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Response: Are we doing enough? How much time do we have left?

Are we doing enough? How much time do we have left?

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 might have given the world a 63% chance of staying below 2°C of global average temperature rise, and a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C. This is the threshold associated with the most dangerous climate threats and what was agreed by most countries at the time. These risky odds do not include most feedback loops and non-linear (i.e. irreversable) tipping points.

Covid-19 emissions reductions has made no difference, indeed a staggering 5-billion-tonne gab in the carbon budget is identified: some countries are under-accounting how much they are emitting and/or drawing down through forestry.

“The world is still heading for a catastrophic temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century – far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C.”UN Emissions Gap Report, 09 December 2020

“Our assessment is that the current NDC is not compatible with contributing to global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C.” – Climate Change Commission 2021

We have run out of time to return our climate to the stability that our global civilization enjoyed for the past several thousand years. We must cut net emissions to limit the magnitude of impacts. The faster we can do this, the more we can save, and the less we will lose—for ourselves and our children’s futures.

“The time is now, Ināia tonu nei, to lead the change we want to see and to remain steadfast to the values that underpin our nationhood—values like whanaungatanga, kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga.” – Climate Change Commission 2021

Fig. 1: Projected temperature increases under current policies (Image: Nature)
Fig. 2: New Zealand’s commitments to reduce net emissions are insufficient to stay within what the IPCC deemed as ‘safe’ temperature increase of 1.5°C above pre-Industrial levels. We also exceed the ‘dangerous’ 2°C levels and instead are aiming for 3°C (Image: Nature)
Fig. 3: Sheep and cows together emit 36.5% of methane emissions. (Image: New Zealand Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990-2018 [April 2020]).

“The idea of planting trees in vast areas to remove carbon dioxide from the air and reduce the impact of climate change, for example, has attracted a lot of attention, with some claiming it’s the best “low-hanging fruit” approach to pursue, McElwee said. But large-scale tree planting could conflict directly with food security because both compete for available land. It could also diminish biodiversity, if fast-growing exotic trees replace native habitat.” –  Rutgers University, 2020

Fig. 3: Under the existing Emissions Trading Scheme, the One Billion Trees project makes the financial incentives to plant exotic trees for forestry far greater than regenerating native forests. Radiata pine sequester carbon faster (while ignoring how much natives sequester in soils) but carbon savings in radiata is lost by the carbon-emitting harvesting methods, transporting felled timber (generally offshore), converting timber into wood products most of which will ultimately be burned or rot, releasing their carbon. Meanwhile, the biodiversity values and essential ecosystem services provided by natives are being sacrificed.

Explainers

Run out of time

The climate takes time to react to changes in the atmospheric chemistry (that is, more greenhouse gasses). Today, we have passed 1.2°C and yet we are only feeling the effects of greenhouse gasses that were released into the atmosphere decades ago. Temperatures will continue to increase, and ice caps will continue to melt for decades to come. However, the more we can limit how much we continue to add to the atmosphere, the less painful our futures will be.

“We have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We are going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.” John Holdren, US Office of Science and Technology Policy

Net emissions:

Net emissions means gross greenhouse gas emissions (‘spending’ carbon) from all industrial activities, burning fossil fuels for energy, and agriculture, minus carbon sinks (‘saving’ carbon) from forestry, changing agricultural to improve soils, and regenerating natural ecosystems. However, instead of declining, global emissions continue to increase each year. Covid-19 resulted in a minor reduction in emissions in 2020. However, emissions were being under-reported by a staggering 5-billion tonnes annually. Moreover, agriculture emissions in New Zealand and elsewhere were not reduced, manufacturing in China has resurged, and dangerous tipping points are being breached, which means natural carbon sinks are now becoming sources of methane and carbon dioxide.