies: I obviously jumped the gun. It was irresponsible of me to react in knee jerk fashion before I read as far as your call for 350. Apologies,Alex.

Posted by: Juan Santos on 20 Jul 08

Alex - this paper by Hansen et al talks about 350 ppm CO2 as a target, not 350 ppm CO2e. Actually, they talk about 300-350 ppm CO2 as a target - is a reinterpretation of 350 as referring to CO2e, rather than CO2, in the works?

Something I am trying to get straight is an additional consideration, namely the role of reduction in non-CO2 forcings in the short term so as to avoid alleged tipping points. I first read about this in
the Australian media, which is going mad with discussion this week as the form of our forthcoming emissions trading system becomes clearer. More technical details here,
even more details in here. More technical details here,
even more details in

The essence of it is that methane in particular (but also N2O) counts for more in the short term, relative to CO2, than is usually believed. CO2 molecules last for over a century, methane just for a decade, so in the long run CO2 counts for more, but methane actually absorbs heat much more rapidly, and so today's methane emissions produce in the short term much more warming than today's CO2 emissions. This also means that methane reductions count for a lot in the short term, if one is trying to reduce forcing quickly.

But by how much? On page 16111 of the second link above (Hansen and Sato 2004) there is a reference to reducing methane emissions by 40-50%, though no timescale is given.

The first step towards making these more radical targets thinkable (and then doable) is to fix some definite values, even if just for the purpose of initial discussion. This "350" meme is a step in that direction, but it may need to have an adjunct goal of short-term non-CO2 reduction. Wikipedia
says methane is up to 1745 ppb from a preindustrial level of 700 ppb, so perhaps a methane goal of 1000 parts per billion by 2030 (or even 2020) can be a concrete working value.

The next step is to crunch some numbers. In this respect I would ideally recommend working with the models used by the IEA in its Energy
Technology Perspectives 2008 paper, which was an input for the G8 50-by-50 discussions. They have a few global economic scenarios, the most radical of which (designated BLUE for some reason) implements 50-by-50, stabilizing CO2 at near 445 ppm.

In theory it should be possible to use the IEA model to map out the even more stringent 350 CO2 / 1000 methane scenario - perhaps it should be called GREEN. Unfortunately (i) ETP 2008 costs hundreds of euros to obtain (though many universities and other institutions will have paid for access, so it's worth looking for it if you're inside an organizational firewall) (ii) the report doesn't include the models themselves, just their output (iii) the baseline assumptions are questionable, in that they predate this year's commodity crunch. Nonetheless, with sufficient effort it should be possible to produce an IEA-derived or -inspired GREEN scenario which maps out and costs a "350" trajectory. That would do a great deal to bring this sort of discussion nearer to the high table of international diplomacy.

The next step after that is to think about how to implement a 350 trajectory using the political and intellectual tools that each country has created so far. I think Australia is well on the way to having them in place now, for example. No doubt it is all being done with a 450 sort of goal in mind, but the machinery will be there to aim at 350 if necessary. I assume that after the next election the USA will start having the sort of discussion we're having now in Australia, given that both candidates support cap-and-trade.

One more idea - it would be interesting to see if basic renewable technologies like solar panels and wind turbines can be produced by something like rapid fabrication (or at least whether the chassis can be thus produced; some components may unavoidably require advanced industrial technique for their manufacture). It is a little at odds with the hardheaded argument that one should get involved with renewables now so as to sell it to the world later, but if one is trying to move as fast as possible, it would make sense to use the distributed "digital manufacturing" infrastructure which I keep hearing is springing up.

Posted by: Mitchell Porter on 21 Jul 08



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