International Energy Agency: five years before climate shift “lock-in”

The usually cautious International Energy Agency (IEA) warned last week that without far-reaching action in the next five years, the world will lock itself into high-emissions energy sources that will push climate change beyond the 2 degrees Celsius considered relatively “safe” by many scientists and officials. “As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the ‘lock-in’ of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals,” said IEA chief economist Fatih Birol. The IEA predicts that coal consumption could jump 65% by 2035, and that oil prices are likely to hit $150 a barrel. Subsidies of renewable energy are predicted to jump by four times, hitting $250 billion annually—but this is still well below current fossil fuel subsidies of $409 billion.

“Growth, prosperity and rising population will inevitably push up energy needs over the coming decades,” said IEA director Maria van der Hoeven. “But we cannot continue to rely on insecure and environmentally unsustainable uses of energy. Governments need to introduce stronger measures to drive investment in efficient and low-carbon technologies. The Fukushima nuclear accident, the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa and a sharp rebound in energy demand in 2010 which pushed CO2 emissions to a record high, highlight the urgency and the scale of the challenge.”

The IEA’s report is in line with recent research. A study in Nature last month found that emissions must peak in less than a decade and than fall quickly thereafter if the world is to have a likely (i.e. 66%) chance of avoiding a rise over 2 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, the US Energy Department finds that global greenhouse gas emissions last year exceeded worst-case scenario predictions from just four years before. A rise of 6% (564 million additional tons) over 2009 levels was largely driven by three nations: the US, India, and China. (Mongabay, Nov. 13)

NASA’s “Operation IceBridge,” formed in 2009 to study the growing destabilization of glaciers worldwide, just released dramatic images of Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier shedding a massive iceberg, covering 340 square miles—an area larger than New York City. While this is not unprecedented, the NASA program also detected a gigantic crack in West Antarctica’s ice sheet, which could eventually split the glacier and produce an iceberg of heretofore unknown scale. Monitoring shows that the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are melting at an accelerating pace. If current rates of ice loss continue, sea level could rise by as much as a meter or more before the end of this century. (WP, Nov. 7; Epoch Times, Nov, 6)

Van der Hoeven’s invocation of “prosperity” as a threat points to a dilemma we have noted before: Whether it is possible to address the climate crisis under a system predicated on endless growth. The official position of the US, Europe and Japan—implicitly endorsed by van der Hoeven—is that economic growth can be “decoupled” from energy use. This strikes us as—at best—a reckless gamble with the planet’s future.

Perhaps with the current global Occupation movement, the potential exists to reclaim a forthright anti-capitalism from the dustbin to which the world’s rulers had consigned it since the end of the Cold War. The IEA provides an urgent imperative for a public seizure of the global mechanisms of production and their conscious reconstitution towards social and ecological ends—in a word, socialism—even if its own director seems afraid of the logical conclusions of her warnings.

See our last post on the global climate crisis.

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  1. $150 a barrel by 2035?
    That actually sounds wildly optimistic to us. As we have noted, in the 1973 oil shock, the price shot up to a then-unprecedented $11.65 per barrel (not adjusted for inflation)—an increase of 468% over the price in 1970. As this timetable from the Illinois Oil & Gas Association indicates, in 1986 (as far in the past as 2035 is in the future), the yearly average was $14.64. And that was down from the previous year’s $26.50 because the Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies were producing like crazy to drive down the price as a means of weakening Iran. (A record had been reached in 1980 with a high of $38 as a result of the Iranian revolution.)

    Prices currently stand at around $100 a barrel. So (again not adjusting for inflation, the news accounts of the IEA study being ambiguous on this point), if prices rise over the next 25 years as much they have over the past 25 years, we will be looking at $185 a barrel, not $135. And that is not taking into account the possibilities (probabilities?) of “peak oil,” devastating war in the Middle East, etc.

    So we’d like to know how the IAE did their math. Are you reading this, fellas?

  2. Arctic sea ice at 1,450-year low
    The recent loss of sea ice in the Arctic is greater than any natural variation in the past 1,450 years, a Canadian study shows. “The recent sea ice decline…appears to be unprecedented,” said Christian Zdanowicz, a glaciologist at Natural Resources Canada, who co-led the study and is a co-author of the paper published this week in Nature journal. In September, Germany’s University of Bremen reported that sea ice had hit a record low, based on data from a Japanese sensor on NASA’s Aqua satellite. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center, using a different satellite data set, reported that the sea ice coverage in 2011 was the second-lowest on record, after the record set in 2007. (CBC, Nov. 23)

  3. Next: Greenland real estate rush?
    From The State Column, Dec. 10:

    A new study released Friday finds that Greenland has risen in recent years as the rate of ice melting has increased, a startling revelation that scientists attribute to global warming.

    Speaking at a conference on Friday, a team of scientists from Ohio State University said a network of 50 GPS stations measured the uplift as the ice loss, noting that the rate of ice loss has accelerated in southern Greenland by 100 billion tons. The study was lead by Ohio State University researcher Michael Bevis.

    Mr. Bevis noted that an unusually hot melting season in 2010 accelerated ice loss in southern Greenland by 100 billion tons, which led to large portions of the island’s bedrock rising an additional quarter of an inch. The discovery was noted by the team in a paper released ahead of the conclusion of a key global climate change conference in Durban, South Africa…

    Mr. Belvis said the only explanation for the strange uplift is the rate of ice melt caused, in part, by global warming. The melting and the resulting rise in sea level is one of the hallmarks of global warming, which has force researchers to resort to using some novel methods to overcome different seasonal and regional signals that obstruct their ability to measure the effect of rising temperatures.

    “Really, there is no other explanation. The uplift anomaly correlates with maps of the 2010 melting day anomaly,” Mr. Bevis said. “In locations where there were many extra days of melting in 2010, the uplift anomaly is highest.”

  4. Will global warming cancel next Ice Age?
    From BBC News, Jan. 9:

    Human emissions of carbon dioxide will defer the next Ice Age, say scientists.

    The last Ice Age ended about 11,500 years ago, and when the next one should begin has not been entirely clear.

    Researchers used data on the Earth’s orbit and other things to find the historical warm interglacial period that looks most like the current one. In the journal Nature Geoscience, they write that the next Ice Age would begin within 1,500 years—but emissions have been so high that it will not.

    “At current levels of CO2, even if emissions stopped now we’d probably have a long interglacial duration determined by whatever long-term processes could kick in and bring [atmospheric] CO2 down,” said Luke Skinner from Cambridge University.

    Dr Skinner’s group – which also included scientists from University College London, the University of Florida and Norway’s Bergen University—calculates that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would have to fall below about 240 parts per million (ppm) before the glaciation could begin.

    The current level is around 390ppm, and other research groups have shown that even if emissions were shut off instantly, concentrations would remain elevated for at least 1,000 years, with enough heat stored in the oceans potentially to cause significant melting of polar ice and sea level rise.

    Orbital wobbles
    The root causes of the transitions from Ice Age to interglacial and back again are the subtle variations in the Earth’s orbit known as the Milankovitch cycles, after the Serbian scientist Milutin Milankovic who described the effect nearly 100 years ago.

    The variations include the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the degree to which its axis is inclined, and the slow rotation of its axis.

    These all take place on timescales of tens of thousands of years.

    The precise way in which they change the climate of the Earth from warm interglacial to cold Ice Age and back every 100,000 years or so is not known….

    Using analysis of orbital data as well as samples from rock cores drilled in the ocean floor, Dr Skinner’s team identified an episode called Marine Isotope Stage 19c (or MIS19c), dating from about 780,000 years ago, as the one most closely resembling the present.

    The transition to the Ice Age was signalled, they believe, by a period when cooling and warming seesawed between the northern and southern hemispheres, triggered by disruptions to the global circulation of ocean currents.

    If the analogy to MIS19c holds up, this transition ought to begin within 1,500 years, the researchers say, if CO2 concentrations were at “natural” levels.

    As things stand, they believe, it will not.

    Loving CO2…
    Groups opposed to limiting greenhouse gas emissions are already citing the study as a reason for embracing humankind’s CO2 emissions.

    The UK lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation, for example, has flagged up a 1999 essay by astronomers Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, who argued that: “The renewal of ice-age conditions would render a large fraction of the world’s major food-growing areas inoperable, and so would inevitably lead to the extinction of most of the present human population.

    “We must look to a sustained greenhouse effect to maintain the present advantageous world climate. This implies the ability to inject effective greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the opposite of what environmentalists are erroneously advocating.”

    Luke Skinner said his group had anticipated this kind of reception.

    “It’s an interesting philosophical discussion—’would we better off in a warm [interglacial-type] world rather than a glaciation?’ and probably we would,” he said.

    “But it’s missing the point, because where we’re going is not maintaining our currently warm climate but heating it much further, and adding CO2 to a warm climate is very different from adding it to a cold climate.

    “The rate of change with CO2 is basically unprecedented, and there are huge consequences if we can’t cope with that.”

    Then of course there is the speculation that global warming could paradoxically bring about the next Ice Age

  5. Fuck the fish
    From AFP, Jan. 16:

    Carbon dioxide affecting fish brains: study
    Rising human carbon dioxide emissions may be affecting the brains and central nervous systems of sea fish, with serious consequences for their survival, according to Australian research.

    The researchers found that carbon dioxide concentrations predicted to occur in the ocean by the end of this century will interfere with fishes’ ability to hear, smell, turn and evade predators.

    The Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies says it had been testing the performance of baby coral fishes in sea water containing higher levels of dissolved CO2 for several years.

    “And it is now pretty clear that they sustain significant disruption to their central nervous system, which is likely to impair their chances of survival,” says study co-author Professor Phillip Munday.

    In a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change, Munday and his colleagues also detail what they say is world-first evidence that high CO2 levels in sea water disrupts a key brain receptor in fish.

    This causes marked changes in their behaviour and sensory abilities.

    “We’ve found that elevated CO2 in the oceans can directly interfere with fish neurotransmitter functions, which poses a direct and previously unknown threat to sea life,” says Munday.

  6. Sea ice loss at “tipping point”
    From New Scientist, March 27:

    The disappearance of Arctic sea ice has crossed a “tipping point” that could soon make ice-free summers a regular feature across most of the Arctic Ocean, says a British climate scientist who is setting up an early warning system for dangerous climate tipping points.

    Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter has carried out a day-by-day assessment of Arctic ice-cover data collected since satellite observation began in 1979. He presented his hotly anticipated findings for the first time at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London on Monday.

    Up until 2007, sea ice systematically fluctuated between extensive cover in winter and lower cover in summer. But since then, says Lenton, the difference between winter and summer ice cover has been a million square kilometres greater than it was before, as a result of unprecedented summer melting. These observations are in contrast to what models predict should have happened.

    Permanent alteration
    Despite fears of runaway sea-ice loss after summer cover hit an all-time low in 2007 – opening the Northwest Passage for the first time in living memory – modelling studies based on our best understanding of ice dynamics indicated the ice cover should fully recover each winter. “They suggest that even if the ice declined a large amount in one year, it should bounce back,” says Walt Meier of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

    Instead, Lenton’s research shows a permanent alteration. According to data from the past five years, the Arctic sea ice has not recovered from the 2007 extreme low. “The system has passed a tipping point,” he says.

  7. Northwest Passage oil rush
    A phenomenon we have sadly noted before. Receding sea ice frees up more arctic waters for oil exploitation—so we can spew more carbon into the atmosphere, leading to… more receding sea ice. Ah, the perverse genius of capitalism… The Economist reports on the Arctic Council meeting in Stockholm March 24:

    The top of the world is warming roughly twice as fast as the rest of it: water in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is roughly 3.5°C warmer than a century ago. When dark, absorptive seawater replaces bright, reflective ice, it retains more heat. That speeds global warming. Largely as a result, the Arctic now has less sea-ice, for the time of year, than for millennia. Most scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to begin to be largely ice-free in summer sometime between 2020 and 2050.

    As the ice retreats, rich Arctic deposits of oil, gas and other minerals become accessible. High commodity prices make them lucrative. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic has around a quarter of the world’s undiscovered and recoverable oil and gas reserves.

    New commercial trans-Arctic shipping routes will sharply cut the distance between Europe and Asia. In 2011 a Russian supertanker, aided by two nuclear icebreakers, became the first such vessel to traverse the North-east Passage across the Arctic, hugging the Siberian coastline (Russians call it the “northern route”). Countries that ply global trade lanes, and make the ships that do, see the potential. China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, plus Italy, have applied to join the Arctic Council as observers; so has the European Union.

    The Economist hails the international cooperation in exploiting Arctic hydrocarbons, with only a slightly wry sense of cynicism:

    Reassured that they have little to squabble over, Arctic countries are finding that the enormous costs of research, policing and energy exploration are better shared. Hence, for example, the eagerness of Russia’s state-owned energy companies to form joint ventures, such as that agreed last year between Rosneft and Exxon Mobil in the Kara Sea. The development of Arctic shipping-lanes will also be made easier with good regional relations: there is talk of either Iceland or Norway developing a transshipment port to serve Russia’s north-eastern route.

    The Arctic Council consists of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Russia, the United States, and Canada, plus six non-voting representatives of indigenous Arctic peoples such as Sami and Inuit.

    See our last post on the struggle for the Arctic.