400 little reminders

17th May 2013


Related Topics

Related tags

  • Resource extraction ,
  • Energy ,
  • Mitigation ,
  • Generation ,
  • Conventional

Author

IEMA

As global carbon dioxide levels edge closer to the dangerously high level of 400 parts per million (ppm), Paul Suff reflects on the world's slow progress to cut emissions

At the end of April, the daily CO2 level measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii was 399.72ppm. At the advent of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, the level was around 280ppm. And, when Charles Keeling, founder of the Hawaiian monitoring station, started measuring atmospheric greenhouse gas in 1958, the level was 316ppm.

To put the 400ppm figure further into perspective: the last time it was recorded was around 2.5–5 million years ago, during the Pliocene epoch, a period when average temperatures around the world were 3–4°C higher than now (10°C at the poles) and sea levels were up to 40 metres higher than current levels.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re on course for a similar scenario. For one thing, the speed at which CO2 levels have risen over the past century is unprecedented, so we are entering the unknown. But it does suggest that our ability to restrict the rise in global temperature to 2°C above pre-industrial times – a level scientists say would avoid dangerous climate change and one most governments endorsed at the Cancún climate conference in 2010 – is looking increasingly remote.

The Bonn round of climate negotiations has just closed without any breakthrough towards a new international agreement due in 2015. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said no nation was doing enough to combat global warming.

Figueres reminded governments during the meeting that, while they are on track to meet the milestones they have set themselves, they are not yet on track to meet the demands of science. Indeed, we carry on burning fossil fuels as though there are no repercussions for the planet.

There is a continuing belief among many that recoverable fossil fuels should go up in smoke. A report from Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE illustrates the short-sightedness of such an approach and its incompatibility with global climate change goals.

Nonetheless, governments persist in heavily subsidising the oil and gas industries, encouraging producers to scour the ends of the Earth to locate new sources. The IMF recently revealed that $480 billion is spent annually on direct fossil fuel subsidies, mostly in developing countries, while an additional $1.4 trillion is spent on indirect subsidies.

As the IMF points out, energy subsidies distort resource allocation by encouraging excessive energy consumption, artificially promoting capital-intensive industries, reducing incentives for investment in renewable energy, and accelerating the depletion of natural resources.

The Washington-based body also notes that subsidies mostly benefit higher-income households, increasing inequality. The rejection of plans to underpin the plummeting price of allowances in the EU emissions trading scheme is another illustration of a reluctance among policymakers to make the kind of shift needed to wean us off our addiction to fossil fuels.

Passing the 400ppm threshold is an important reminder that our chances of achieving the 2°C target are fast melting away. It’s also worth recalling that the World Bank said last year that the current trajectory of emissions indicated a level of warming by the end of century that is more like 4°C than 2°C. Such a rise in temperature would trigger cataclysmic changes, including extreme heatwaves and a sea-level rise – back to the Pliocene epoch, then.


Transform articles

Water companies fail to hit environmental targets

None of England’s water and sewerage companies achieved all environmental expectations for the period 2015 to 2020, the Environment Agency has revealed. These targets included the reduction of total pollution incidents by at least one-third compared with 2012, and for incident self-reporting to be at least 75%.

30th July 2021

Read more

The UK’s pipeline for renewable energy projects could mitigate 90% of job losses caused by COVID-19 and help deliver the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. That is according to a recent report from consultancy EY-Parthenon, which outlines how the UK’s £108bn “visible pipeline” of investible renewable energy projects could create 625,000 jobs.

30th July 2021

Read more

Billions of people worldwide have been unable to access safe drinking water and sanitation in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a progress report from the World Health Organisation focusing on the UN’s sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) – to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030”.

30th July 2021

Read more

The oil and gas industry is set to burn through its allocated carbon budget 13 years early unless decisive action is taken immediately, new analysis has found.

22nd July 2021

Read more

The UK will no longer use unabated coal to generate electricity from October 2024, one year earlier than originally planned, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has announced.

2nd July 2021

Read more

The UK government is not on track to deliver on its promise to improve the environment within a generation and is failing to stem the tide of biodiversity loss, a damning new report from MPs has revealed.

1st July 2021

Read more

Renewable energy will account for nearly 40% of the world's power mix by the end of this decade, overtaking coal within the next few years, according to research by GlobalData.

24th June 2021

Read more

The UK's solar energy capacity must treble over the next decade for the country to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but is only set to double under a business-as-usual scenario.

18th June 2021

Read more

The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) has today been launched to support financial institutions and corporates in assessing and managing emerging risks and opportunities as the world looks to reverse biodiversity loss.

4th June 2021

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert