The fine print on our ‘final warning’
You probably followed some of the news about the big climate science report approved by the world’s governments on Monday. The coverage was alarming enough — “final warning” was a common headline — but if you read the report itself, you will have run across a curious concept called “overshoot.”
This is not the type of “overshoot” most of us are familiar with. Earth Overshoot Day, for example, is announced each year along with estimates for how many planets it would take to sustain our current burn rate.
In the world of climate quants, “overshoot” has a much more specific and insidious meaning — we’ll keep burning fossil fuels and blow through our purported target of 1.5 degrees, but hope to lower our planet’s temperature later.
How on Earth might we pull that off? It’s a very good question given that most plausible pathways assume staggering amounts of overshoot. The only answer on offer is that we’d pull it off by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.
The theory is we’ll cut climate pollution to net zero and then employ “negative emissions” at a planetary scale using methods of carbon dioxide removal (CDR in the lexicon of the climate quants). Those methods? TBD.
"We rely so much on these models for policymaking but policymakers don't understand the assumptions at all," says Olivier Bois von Kursk, a Montreal-based analyst working on energy transition scenarios at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. "The world is really betting on negative emissions in the future.”
There are 1,200 scenarios scoured from modellers around the world and reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Only 26 keep us below 1.5 degrees with low overshoot and feasible assumptions about reforestation and carbon sequestration.
One example of negative emissions cited by the IPCC involves pulling 11.5 gigatonnes out of the sky every year by 2050 using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). The notion is that we’d grow crops and then burn them in energy plants, capture the carbon emissions and bury them deep underground. “That would require farmland one or two times the size of India,” says Olivier.
There’s been a fractious debate among climate experts about the use of overshoot in previous reports — a kind of fine print beneath the pathways showing how to meet the temperature targets adopted by politicians.
There’s just so little time and carbon budget left that modellers resort to overshoot and negative emissions to make the numbers pencil out. But time is not on our side: “In the near term,” says the IPCC, “global warming is more likely than not to reach 1.5 C even under the very low GHG emission scenario.”
Those arguing for more transparency underline the irreversible impacts from any time spent in overshoot. And they point to the incredible gamble involved: fine print can’t tell us if it will ever be possible to lower the temperature by removing gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year, let alone what that would cost.
And, to its credit, the latest synthesis report by the IPCC boosted the font size considerably. The authors explicitly outlined what’s required to avoid overshoot — very deep emissions cuts this decade. Much deeper than we’re planning. Although the message is explicit, the text remains dense:
“Limiting warming to 1.5 C (>50 per cent probability) with no or limited overshoot or limiting warming to 2 C (>67 per cent) assuming immediate action imply deep global GHG emissions reductions this decade (high confidence),” say the IPCC scientists.
When they say “deep,” the experts are not exaggerating. And they provided several illustrations. The black line on the left shows greenhouse gas emissions since the turn of the century. Red shows what’s likely with the laws and policies implemented to date. Green and blue show the drastic course-reversal that’s needed.
Here’s how that looks for the main greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide. You’ll note that stabilizing the temperature around 1.5 C or 2 C (without major overshoot) still requires emissions to dip below net zero and into negative emissions territory.
An ‘Acceleration Agenda’
Alongside the release of the IPCC report, UN Secretary General António Guterres unveiled an “Acceleration Agenda” to achieve deep greenhouse gas reductions. “We have never been better equipped to solve the climate challenge,” he said.
And it’s true that the IPCC authors concluded with high confidence that “feasible, effective, and low-cost options for mitigation and adaptation are already available.” They point to “widespread electrification” with solar and wind having the most (and cheapest) potential, along with “a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use.”
Global emissions could be cut in half this decade, using measures that cost less than US$100 per tonne. The IPCC provided a handy graphic illustrating the options at hand.
The Acceleration Agenda leads off with a call to hit the “fast-forward button” on timelines. For developed countries, it means accelerating the net-zero timeline “as close as possible to 2040.”
“Every country must be part of the solution,” said Guterres. “Demanding that others move first only ensures humanity comes last.” Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault says he will take a “long, hard look” at the idea.
The Acceleration Agenda also calls for developed countries to ensure net-zero electricity by 2035. The Liberal government is pushing forward legislation to that effect. But it is not yet the law of the land — we’ll have to see how it emerges from the sausage-making process and whether it gets to the finish line ahead of the next election. Conservative environment critic Gérard Deltell notably declined a request to comment.
Other action items aim right at the crux of climate controversy in Canada. The IPCC says that “projected CO2 emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure without additional abatement would exceed the remaining carbon budget for 1.5 C.”
(“Abatement” is a euphemism for CCS — which the IPCC includes only if it “substantially reduces the amount of GHG emitted throughout the life cycle.” Carbon capture in the oilpatch only addresses the small percentage at the beginning of the life cycle.)
And so, the UN secretary general called for:
- Ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas.
- Stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves.
- Establishing a global phasedown of existing oil and gas production compatible with the 2050 global net-zero target.
For more on the IPCC Synthesis Report, check out Top climate scientists urge swift action for Canada and the world in critical decade for change by John Woodside.
Natasha Bulowski reports on Steven Guilbeault’s promise to take a “long hard look” at the Acceleration Agenda.
And Rochelle Baker reviews how unchecked climate change puts Canada’s West Coast in hot water.
Seth Klein writes that “most young people know … the climate crisis is coming for them.” He argues Canada can help them fight it with a Youth Climate Corps.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith appears unmoved, saying climate policies represent an “existential” threat to Alberta.
Just two days after the IPCC said developed countries should phase out gas plants by 2035, Smith launched an attack on solar and wind farms, calling for more gas power plants.
"We are a natural gas province. And we will continue to build natural gas power plants, because that is what makes sense in Alberta."
Smith called the feds’ proposed clean electricity regulation and emissions cap for the oil and gas sector “absurd” and “ideological.” Her government is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada arguing the federal Impact Assessment Act is unconstitutional and unnecessary.
Pretty ironic timing considering the massive recent leaks from Imperial Oil’s tailings ponds — “Alberta just stepped on a rake — again,” writes Max Fawcett.
The toxic spills highlight another vexing oilsands problem: what to do with the rest of the oilsands waste accumulating along the Athabasca River?
“Massive ponds filled with more than 1.4 trillion litres of toxic waste are set to hit capacity in 2025. At that point, the sludge-like oilsands tailings will be treated and dumped into the river, in accordance with federal regulations still being developed.”
“It has to stop,” Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine told Canada’s National Observer in an interview. “You see how they're toying around to change the rules of engagement to meet their needs or meet their wants, which doesn't meet the needs of the land or the people that live there.”
Six Pacific island nations issued a joint declaration calling for a global treaty to phase out fossil fuels and pledged to join the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) chaired by Denmark and Costa Rica.
The declaration emerged from a three-day meeting in Vanuatu, held under a state of emergency after being hammered by two cyclones in four days.
“The science is clear that fossil fuels are to blame for the climate emergency,” reads the declaration. “This is a crisis driven by the greed of an exploitative industry and its enablers.”
Ministers from Tuvalu and Vanuatu elaborated in The Guardian: “Vanuatu is the most vulnerable country in the world, according to a recent study. Our countries emit minuscule amounts of greenhouse gases, but bear the brunt of extreme events primarily caused by the carbon emissions of major polluters, and the world’s failure to break its addiction to fossil fuels.”
Pacific Island nations catalyzed global agreement on the importance of 1.5 degrees — “1.5 to stay alive” is their rallying cry — as well as negotiations on loss and damage, which began at the UN climate negotiations in Egypt last year.
Pushing back against automakers
Canada has the worst record in the entire world for carbon pollution per kilometre but lobbyists are pushing the feds to weaken proposed legislation on zero-emission vehicles.
“Many jurisdictions — including the EU, the U.K., 17 U.S. states, B.C. and Quebec — have already committed to even stronger regulations,” write Mark Zacharias, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, and Daniel Breton, president and CEO of Electric Mobility Canada. “Today, EV availability in B.C. and Quebec is four times higher than it is in Ontario, a province without requirements.
“Canada should not weaken its zero-emission vehicle sales targets for those automakers that miscalculated the future.”
Charge oil companies with homicide?
A new paper in the Harvard Environmental Law Review argues fossil fuel companies “have not simply been lying to the public, they have been killing members of the public at an accelerating rate, and prosecutors should bring that crime to the public’s attention.”
“Culpable mental state causing harm is criminal conduct, and if they kill anybody, that’s homicide,” Donald Braman, a law professor at George Washington University and co-author of the paper, told The Guardian.
👀 "The case is compelling that fossil fuel companies’ actions meet the legal definition of homicide" https://t.co/6fyu7ek20Z— Brian Kahn (@blkahn) March 23, 2023
Solar in India
“India, especially the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, have demonstrated to the world that rapid deployment of solar and wind is not only possible, but also already happening,” says Uni Lee, a data analyst with the thinktank Ember.
BREAKING | Solar and wind dominate 🇮🇳India’s electricity capacity additions in 2022.— Ember (@EmberClimate) March 17, 2023
92% of India's total added capacity comprises wind and solar, while coal accounted for only 5% last year.
🧵1/4https://t.co/jLuDzHDo7Z #IndiaRES pic.twitter.com/PZFaOrcw8p
Clean jobs, lower bills
Canada would gain 700,000 energy jobs in a net-zero world, according to a new report by Clean Energy Canada. If Canada’s next government reverses existing laws, the country would lose 100,000 jobs.
And switching from fossil fuels to clean electricity would mean “households’ average energy costs will be 12 per cent lower in 2050,” according to a new analysis from the Canadian Climate Institute.
LNG plant cancelled in New Brunswick
Spanish energy company Repsol walked away from a proposed LNG facility near Saint John. Premier Higgs latched onto Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to push LNG projects in New Brunswick. But as the CBC reports:
“The International Energy Agency said last July that rather than making LNG more attractive, the war had damaged [the] gas's reputation as a reliable and affordable energy source, leading to ‘a considerable downward revision’ of prospects for future demand.”
Eavor in Europe
Calgary-based geothermal company Eavor just got a $135-million boost from the European Innovation Fund to support a power project in Germany.
"What's interesting about it is not just the money, which is always welcome. It's the validation of being a small Canadian startup and getting one of these awards," said John Redfern, CEO of Eavor, in an interview with CBC Calgary.
Eavor built its test facility near Rocky Mountain House in 2019 and the German project will be the first commercial project — the company creates a closed-loop “radiator” underground. "Once this loop starts flowing, it continues flowing automatically forever until you stop it. And that's what brings the power to the surface, the heat to the surface.
Natural gas or methane?
Would you rather burn natural gas or methane in your home? If you’re this far into a Zero Carbon newsletter, you probably know that’s a trick question but most Canadians clearly don’t.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment sent Rick Roberts onto the streets of Toronto to pose the question. You can watch the entertaining results and revealing insights on the state of climate and energy literacy in their short video: