Catastrophic warming forecast as the UN sideshow rolls on

The Doha climate meeting has come and gone — and the news keeps getting worse. [11 December 2012 | Peter Boyer]

James Price Point, north of Broome, WA, site of a proposed “clean, green” $34 billion gas processing hub. Government figures indicate that greenhouse gas emissions saved by all rooftop solar systems in Australia will be wiped out 20 times over by emissions from this one enormous plant.

As it now does every year in the month before Christmas, the United Nations has brought the world together to talk about climate. This year in Doha a few things were notably lacking. Gone was most of the fanfare and hubris marking past gatherings.

National leaders stayed away in droves. No-one blinked when Australian climate change minister Greg Combet declined to attend, leaving our delegation in the hands of a mere cabinet secretary, Mark Dreyfus.

“I stand ready to continue listening to you” was the opening message from the Qatari dignitary in the chair, Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiya. True to that trite sentiment, Doha was no more than another work in progress. Which is to say it met all expectations.

Twenty years of UN effort since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 have come down to echoing, empty pronouncements from robed local dignitaries and suited international delegates, speaking from a glitzy Middle Eastern convention centre to a world that couldn’t care less.

Despite its noble aspirations, or maybe because of them, the UN push is failing. Doha brought into stark relief the widening gap between, on the one hand, the political reality (read “mess”) of a fractious world community, and on the other the physical reality of global warming.

The gulf between politics and reality was never more evident than in Doha’s second week, when a dismal Global Carbon Project report on emissions reduction was followed by an angry, unresolved dispute over who should pay, and how much, to cut the emissions of developing countries.

The GCP report was a real shocker. In 2009 the world agreed that 2C of warming was dangerous. If the present rising trend of emissions is not somehow slowed and then reversed, says the report, we are headed for somewhere between 4C and 6C of warming by 2100.

We’re now in the realm of the impossible. To keep warming below 2C, the PricewaterhouseCooper Low Carbon Index says that global carbon intensity needs to be cut by 5.1 per cent each and every year until 2050. This has never even once been achieved in any year since 1950.

The GCP assessment is contained in a Nature Climate Change research paper by nine globally-recognised carbon accounting specialists including two Australian scientists, Pep Canadell and Mike Raupach, both from CSIRO.

Annual global emissions, up by 54 per cent since 1990, have grown during the past decade by more than 3 per cent a year, over three times the rate in the 1990s. Most of the rise has come from economic growth in India and China — the same growth that has kept Australia afloat since 2007.

Warming of 4-6C is truly unknown territory. We know, however, that crops needing cool conditions to grow, including the global staples of wheat, rye and barley, are especially vulnerable. Such warming would see Australia lose whole food-producing regions well before 2100.

By 2100 we’d have had to adjust to increasingly intense droughts and flooding, and life in most of inland Australia would have become intolerable. Tasmanian temperatures would be similar to those now experienced in northern NSW, and mosquito-borne subtropical diseases would have spread south, at least as far as Victoria.

Australia would be better off than most of Africa and southern Asia, where the suffering of billions would give rise to unprecedented climate-driven migration, such that the fuss over today’s boat-people arrivals would seem laughable.

Over 4C of warming would hasten melting of land ice and cause sea levels to rise by well over a metre. Research published last week shows that Greenland is now losing ice nearly five times as quickly as in the 1990s — a signal, according to British lead author Professor Andrew Shepherd, that dangerous climate change is now upon us.

Yet we continue as if nothing is happening. Perhaps, as US writer and activist Bill McKibben says, the problem is the slow unfolding of events: “The distress signal is emitted at a frequency that scientists can hear quite clearly, but is seemingly just beyond the reach of most politicians.”

We are all willing accomplices in this self-delusion. I am, just as you are. I know better than most about the direct link between economic growth and rising global emissions, yet I find myself dreading the thought of an economic downturn bringing the wolf to my door.

Australia emits 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year for each person who lives here. If the world wants to avoid over 2C or warming the global average must be below three tonnes a year per person. Our addiction to economic growth is now a clear and serious threat to our long-term future.

Pitt & Sherry economist Phil Harrington, a Hobart-based specialist in climate mitigation and adaptation, discovered how serious when he looked into emissions from the proposed new “clean, green” liquefied natural gas hub at James Price Point, Western Australia.

The WA government says the gigantic plant will release somewhere between 12 and 39 million tonnes of greenhouse gas a year. Calculations of negative impacts by proponents and their supporters usually prove conservative in practice. The upper limit is probably close to the mark.

Based on this supposition Harrington did his own sums, and came up with the number of rooftop solar electricity systems needed to offset emissions from this single industrial undertaking.

The answer is — wait for it — 20 million. As Harrington says, it’s a pity there are only around eight million households in Australia.

With current home solar electricity installations in Australia currently running at about 10 per cent of total households, that leaves us short by around 19 million systems. This is what progress looks like.

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