Negative emissions needed for a safe climate: World Watch Institute

The latest State of the World report from the globally respected World Watch Institute is one of the highest-p

Tim Hollo

Tim Hollo is an adviser to Australian Greens’ Deputy Leader Christine Milne.

The latest State of the World report from the globally respected World Watch Institute is one of the highest-profile and credible calls for emergency action on climate change yet released.

The report concludes that the old scientific and environmental target of constraining warming to 2C is now well out of date and that we must do everything we can to bring warming back to no more than 1C if we are to pass on a safe climate to those who come after us. It makes it clear that those who think we can get away with stabilising CO2 equivalents at 550 parts per million are knowingly condemning the planet to catastrophe.

Bill Hare’s excellent chapter which goes through the science step by step includes an excellent metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in:

The jet plane metaphor is again helpful. Faced with a dire in-flight emergency, it would be safest to be on the ground immediately. In the real world, however, it takes time to prepare the aircraft, get into a safe configuration for descent and landing, and find a safe runway to land on. Otherwise the outcome would be an unmitigated disaster— the plane would crash.

In other words, the only safe level of emissions is zero (in fact, below zero, as he goes on to explain), therefore the only truly scientifically justifiable emissions target is to get to zero immediately. However, we know that that is technically impossible to achieve (forget political or economic constraints, it’s just not actually possible). So we need to set ourselves on the pathway that will get us there as fast and effectively as possible.

That is why the Australian Greens have adopted a policy that Australia should target net zero carbon emissions as soon as feasible, and no later than 2050.

Other chapters of the State of the World report look into how this can be achieved, with an emergency shift from coal to zero emissions renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, electrifying transport with renewable power, changing agricultural practices to increase soil carbon storage, protecting forests and much more. One of the most interesting sections is about how global society can actually get to negative emissions which, as Hare explains, will be needed in order to suck carbon out of the atmosphere to get carbon concentrations lower than they currently are.

This report makes a mockery of the Rudd/Wong white paper. The day after the white paper was released, Penny Wong to ABC AM’s Lyndal Curtis that:

the Greens want carbon neutrality, that is, no net emissions by 2050, at the latest. Which is, frankly, I’m not sure how they propose to get there – to be carbon neutral by 2050. So obviously if we’re going to have a discussion with them we’d need to understand how on earth Bob Brown proposes to get there.

Well, Minister, this report backs the Greens to the hilt. I strongly recommend that you, and everyone else interested in the future of the planet, read this report.

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8 thoughts on “Negative emissions needed for a safe climate: World Watch Institute

  1. Tim Hollo

    For what it’s worth, Mark and Bill, I actually am somewhere in between the two of you. I think we’ve buggered up a lot, but I don’t believe that it’s too late to fix it. We still have time to prevent runaway climate change, if we act fast. Runaway could well lead to the Cormac McCarthy scenario, or close enough.

  2. Mark Duffett

    Tim, there’s a reason why I included the phrase “Lomborg may not be right about everything” in my original comment. I was referring specifically to his critique of the WorldWatch Institute, which I believe to be well-founded.

    Of course I don’t think it’s “unseemly” that you and Bill Hare have worked for Greenpeace. But your ilk routinely impugn research performed by equally sincere scientists, purely on the basis of its funding by fossil energy companies or similarly villainous sources. Well, it cuts both ways.

    I’m not for a moment suggesting that you do what you do primarily for financial benefit (though I’d be very surprised if there’s anything but a direct (negative) correlation between people’s view of the state of the planet, and Greenpeace and Green donations). But the proselytising motive can be even more powerful than the profit one. You clearly have a lot invested in your view of the state of the world, and thus have a strong incentive to favour and present evidence that supports that worldview.

    Actually, I have read the bulk of current literature on sea level rise. There I’ve seen good evidence that, primarily due to physical constraints on ice movement, and as I’ve written elsewhere (, Hansen’s is looking like a gross overestimate.

    2C warming will only project to unprecedented food shortages if its positive impacts are ignored. Canada and Siberia are two regions that will produce a lot more food than they do now. And, based on their persistence throughout the geological record, I’m betting that via natural selection of extant coral-building species, coral reefs will hang in pretty well (indeed, may expand polewards).

    Your second last para is just out-and-out misrepresentation. All I’m pleading for is that people using phrases like ‘the Earth is buggered/ruined/stuffed’ etc. give it a rest, because it’s clearly not; and that they get some sense of perspective.

  3. Bill Parker

    I too am sick of being polite. I am also sick of mud slinging and the crap that gets talked about what is or isn’t true.

    Yesterday by chance I started reading an excellent book by David Mackay. It’s basic premise about energy is that arithmetic doesn’t have an opinion. The best point to start is a review in the OZ:

    Then move on to download the book (free of charge) and then start thinking about the facts. True, its about the UK, but we need to start somewhere. On the basis of our excellent insolation in Australia, we are in fact in a very good position to make the transition to a sustainable energy future.

    And I’ll conclude with an obvious point. Science is dynamic and data derived in (say) 1980 might now be incorrect – so we change our hypotheses. As Tim Hollo says – work with peer reviewed material every time. Having BEEN peer reviewed, I have a lot of respect for those that are asked to review the data and methods of others.

  4. Tim Hollo

    I’m sick of being polite.

    Michael Tomlinson, the “earth hasn’t warmed for ten years” line is so tired and old now that even the most ostrich-like have to understand that it is irrelevant and entirely predictable.

    I’ll repeat this once more, slowly. Ten years ago we had a massive peak in temperatures, due in no small part to a coincidence of warming trends, including one of the strongest El Nino’s on record. The fact that the earth has come very close to equalling that record in the past decade, but not yet done so, only disguises the fact that every year since then has been among the hottest on record. Olympic records set by ground-breaking champions often take many many years to be beaten, but that doesn’t mean that athletes aren’t getting better all the while, getting ready to pounce and smash that record! If we’d plunged back to pre-industrial levels you might have an argument. But we haven’t and you don’t.

    With sea level rise, all I have to say is that anyone who claims to be able to see a trend in figures from two years has zero scientific credibility.

    So, Mark Duffett, your concept of ‘truth’ relies on believing un-peer-reviewed work over peer-reviewed work? You’d rather believe Bjorn Lomborg, whose work has been comprehensively debunked and demonstrated to be a very clever but thoroughly unscientific abuse of statistics, than the work of thousands of people who are actually experts in the field they comment on?

    You appear, by the way, to think it is somehow unseemly that both Bill Hare and I have, in the past, worked for Greenpeace. You also indulge in the bizarre and somewhat offensive insinuation that, therefore, we both stand to gain, personally, from presenting the evidence as dire. Are you serious? As an employee of once Greenpeace and now the Greens, I work incredibly hard (not uncommonly 70-80 hour weeks) for a very average wage. My “obvious self interest” would in either using my multiple tertiary degrees to earn three time what I currently do or to get an easy job earning about the same and spend some time with my family and friends! In the words of one of my favourite Hunters and Collectors songs, “do you think I’m sweating like this just for fun?”

    By the way, if you read the bulk of current literature on sea level rise, you’ll see a strong current of criticism of the IPCC’s numbers. Hare’s figures are far from at the outside range, with the grand-daddy of climate science, Jim Hansen, talking about 5 metres this century thanks to the destabilisation of both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

    Rather like John Howard, who thought that a 4C temperature rise might make life “a bit more uncomfortable for some”, you shrug off a climate scenario that will lead to misery on a grand scale. 2C warming is projected to lead to a massive drop in agricultural productivity across vast tracts of the planet, leading to food shortages on a scale as yet unseen in human history. It is almost certain to disrupt the Indian monsoon and melt much of the Tibetan glacial plateau, therefore depriving every major river of Asia of their inflows – the Ganges, the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Mekong. And it’ll destroy the Great Barrier Reef and, along with the ocean acidification, jeopardise much of our marine life.

    Sure, it’s not Cormac McCarthy, but is our society so damn inured to catastrophe that we’re happy to let unimaginable suffering happen because it’s not as bad as a piece of fiction we once read?

    To close, I agree with you that Earth and its people will prove resilient. But my opinion is founded not on a refusal to believe good science. It is founded on an abiding hope that we will wake up and act before it’s too late!

  5. Mark Duffett

    Why do I find it necessary? Gee, Bill, I dunno, maybe it’s a weird obsession I have with this concept called ‘truth’.

    My intention was simply to point out that, to the extent that ‘globally’ means ‘universally’, Tim Hollo’s characterisation of the WWI is incorrect. I did not ‘insinuate that the World Watch Institute is in some way not worth the respect they do have’.

    Since you ask, yes, there is a problem, as this goes directly to whether the WWI is as credible as TH says it is. Like Greenpeace, for whom Bill Hare (and Tim Hollo?) has worked, the WWI has an obvious self-interest in presenting the state of the Earth to be as dire as possible. A manifestation of this is the section on projected sea level rise, which Hare spins as ‘metre-scale by 2100’ and a ‘much larger risk to coastal zones…during this century than had previously been estimated’. This simply ignores significant recent literature (e.g. Pfeffer et al 2008, which indicates 0.8 m as a likely upper bound on sea level rise by 2100. Bad enough, but nothing like what Hare implies, and certainly not the apocalypse.

    Thus the basic message (negative emissions are necessary) is certainly arguable, and in my view wrong. My opinion is that Earth and its people will prove much more resilient and adaptable than the doom-sayers give them credit for.

    Your opinion that the planet is ‘buggered’ is a measure of the WWI and Greenpeace’s success in putting out their message. From my perspective, this is a wild overstatement. ‘Buggered’ is not a 0.7-2C rise in global mean temperature. I’d prefer to reserve terms like ‘buggered’ for when you struggle to breathe because of a drop in atmospheric O2, patches of ocean approaching boiling point, Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Road’ scenario…things of that order. We’re still a fair way off that.

  6. Michael Tomlinson

    Bill Hare maintains, in his ‘excellent chapter’ that: “emissions, warming, and sea level rise during the current decade have all been at the upper end of projected ranges”. The last two are at variance with the observed data that indicates there has been no warming in the last 10 years, and no increase in sea level for the past 2 years. Reading the World Watch report is like reading the case for the prosecution without knowing anything about the case for the defence. The pro-warming people have a tendency to massage the evidence in the same way as the necons did with their claim that we had to go to war with Iraq because of all their weapons of mass destruction.

  7. Bill Parker

    I sometimes wonder about why it is that people like Mark Duffett find it necessary to insinuate that the World Watch Institute is in some way not worth the respect they do have.

    If Lomborg has criticized WWI then so too has he been criticized by his own academic peers.

    Is there a problem? Is the basic message or the data wrong? If Duffet can say YES to both then I am listening. However, as it stands, I think we have got to the point where we have actually buggered up the planet and it is now too late to fix it. That said, I might be wrong and therefore I also think the best way forward to to focus on an economic future that favours innovation that creates better and benign ways of meeting energy and food needs.

    If we are to build retaining walls around Pacific Islands, then so be it. The Canute Corporation will make a fortune, but it will not change things.

  8. Mark Duffett

    “globally respected” World Watch Institute? Bjorn Lomborg may not be right about everything, but his critiques of this organisation are pretty damning.

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