Responding to an unusually poor article, written by Lorrie Goldstein and printed in the Toronto Sun, I wrote that: “If you want high human welfare and prosperity for decades and generations ahead, dealing with climate change is not optional. The longer Canada waits to begin the process of going carbon-neutral, the more costly and painful that process will be.”
The above graphic, included in the recent Copenhagen Diagnosis, illustrates this situation nicely. The graphic shows three different pathways, each of which would give humanity a 75% chance of limiting warming to 2°C – a target that has been widely endorsed by governments, including those of the UK and EU. In a scenario where global emissions peak in 2011, they would only need to fall to about 5 gigatonnes by 2050, a reduction rate of 3.7% per year. Waiting just four more years, and having them peak in 2015, increases that to 5.3% per year. In the scenario with the 2015 peak, humanity as a whole needs to be carbon neutral before 2050, in order to provide the 75% certainty of avoiding more than 2°C of warming. Waiting until 2020 means that emissions need to fall by 9% per year afterwards, with carbon neutrality reached around 2040.
Bear in mind that these are global pathways. Under a contraction and convergence approach, where countries cut emissions while simultaneously becoming more equal in terms of per capita emissions, Canada would need to cut even faster. This illustrates firstly how wrongheaded it is to hope for a few more years of a hydrocarbon boom before we start the process of adjustment. It also illustrates the urgency of getting an effective global agreement in place soon. This isn’t an issue on which we can simply doddle for a decade. If we don’t want to see our children living in a transformed world, humanity needs to act fast and on a massive scale.
On a personal level, this may also bring some clarity to the many discussions we’ve had here about carbon ethics. If we individually want to mirror what the world as a whole needs to do, we should be planning to have our personal emissions peak virtually instantly, and fall every year thereafter. People who are my age should be thinking seriously about the possibility of living carbon-neutral lives by the time they face retirement – and about what accomplishing that would require.