IPCC doom, gloom and an LED light at the end of the tunnel

The latest from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a super-synthesis of the state of agreed knowledge about climate change, adaptation and mitigation. Imagine thousands of research papers summarized in three major volumes (released over the past year), with this new report the grand summary of that. And even that condensed into a 40-page summary for policymakers.

Now I will humbly boil that down to a few key observations: climate change is happening and costs are piling up; it’s caused by human activity, primarily the combustion of coal, oil and gas; staying on our current pathway risks ever-greater danger of irreversible adverse impacts around the world; and, perhaps most importantly, we still have time for a soft landing if we act quickly.

To me, the most important concept advocated by the IPCC report is that of a carbon budget. There is a finite amount of carbon we can combust before we push into the really dangerous territory (aka 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels). How big that global carbon budget is depends on your appetite for risk, but the IPCC says about 30 years worth of emissions at current levels would give a 2/3 chance of staying below 2 degrees.

I’m not crazy about those odds. It’s like someone telling you there is a 1 in 3 chance your house will burn down, and you would henceforth be homeless forever.

The key point is we need to establish a global carbon budget, and figure out how to divvy that up fairly so we can use our remaining fossil fuels to transition to a clean energy economy. This is a classic economic problem: how to allocate resources subject to a budget constraint, as the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves (66-80% globally) represent “unburnable carbon” that needs to stay underground.

To pull this off, it goes without saying we have to pull together. This is a cross-planetary collective action problem, which requires government regulation, taxation and public infrastructure spending. The IPCC concludes that the economics of this transition are favourable: there may be a minor dent in our GDP several decades out, but there would also be substantial co-benefits from action, such as better health outcomes.

The timing of this IPCC report matters like no other, coming out out a year before the crucial 2015 Paris meetings of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, at which our leaders are to sign off on a new global treaty to constrain carbon emissions.

Or not. So far our leaders have been good at making grand promises about emission reduction targets way in the future, while not taking action consistent with meeting those targets. And the last time we got our hopes up from a new deal on climate, in Copenhagen in 2009, it was met with bitter disappointment, as governments could not find the political will to address the issue.

That said, there are glimmers of hope. This past September, we saw the largest march for climate action in history, with 400,000 in New York City and satellite marches around the world. Resistance to new fossil fuel infrastructure (like pipelines, LNG terminals, and coal ports) is making life difficult for fossil corporations. Divestment campaigns have popped up around the world. And the cost of renewable energy is now economical, even given the huge subsidies we provide to fossil fuel production and consumption.

To get on the right path, we need to overcome two things: the power and influence of fossil fuel companies, who have done a masterful job confusing the issue through denial campaigns, and getting their political allies into power; and the belief that collective action through our governments is detrimental to the economy.

This week’s historic accord between the US and China to reduce emissions is another good sign, and they join the European Union in pledging game-changing commitments ahead of Paris. Together, these three represent more than half of global emissions.

For Canada, this also means we must stop relying on what’s easy (digging up ever-more fossil fuel resources for export) and start rethinking “responsible resource development” as the strategic management of fossil fuel reserves in order to maximize shared prosperity, within the context of a carbon budget. The next federal election would be a great time to have this conversation.

So 2015 is shaping up to be a pivotal year, in Canada with a federal election, and for the world as a whole. People increasingly realize that climate change is not a distant possibility that might happen to polar bears 100 years on, but something that is happening now. Amid the gloom of the science on climate change lies the possibility for a tectonic shift in our economy and the politics of carbon. A bright green future is possible but we are going to have to work for it, together.

Marc Lee is a senior economist with the CCPA’s BC office. Follow Marc on Twitter @MarcLeeCCPA.

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PS. Hat tip to CCPA Monitor editor Stuart Trew, who pushed me to write this, and who contributed the title.

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