A recent research article didn’t generate anything terribly earth-shattering, but I wanted to write about some writing on it because it deals with a recurring theme on this blog. For context, I’ll start with the news release and article (article subs. req’d). In a nutshell,
Climate model projections show an Arctic-wide end-of-century temperature increase of +13∘ Celsius in late fall and +5∘ Celsius in late spring if the status quo continues and current emissions increase without a mitigation scenario. In contrast, the mean temperature projection would be +7∘ Celsius in late fall and +3∘ Celsius in late spring by the end of the century if a mitigation scenario to reduce emissions is followed, concludes the paper titled, “Future Arctic Climate Changes: Adaptation and Mitigation Timescales.”
Again, there is nothing terribly shocking there. If we do nothing, the Arctic will likely warm a whole lot more than if we implement mitigation policies.
But that paragraph could use some additional context. What do the greenhouse gas emissions scenarios look like to generate those varying warming projections? To get a little technical (stay with me), the authors compared two out of four of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs): RCP8.5 and RCP4.5. These pathways represent an additional 8.5 W/m^2 and +4.5 W/m^2 radiative forcing at the year 2100 relative to pre-industrial values.
But even though I’ve taken a graduate level radiation course and I’m using these same pathways in my own research, I don’t really know what +8.5 W/m^2 radiative forcing is, and neither do most people. It’s a number with units that is not intuitively obvious. This is where climate scientists underperform in communicating with the public and where I come in.
So instead of losing ourselves in the technical details, how can we understand what these two pathways represent? Qualitatively, RCP8.5 represents a scenario in which we do not enact GHG mitigation policies until after the year 2100. Economic growth and GHG emissions continue to grow throughout the rest of this century due to 4x 2000’s global energy use. The radiative forcing is induced by 1370 ppm CO2-eq (CO2 and other GHGs).
By comparison, RCP4.5 represents a scenario that stabilizes forcing at 4.5 W/m^2 without overshooting it and has 650 ppm CO2-eq by 2100 (583 ppm CO2; 2013 mean CO2 concentration: 397 ppm). Global energy use is just over 2x 2000 levels. RCP4.5 achieves relatively lower CO2 concentrations by steadily decreasing the amount of carbon per energy unit supplied from 2000 to 2050, then decreasing the carbon/energy ratio very rapidly between 2050 and 2075, then leveling off from 2075-2100. It does this via wider renewable energy deployment, but predominantly fossil fuel use with carbon capture and sequestration deployment.
In other words, RCP4.5 chiefly relies on slower CO2 concentration growth by assuming widespread and rapid deployment of technologies that do not exist today. This point is very important to understand.
In a write-up on this same research, Joe Romm concludes thusly (emphasis mine):
This study essentially writes off the possibility of humanity doing any better:
The RCP2.6 scenario requires a 70% reduction of emissions relative to present levels by 2050, a scenario that is highly unlikely in view of the current trajectory of emissions and the absence of progress toward mitigation measures. We refer to the RCP8.5 and RCP4.5 future scenarios as business-as-usual and mitigation.
But the fact is that RCP2.6 — which is about 421 ppm CO2 — is entirely feasible from both a technical and economic perspective. It is only the irrationality, myopia, and, it would seem, self-destructiveness of Homo sapiens that make it “highly unlikely.”
No, it’s not. RCP2.6 makes many more assumptions about technological capabilities and deployment than does RCP4.5. It does this more quickly than RCP4.5 by modeling declining carbon per energy unit between 2010 and 2025 (which hasn’t happened yet), then declining much more rapidly starting in 2025 (only 10 years away) until 2050, then slowing down in 2050 and again in 2075. But here is the kicker: it assumes negative carbon per energy unit after 2075! How does it do this? By assuming more carbon will be removed from the atmosphere than emitted into it starting in 2075 and continuing thereafter. Do we have carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies ready for rapid global deployment? No, there is to my knowledge only a couple of utility-scale projects currently operating and they haven’t achieved the level of capture and sequestration this pathway assumes.
In order for CCS to operate at the level RCP2.6 assumes, global investment in the technology would have to increase by many factors for years. Is there any discussion of this occurring in any government? Will we price carbon-based fuels without interference (i.e., an end to market manipulation by fossil fuel entities and governments)? No and these things aren’t likely to begin any time soon.
Simply put, RCP2.6 is a fantasy scenario [see update below]. Absent global economic collapse that dwarfs the Great Depression, CO2 emissions and concentrations will continue to increase as economies continue to rely on relatively cheap dirty fossil fuels with manipulated prices. At this point, I think RCP4.5 is to a lesser extent another fantasy scenario. That’s neither irrational nor myopic, but realistic based on historical climate policy and my own reading of where international climate policy is likely to exist in the next 35 years. We are currently on the RCP8.5 pathway. Researchers use RCP4.5 because it is illustratively different from RCP8.5. They think it is technically feasible simply because they understand the likely science ramifications of RCP8.5 and misunderstand the public’s desire for continued increasing quality of life that comes with fossil fuel use. Case in point: researchers have shown the difference between “worst-case” and “best-case” climate scenarios for 30+ years. Nobody enacted robust climate policy in response to these comparisons. To continue to do so moving forward is a waste of resources.
I wanted to share some updated data demonstrating my statement that RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are “fantasy scenarios”. Here are two plots I used in a related post in last 2012:
Figure 1. Historical (black dots) and projected (out to 2050 only) CO2 emissions from a Nature Climate Change article (subs. req’d). Bold colored lines (red, yellow, gray, and blue) represent IPCC AR5 RCP-related emission scenarios. Thick green dashed lines and thin green solid lines represent SRES emission scenarios used in IPCC AR4. Light blue dashed lines represent IS92 scenarios. Different generation scenarios are presented together for inter-report comparison purposes.
Figure 2. As in Figure 1 except projections shown to year 2100 and RCP scenarios highlighted.
Figures 1 and 2 show historical and projected annual CO2 emissions in Pg/year from 1980 until 2050 and 2100, respectively. Historical data end in 2011 because the paper was published in 2012. So there are two more year’s data available to us now. How do you think global CO2 emissions changed since 2011? Did they decrease, stay the same, or increase?
It’s more challenging than it should be to find similar graphics, but I found this update:
Figure 3. Historical (1990-2012; 2013 projection) global CO2 emissions in GtC/year (1 PgC = 1 GtC).
As Figure 3 shows, global CO2 emissions rose in 2012 compared to 2011, and emissions likely rose further in 2013 compared to 2012. It further shows that emission rates increased only by 1.0%/year in the 1990s and accelerated to 2.7%/year in the 2000s. While recent year-0ver-year increases aren’t at 2000 mean levels, they are at least twice that of 1990 levels. In other words, there has been no stabilization of CO2 emissions, let alone a decrease, as RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 assume.
A fair counterpoint can be made that RCP2.6 assumes a decline starting in 2020, while RCP4.5’s decline starts in 2040. Sure enough, Figure 1 and 2 demonstrate those assumptions. To that, I say Figure 1 and 2 also shows RCP2.6’s maximum annual emissions peak at 2010 levels. Emissions have already increased at 2%+/year since then historically. For argument sake, let’s say emissions will peak in 2020. Historical emissions will then be higher than RCP2.6 assumed, which would require even more CO2 removal to achieve <2C stabilization by 2100. More CO2 removal means more efficient and widespread deployment than RCP2.6 already assumes, which makes it less likely to occur.
RCP4.5 assumes peak annual emissions in 2040 of approximately 11 PgC/year. If annual growth rates continue near 2.1%, we’ll actually reach that level in 2018 – 22 years ahead of RCP4.5’s assumption. What emissions growth rate is required to hit 11 PgC/year in 2040? See the chart below:
Figure 4. Historical (1959-2012) and projected (2013-2040) global annual CO2 emissions using mean 2000’s emissions growth (blue) and calculated emissions required to achieve 11 GtC/year in 2040 (red). [Historical data: 2013 Global Carbon Project.]
Note that the RCP4.5 scenario has declining emissions growth rate between 2030 and 2040 while my computations uses constant growth rate assumption. Still, this calculation sheds some light on required changes to achieve RCP4.5 scenario assumptions. Figure 4 shows that if future emissions grow at constant rate of 2.1%/year (less than the mean 2000’s rate; more than the mean 1990’s rate), 2040 emissions will total >17 GtC/year (remember RCP4.5’s maximum of 11 GtC/year could be achieved as early as 2018). To max out at 11 GtC/year, emissions would either have to grow at no more than 0.475%/year – less than half the 1990’s mean value – or grow more quickly in the near future, stabilize quickly, and decrease every year following 2030.
RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 demand that countries begin to change their entire energy production fleet from fossil fuels to renewables – either immediately (RCP2.6) or within the next 10-15 years (RCP4.5). What costs are associated with this conversion? How many people without energy access today are denied energy access in the future? That is something that Romm doesn’t address in his talking point that “the fact is that RCP2.6 — which is about 421 ppm CO2 — is entirely feasible from both a technical and economic perspective.” 421 ppm CO2 means no higher concentration than what will occur by 2025.
A permanent emissions decline has obviously never happened historically. What basis allows for the assumption that it will occur starting in 2030? More sweeping and effective policies than have ever been implemented are required. The point to this exercise is to demonstrate that we can play games with numbers all day, but the real world is quite different from economic and climate models as well as Excel spreadsheets. Unless and until we see real world evidence that emissions stabilization occurs, I see little reason to discuss what RCP2.6 or RCP4.5 shows beyond what “could be” as a rhetorical exercise.