“Nature Does Not Provide Bailouts”: Tällberg Provocation Calls for Complete Decarbonization of Industrialized Countries by 2050
by Jack Rosebro
The Tällberg Foundation has released a discussion paper that proposes a global greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 90% along with a target of 100% “domestic, at-source” reductions coming from industrialized countries by the year 2050, with the objective of avoiding many of the more unpredictable potential effects of climate change.
The paper, or “Tällberg Provocation”, anticipates that if industrialized countries are to attain complete decarbonization by 2050, they will need to cut domestic greenhouse gas production by as much as half while offsetting another quarter of domestic GHGs with emissions reductions elsewhere by 2020.
|“The main purpose of this Provocation is to challenge the widespread perception that nations are dealing effectively with climate change when, in fact, almost nothing is happening yet at the global scale.”|
—Ekman, Rockström, and Wijkman
Acknowledging that the international financial crisis has shuttled many environmental goals to the sidelines, the authors of the paper—Bo Ekman, Johan Rockström, and Anders Wijkman of the Tällberg Foundation— nevertheless caution that “nature does not provide bailouts”, and argue that current climate change negotiations are not adequately structured to produce meaningful progress toward the mitigation of-or adaptation to-likely long-term effects of climate change.
The Tällberg Provocation presents four imperatives for climate change leaders:
Climate change must be considered in the larger context of deteriorating global ecosystems that function as carbon sinks;
Climate change negotiations and greenhouse gas reduction targets must reflect current science, including the acceleration of the effects of warming and the risk of triggering tipping elements;
Only partial effectiveness of climate change solutions is possible if ethics and equity are not incorporated into those solutions; and
Post-2012 climate change negotiations will be dependent on global governance and cooperation, as well as attention to market failures and ineffective enforcement of environmental standards.
Models of economic growth which inadvertently encourage environmental degradation are seen by the authors of the Provocation as market failures. Succeeding models of both economic growth and environmental stewardship will have to be flexible and adaptable.
“While we agree there is an urgent need for ambitious targets of emissions reductions over the long term,” write Ekman, Rockström, and Wijkman, “it would be premature to lock the world for an extended period of time into static objectives based on an incomplete understanding of the complex problems we face. Negotiators are not dealing with a mechanical system, but with dynamic interactive natural systems in continuous flux.”
“At The Point Of No Return”
With one year left in scheduled negotiations to produce a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, decision-makers’ options have narrowed considerably, placing them “at the point of no return” with regard to climate policy. The Provocation suggests that despite this, currently proposed emissions reduction mechanisms—many of which are intended to limit average global temperature increases to the popularly accepted threshold of no more than 2º C—may no longer be capable of producing such reductions, and that the 2º C target may be functioning as an illusory policy panacea for reductions which may already be unattainable at the current rate of progress.
That sentiment echoes recent findings from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Earlier this year, the Royal Society published a paper from Tyndall researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows which compared proposed GHG emissions reduction strategies to the results that such strategies were designed to achieve, in the context of scientific findings which were either not incorporated in the scenarios presented in last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, or were published after the report itself.
“Given the reluctance, at virtually all levels, to openly engage with the unprecedented scale of both current emissions and their associated growth rates,” the researchers noted, “even an optimistic interpretation of the current framing of climate change implies that stabilization much below 650 ppmv [parts per million, by volume] CO2e [CO2 equivalent] is improbable.” According to the IPCC, CO2-equivalent concentrations of 650 ppmv are likely to produce an average 3.2 to 4.0º C (5.7 to 7.2º F) rise in Earth’s surface temperatures.
The State of Climate Change Negotiations
|“If, during the next two decades, transition economies, such as China, India and Brazil, and newly industrializing nations across Africa and elsewhere are not to have their economic growth stifled, their emissions of CO2e will inevitably rise. Given any meaningful global emission caps, the implications of this for the industrialized nations are bleak.”|
—Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows,
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
The Bali climate change negotiations of 2007 opened and ended with calls for a 50% reduction of manmade greenhouse gas production, compared to 2000 levels, by 2050. The European Union, Japan, and Canada endorsed the target in principle, on the condition that it would be agreed to by a significant number of countries. A range of corporations and NGOs have also supported the halving of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas production by mid-century.
However, the “50% by 2050” target is the smallest amount of reduction believed to be capable of limiting warming to no more than 2º C, as reported in last year’s Fourth Assessment Report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Global greenhouse gas emissions scenarios are typically as dependent on the peaking of emissions as they are on the subsequent trajectory of decline, and by the time climate change negotiations were taken up last month in Poznań, discussions had largely shifted to focus on the peaking of global GHG emissions by 2020 or so. According to the Fourth Assessment Report, a realistic 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 would first require stabilization at 350 to 450 ppm CO2 (445 to 490 ppm CO2 equivalent) by 2000 at the earliest and 2015 at the latest.
CO2 levels at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i ranged between 383 and 389 ppm in 2008, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The rhetoric of 2º C is subverting a meaningful, open and empirically informed dialogue on climate change,” contend Anderson and Bows. “While it may be argued that 2º C provides a reasonable guide to the appropriate scale of mitigation, it is a dangerously misleading basis for informing the adaptation agenda.”
Such discussions are further complicated by increasing concerns over the fragility of potential tipping elements— large ecological systems which are deteriorating, yet for which science has no methodology to predict the likelihood of collapse or the systematic feedback effects of that collapse. While the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report acknowledged that “the broader range of models now available suggests stronger climate-carbon cycle feedbacks”, the potential effects of those feedbacks, including those arising from tipping elements, are not included in the report. The Fourth Assessment Report acknowledges that as a result of such omissions, “emission reductions to meet a particular stabilization level reported in the mitigation studies... might be underestimated.”
Late last year, Tipping Elements in the Earth’s Climate System, a research paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, advocated a shift in focus from timeframe (tipping points) to source (tipping elements), and presented a short list of ecosystems of concern, including melting Arctic sea ice, dieback of the Amazonian and boreal forests, and collapse of the Indian summer monsoon. (Earlier post.)
Deterioration of many tipping elements appear to have accelerated in recent years; in October, researchers from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States reported significantly elevated levels of atmospheric methane in 2007 at all AGAGE and CSIRO measurement sites for the first time in almost a decade (earlier post). Sites are located in American Samoa, Antarctica, Australia, Barbados, California, Canada, Hawai’i, Ireland, and Tasmania.
|“Without a deliberate and intensive effort from all nations to place development onto a path that will not destroy the environment, eliminating poverty will tip many natural systems beyond stability, beginning with climate.”|
— Ekman, Rockström, and Wijkman
The Provocation also takes up the issue of feedbacks in the context of biodiversity, stressing that “climate change must be addressed within the wider challenge of preserving the capacity of global ecosystems to continue to function as sinks for greenhouse gases, and avoid ecosystem feedbacks that accelerate global warming,” noting that while social and financial disasters can often be reversed in due time, the mechanisms to “reverse a planetary crisis” are lacking. The report cites an interim report on the economic costs of ecosystem degradation, released by the European Commission in June (earlier post), which concluded that current markets have a “defective economic compass” that is not equipped to properly value natural resources that are crucial to human life, even when those resources are in decline.
Climate Change and Leadership
Anderson and Bows conclude that a CO2 stabilization target of 450 ppmv is “no longer a viable stabilization concentration,” advising that “in the absence of an almost immediate step change in mitigation (away from the current trend of 3% annual emission growth), adaptation would be much better guided by stabilization at 650 ppmv CO2e (i.e. approx. 4º C).”
However, a 650 ppmv CO2 stabilization target may itself be a best-case scenario: “...even this level of stabilization assumes rapid success in curtailing deforestation, an early reversal of current trends in non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions and urgent decarbonization of the global energy system.”
Taking estimated feedback processes into account, the Tyndall researchers find that:
If emissions peak in 2015, stabilization at 450 ppmv CO2e requires subsequent annual reductions of 4% in CO2e and 6.5% in energy and process emissions.
If emissions peak in 2020, stabilization at 550 ppmv CO2e requires subsequent annual reductions of 6% in CO2e and 9% in energy and process emissions.
If emissions peak in 2020, stabilization at 650 ppmv CO2e requires subsequent annual reductions of 3% in CO2e and 3.5% in energy and process emissions.
Ultimately, Ekman, Rockström, and Wijkman see the current financial crisis as well as the long-term environmental crisis as “the result of an economic policy framework that stimulates immediate value creation at a level far beyond the assets (or capital) available,” whether the capital is wealth-based or resource-based.
The Provocation concludes that “policy solutions... will remain abstractions as long as nations do not come together to agree on a plan that reflects the magnitude of the problem and which is supported by the most rigorous of compliance measures.”
The Tällberg Foundation will take up the issues of the Provocation at its annual forum in Sweden next summer.
 Bo Ekman, Johan Rockström, and Anders Wijkman, Grasping the climate crisis, December 2008
 Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows: Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. In Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2008
 IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report - Synthesis Report, 2007
 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide: Mauna Loa, 26 December 2008
 Lenton et al.: Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system, 12 February 2008. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
 Rigby et al., Renewed growth of atmospheric methane. 20 November 2008. In Geophysical Research Letters, Volume 35
 Pavan Sukhdev et al., The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). European Commission, May 2008