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The sky’s not the limit

  • Published at 04:28 pm May 4th, 2018
  • Last updated at 02:40 pm May 5th, 2018
The sky’s not the limit

Until now, 144 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, showing an unparalleled urgency with which the world community has moved to keep temperatures “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C.” This means, in the best case scenario, warming would go no further than 1.5C.

Climate change has now almost eclipsed the issue of the peak oil conversation in the first decade of the 21st century. Now that there has been raised an increasing scientific inevitability that humanity would be wise to do everything it can to keep universal warming below 1.5C, the issue is less weather and possible timing of running out of fossil fuels, and much more of how we will agree on a global carbon budget -- a projection of how much more carbon dioxide can be discharged without breaking the 1.5 degree limit and declare almost 80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves as unburnable carbon.

One of the significant headings from the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Fifth Assessment Report was: “Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond.”

The report said that a remaining carbon budget of about 1,000 billion tons CO2 to be emitted from 2012 onwards would bind total human-induced warming to less than 2C, relative to the period 1861–1880, with a probability of greater than 66%.

If emissions continue at today’s level, the budget will be entirely gone in just 20 years, and as an early warning, the emissions have continued at a rate of about 35-40 GtCO2 each year since 2011, the budget is now roughly 750-800 GtCO2. The inclusion of other greenhouse gas emissions further reduces the carbon budget.

According to the “Climate Action Network (CAN) Position Paper on Forest and Land Restoration -- Natural Ways of Limiting Temperature Rise to Below 1.5C, January 2018,” an increase of about 2% was anticipated in 2017, although global CO2 emissions were approximately flat in the period of 2014-2016.

It indicates that we are thus far from attaining the sharp decline in emissions necessary for meeting the 1.5C goals.

Limiting temperature rise to 1.5C appears impossible without actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The amount of CO2 removal needed will be sturdily determined by cutting emission in sectors like energy and peak oil, where fossil fuels release about 70% of all global GHG emissions.


Some solutions have been proposed for the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere which include both natural and artificial approaches. Beyond the natural involvement, carbon sequestration, which includes the conservation, maintenance, enrichment, and restoration of the natural resources, there are artificially engineered methods, which are known as negative emission technologies (NETs).

Some of these methods are entirely artificial, while other types of NETs are built upon natural systems, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), afforestation, enhanced weathering (EW) of minerals, and biochar.

Basically, negative emission technologies are used to remove the significant amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

But it requires large-scale deployment and a vast amount of land.

The impacts of such activities would have undesirable consequences for a wide-range of issues, including land occupation, food security, ecosystem instability, and loss of biodiversity.

If emissions continue at today’s level, the budget will be entirely gone in just 20 years

NETs that are energy and water intensive present additional challenges. So the use of artificial NETs has to be minimized for long-term sustainable development.

Again, emissions from deforestation, forest, and peat land degradation contribute to the quarter of entire human-induced emissions and need to halt. Biodiversity has to be ensured, as it intensifies carbon stocks in primary and other natural forests.

Focusing on forest regeneration and restoration offers the best overlook of safeguarding resilient carbon stocks, in the existing forest and restored areas, and is the least risky path in comparison with using NETs to keep forest carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering more carbon.

There should be laws imposed on building new coal-fired power plants as a short-term step to close the gap between current ambition and what is needed for 1.5C limitation.

According to Climate Action Tracker (CAT), emissions from coal plants should be down by 65% by 2030 to reach the 1.5C goal.

Again, according to Climate Tracker Action (CAT), industrial emissions need to be reduced by well over 50% from current levels by 2050 in a 1.5C scenario which will be a challenging step as industrial production is expected to grow significantly.

This sector also needs to maximize material proficiency to condense primary material production.

Last of all, rapid and early emission reductions coupled with the short-term steps and the restoration and protection of natural ecosystems would considerably reduce artificial carbon removals required later, and help the world to stay within the 1.5C boundaries.

Shooha Tabil is a Climate Reality Leader, Climate Reality Project.