Millions of people living in cities around the world already feel the impacts of climate change: heat waves, flooded streets, landslides and storms. All of these affect important infrastructure such as transportation and water supplies, ports and commerce, public health and people’s daily lives. And it is cities that are at the forefront of the response.
Experts from the Earth Institute attending the Paris climate summit are presenting a fresh report today on what’s at stake for the world’s growing urban population, and what many cities are doing to adapt. “Climate Change and Cities” is the Second Assessment Report of the Urban Climate Change Research Network, a consortium of 600 researchers from around the world based at the Center for Climate Systems Research, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia.
“Cities and their citizens already have begun to experience the effects of climate change. Understanding and anticipating these changes will help cities prepare for a more sustainable future,” the report says. “This means making cities more resilient to climate-related disasters and managing long-term climate risks in ways that protect people and encourage prosperity. It also means improving cities’ abilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The task is daunting: Each city has its own resources, needs and political dynamics. And the challenges are different for rich and poor nations. For instance, the report notes, “Urban transport emissions are growing at 2 to 3 percent annually. The majority of emissions from urban transport is from higher-income countries. In contrast, 90 percent of the growth in emissions is from transport systems in lower-income countries.”
Tackling the problems involves work on many fronts, from urban planning to infrastructure, housing and hospitals to transit and waste removal. The problems are especially acute for coastal cities: The report projects that more than half of the global urban population will live in coastal zones by the middle of this century. Storm surges, erosion and salt water intrusion are already a problem in many places. “[S]ea level rise and climate change will likely exacerbate these hazards,” the report says. It estimates annual losses from flooding along coastlines could amount to $71 billion by 2100.
But while national leaders debate what to do about climate change, city officials around the world cannot afford to wait, and are already taking action. The report includes more than 100 case studies of what cities are doing to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The online “Case Study Docking Station” is meant to spread information about how cities are coping and offer models other cities can emulate. The report emphasizes the importance of integrating mitigation and adaptation strategies.
For instance, New York is well on the way to reaching a goal of planting a million trees by 2017 (900,000 as of August 2014, the report says). The project serves to both mitigate and adapt to climate changes. Among other benefits, the trees absorb CO2, helping to curb greenhouse gases; and by helping to lower air temperature in summer, they reduce the amount of energy used for cooling. They also improve air quality and reduce stormwater runoff.
The tree planting is one of more than 100 initiatives that are part of PlaNYC 2030, a broad strategy to support the long-term sustainability of the city. Following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, New York also has adopted an aggressive strategy to build a more resilient shoreline, by upgrading building codes, protecting important infrastructure such as subways and power systems, raising bulkheads and building seawalls, and restoring wetlands and beach dunes.
A more dramatic case study comes from South Korea, where a whole new city is being built with sustainability in mind. New Songdo City, a $35 billion development eventually projected to have 65,000 residents and a workforce of 300,000, incorporates the highest concentration of LEED-certified buildings in the world. Forty percent of the city will be green space. It will incorporate extensive public transit, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design and a cutting-edge waste collection that sends garbage out through a pneumatic system (in other words: no garbage trucks).
The city “aims to generate efficient energy use through ‘ubiquitous’ technology that uses the internet to link hardware and software to monitoring systems to generate efficient resource consumption. Consequently, Songdo consumes 40 percent less energy per capita than cities of similar scale,” says the Songdo case study.
The “Climate Change and Cities” report being released Friday is an executive summary: The full report is still being prepared. But it offers some key findings regarding disaster preparation; urban planning and design; public health, water and waste systems; transportation and energy systems; financing solutions and urban governance; protecting urban ecology; and insuring equitable approaches that encompass the needs of poor and low-income residents and neighborhoods.
The report outlines five “pathways to urban transformation”:
- Disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation are the cornerstones of resilient cities.
- Actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing resilience are a win-win.
- Risk assessments and climate action plans co-generated with the full range of stakeholders and scientists are most effective.
- Needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens should be addressed in climate change planning and action.
- Advancing city creditworthiness, developing robust city institutions, and participating in city networks enable climate action.
Cynthia Rosenzweig, an adjunct senior research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research and the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is the report’s lead author. To see the report and find out more, visit the Urban Climate Change Research Network.
Scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Institute will present important findings at the American Geophysical Union fall 2015 meeting, Dec. 14-18 in San Francisco–the world’s largest gathering of earth and space scientists. Unless otherwise noted, presenters are at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Abstracts are in the AGU meeting program. Reporters may contact scientists directly. More info: Senior science editor Kevin Krajick, email@example.com 917-361-7766.
North American Diamonds: What Is Their Origin? Yaakov Weiss
In the 1990s, rich diamond mines were discovered in the tundra of Canada’s Northwest Territories. A continent-wide search continues for more. Weiss has studied tiny fluid inclusions within some of the Canadian diamonds, which shed light on the conditions under which they formed. The results could apply to other parts of North America, and the world.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. V11C-3072
Story/photo essay on North American diamonds and Weiss’s work
Humidity May Magnify Killer Heat
Ethan Coffel & Radley Horton, Center for Climate Systems Research
Heat is the world’s leading weather-related killer, but most future projections leave out a huge magnifier: the added effects of humidity. Using new global projections of “wet bulb” temperature–combined heat/humidity—the scientists suggest that by mid-century, regions populated by hundreds of millions could see potentially fatal conditions never encountered by modern people. The heat would affect not just health, but infrastructure, power generation and economies. Large areas could become essentially uninhabitable. The team looks specifically at the U.S. East Coast, India, West Africa and eastern China.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. GC11A-1016
PRESS CONFERENCE: Monday, Dec. 14, 5pm: Impacts of Heat Stress on Densely Populated Areas in the 21st Century. With Coffel, Horton and Noah Diffenbaugh (Stanford University).
Restoring Arctic Sea Ice Stephanie Pfirman
The ongoing loss of Arctic sea ice is a well-known story—but that is not the end of the story, say Pfirman and colleagues. They do a thought experiment asking what it would take to bring the ice back. The next few generations will inevitably see ice-free summers, but aggressive action against climate change could start restoration by maybe 2100, with reductions in greenhouse gases, large-scale carbon sequestration and geoengineering to cool the atmosphere. Sea ice provides worldwide benefits—reflecting heat back into space, buttressing the Greenland ice sheet, and possibly stabilizing weather patterns–so, the political constituency for restoring the ice may extend to cities and nations across the globe.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. GC11G-1087
Article on ‘The Last Sea Ice Refuge’
Possible Extraterrestrial Impact off East Africa Dallas Abbott
Geologist Dallas Abbott and her colleagues are investigating whether an asteroid or comet struck the Indian Ocean in human time, producing a megatsunami that struck Africa. Up to now, the main evidence has been the presence of unusual gigantic dunes on Madagascar; but skeptics say these could have been formed in other ways. Abbott presents new geochemical evidence that the dunes indeed were formed by a tsunami origin; she expects to report a date for the event.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. NH11A-1883
2006 New York Times article on Abbott’s work
Battling Vector-Borne Diseases from Space
Pietro Ceccato, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI)
Ceccato explores a new NASA initiative to develop remote-sensing tools to help predict outbreaks of climate-sensitive African diseases including malaria, trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis. Increasingly sophisticated monitoring and analyses of temperature, vegetation, water bodies and flooding are now making it practical to make areas suffering from these diseases more resilient. Examples from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Malawi.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. GC11H-1116
Ceccato explains in a 1-minute podcast
Why Are Scientists Holding Back on Sea Level Projections?
James Hansen, Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions
Hansen coauthored a widely discussed paper this year that projects sea levels could surge up to 10 feet this century. He will discuss what he sees as the dangers of scientists’ reluctance to seriously consider such bold assertions. (He has based his estimates in part on accumulating evidence that the great ice sheets are undergoing the start of an accelerating collapse—the elephant in the room left out of many other projections.)
Monday, Dec. 14, 1:40-2:00pm, 102 Moscone South. U13A-01
Hansen’s warning on rapid sea-level rise
New Evidence of Caribbean Tsunami Potential Belle Philibosian
Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, researchers considered whether other Caribbean areas might generate earthquakes that could threaten the coasts of the Americas with tsunamis. Contrary to previous findings, Philibosian presents new evidence that the outermost islands might present such a threat. Studies of corals in the lesser Antilles show the islands have subsided during the 20th century–motion that suggests strain building on the seabed that could lift a tsunami when released. By contrast, recent GPS measurements suggest little motion—but GPS data present only part of the picture, and go back only about 10 years.
Monday, Dec. 14, 2:55-3:10pm, 104 Moscone South. T13F-06
Did Greenland Melt to Bedrock? Joerg Schaefer
Despite evidence of big climate swings in the last 2.5 million years, many scientists think the Greenland ice sheet has never completely melted. Schaefer and his colleagues say there is new evidence, in the bedrock below the deepest ice, that the sheet disappeared for at least 10,000 years. Using state-of the art techniques to analyze samples drilled out in the 1990s, they have found cosmogenic isotopes indicating exposure to open air. This suggests the ice sheet may be more unstable than many think.
Monday, Dec. 14, 5:00-5:15pm, 3005 Moscone West. GC14C-05
Undersea Volcanoes, Ice Sheets and Sea Level Wallace Broecker
This year, two controversial papers looked at how undersea volcanoes, sea levels, and volcanoes and ice sheets on land may interact to produce cyclic seesaw shifts in earth’s climate. Even within Lamont, the hypothesis is debated by separate groups. Broecker—one of the founders of modern climate science–synthesizes the evidence and discusses his own ideas. Part of a larger session on the issue.
Tuesday, Dec. 15, 5:45-6pm, 102 Moscone South. V24-08
Paper linking climate to seafloor processes
Paper de-linking climate from seafloor processes
RELATED: Broecker presents results of Iceland’s CarbFix project to mineralize CO2 underground. Thurs., Dec. 17, 8am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. H41C-1315
The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Party
Traditionally on Tuesday night, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences gather staff, and alumni now at other institutions worldwide. Journalists covering AGU are welcome—a chance to make friends, hear informally about new work and have fun.
Tuesday Dec 15, 6:30pm-8:30pm (or beyond), San Francisco Marriott Union Square, 480 Sutter Street, Union Square Ballroom
Arctic Pollutants on Thin Ice Robert Newton
Winter ice isn’t disappearing from the Arctic; it’s just getting thinner, and that makes it more mobile than the multiyear ice that used to dominate many regions. Because currents now push ice faster and farther, this is increasing the flow of pollutants, nutrients and microorganisms across national boundaries. Newton examines the political and environmental implications of transnational sea-ice export and import. Materials that might be transported more efficiently include nickel and mercury from smelting plants in Siberia, and seed populations of microbes that could establish themselves in unfamiliar regions.
Wednesday, Dec. 16, 9:45-10am, 103 Moscone South. PA31D-08
Drones over Polar Seas Christopher Zappa *
Unmanned aerial vehicles are being used for a widening range of scientific applications. Zappa covers their first use to study the intricacies of Arctic sea ice and water, starting with a pilot project off Norway’s Svalbard archipelago this past summer. Drone imagery is providing otherwise unavailable close-up views of ice albedo, roughness, air-sea-ice fluxes and other parameters. Drone flights are not only producing spectacular new images, but dropping tiny instruments into the icepack that report back to base. (*Zappa is currently on an Antarctic research vessel, deploying instruments. Another session member will probably give his talk, but he may be contacted by email.)
Thursday, Dec. 17, 9:30-9:45am, 302 Moscone South. NH41E-07
Climate Central story on pilot project
Lava Lakes: Windows into Earth’s Fiery Insides Einat Lev
Persistently open, roiling lakes of lava are rare; only about a half dozen are currently known. Lev and colleagues are studying them in three volcanic craters: Hawaii’s Kilauea, Antarctica’s Mount Erebus, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Nyiragongo. Because they can be observed visually (although at some risk to researchers), they offer direct windows into the magmatic processes that drive volcanic eruptions, rifting and the formation of crust. Lev has been documenting Kilauea’s Halemaumau crater in particular, and will discuss her latest findings, with moving images from the crater.
Friday, Dec. 18, 8am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. V51D-3060
Story, slideshow & video on Lev’s work
Antarctic Warming: Natural, Not Human-Caused? Karen Smith
West Antarctica, especially the rapidly warming Antarctic Peninsula, has been held up as a poster child for human-driven climate change. Here, Smith makes what may be a controversial case that this warming is actually the result of natural multi-decadal-scale cycles of sea-surface temperatures and sea ice—not human-induced global warming. She bases her conclusions on examinations of 40 climate models going back to the 1970s.
Friday, Dec. 18, 9:28-9:40am, 3008 Moscone West. A51V-07
Discovering Giant Landslides Using Seismology Colin Stark
Stark and colleagues have shown that massive landslides can be detected in real time by the seismic waves they produce. This opens a new field of study, since many slides occur in remote areas where they otherwise might not detected in a timely way, if at all. Stark will discuss his team’s discovery of multi-kilometer slides across the world from Tibet to the Yukon, some of which have previously never been reported. The technique is already yielding insights into the physics of giant landslides, and was applied to rescue operations after the recent Nepal earthquake.
Friday Dec 18, 9:45-10:00am, 2005 Moscone West. EP51D-08
Article on the new method Massive slide detected in Alaska
NASA images of the latest slide
An App That Dives Deep Into Sea Level Margie Turrin
Turrin demos a new app that offers viewers a sophisticated but accessible look at sea-level rise and its causes around the world. The question-driven interactive app offers multilayered maps, text and audio that address the roles of ice, atmosphere and movements of land. Part of a session on “Amazing Games and Superb Simulations for Science Education.”
Friday, Dec. 18, 2:25-2:40pm, 303 Moscone South. ED53F-04
By Abhijit Sharan
“Climate Change has taken on political dimensions…that’s odd because I don’t see people choosing sides over E=mc2 or other fundamental facts of science!” – Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist
This December, more than 40,000 delegates from over a 150 countries will meet in Paris for the much awaited 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), the most important United Nations climate change conference since 1997’s famed but ultimately failed Kyoto Protocol was signed. This year, delegates will meet to discuss steps to be taken after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2020, and to consider a possible new agreement.
India, the second largest country in the world and the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses after the United States and China, will be among them, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi joining U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other world leaders at the summit.
India is blessed with varied and abundant natural resources, tapped and untapped, upon which a major portion of its economy is based, including agriculture for food and textiles, forestry and logging and mining. From the Himalayan and other mountainous regions, to the major coastline, to the Thar Desert or the many wetlands, islands, and the intricate riverine system running all across the country, India’s economic growth cannot be imagined without its natural resources.
As a nation still in its developing phase, with 1.25 billion citizens and counting, India can’t afford to forego even part of its industrial progress. But we also cannot go on developing without taking into account the emissions produced by industries that are major contributors to global warming.
It has been argued that because current climate concerns are the result of the unabated emissions of developed countries—starting when the Industrial Revolution began more than 200 years ago—that it is those countries who must take the lead in curbing emissions. To put things in perspective, in spite of its large population, only 6-7 percent of global emissions are attributed to India, while India’s historical responsibility for global warming has been calculated to be less than 3 percent. The corresponding numbers for the other two major emitters, China and the U.S., are 3 to 10 times higher.
Nevertheless, given what will happen if the worsening effects of ongoing climate change are not contained, a cooperative arrangement to minimize global emissions from all players is necessary for our own good.
Although previous COP meetings have largely been missed opportunities to reach a consensus and act accordingly to cut global emissions by all countries, the Paris conference is taking an approach that is both more ambitious and more realistic than prior summits, as it has asked all the participating countries to submit their own plans on cutting their emissions.
These nation-determined plans (also called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs), though not legally binding, do give an indication of how serious each country is in efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Recognizing the disruptions climate change will cause, India has demonstrated its seriousness on climate change issues by voluntarily announcing its intention to cut the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20-25 percent over 2005 levels by 2020. The country is already making good progress on these goals, reporting a reduction of 12 percent of its emissions intensity of GDP between 2005 and 2010. The 2014 Emission Gap Report by the United Nations Environment Programme has recognized India as one of the few countries that are achieving their voluntary reduction goals.
This doesn’t mean that the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are without problems. One is credibility: Some might ask, and rightly so, how trustworthy emissions reduction reports really are. Recent controversies such as Volkswagen’s alleged software tampering to pass pollution tests in the lab even as its cars emit more on the road are a matter of grave concern, as are reports that China has been emitting 17 percent more than it has been reporting.
More concerning is recent research suggesting that even if nations report their emissions accurately, the current Intended Nationally Determined Contributions goals won’t be enough to cap the average global temperature rise under the scientifically agreed 2 degrees Celsius rise from the pre-industrialized level by the end of this century. An assessment by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre shows that the commitments submitted by 155 countries, which are responsible for around 90 percent of global emissions, would still allow the average global temperature to increase by almost 3 degrees C, even if followed religiously by every single country.
Though these concerns must be addressed at this conference and beyond, India’s commitments do show that the country is serious about emissions, as it is one of the countries most vulnerable to the brutal wrath of climate change.
Almost 50 per cent of the world’s population resides in coastal areas. Sea level rise due to climate change will submerge many of these areas, hitting people in the developing world hardest. India has a coastline of over 7,500 km. A recent report by Climate Central shows that nearly 55 million Indians residing on these coasts are under direct threat from sea level rise. The recent floods in southern India, more frequent weather extremes, delayed seasons—all point to a changing climate. If nothing is done to cap anthropogenic emissions, the worst is yet to come, and in all probability will come sooner than expected.
The plans of action outlined in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions—including the development and promotion of clean and efficient energy systems, making industries more energy efficient, creating climate resilient urban centers and green transportation systems, among others—are ambitious but achievable. They face challenges not only in the realm of governance and execution challenges, but also from lack of proper financing mechanisms for such mega-scale projects.
An efficient Clean Development Mechanism could benefit countries like India in many respects when it comes to emissions reductions. The Clean Development Mechanism, provisioned by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change under the Kyoto Protocol, lets industries incentivize their emissions reductions by generating Certified Emission Reduction units, which can be further traded in various emissions trading schemes such as the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the largest carbon market in the world. This allows the industrialized countries to buy Certified Emission Reduction units and invest in emission reductions in any country where it is the cheapest.
For a developing country like India, where the costs of production are considerably lower than other places, such mechanisms could not only help other countries meet their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, but also generate funds for India to meet its own emission targets.
Many observers raised concerns when Clean Development Mechanisms were first started in 2001, including governments’ reluctance to guarantee its future existence and the low cost of carbon along with many other technical, socio-economic and financial issues. These concerns must be addressed seriously at the upcoming Paris talks in order to not defeat the overall purpose of the mechanism.
In the endeavour to effectively deal with climate change, all nations must actively engage in emissions reductions. At the same time, international cooperation and recognition of challenges and constraints faced by the developing world must also be one of the outcomes of the Paris meetings.
Countries like India do need their carbon space for development and poverty alleviation. Even so, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions India has put forward are without doubt aggressive given India’s per capita energy consumption, which already is well below the global average. India, by all means, is ready to play an important role in these multilateral deliberations and future actions to save humankind.
This commentary was also published on the Project Syndicate website.
By Jeffrey D. Sachs, Guido Schmidt-Traub and Jim Williams
In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, more than 150 governments submitted plans to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. Many observers are asking whether these reductions are deep enough. But there is an even more important question: Will the chosen path to 2030 provide the basis for ending greenhouse-gas emissions later in the century?
According to the scientific consensus, climate stabilization requires full decarbonization of our energy systems and zero net greenhouse-gas emissions by around 2070. The G-7 has recognized that decarbonization—the only safe haven from disastrous climate change—is the ultimate goal this century. And many heads of state from the G-20 and other countries have publicly declared their intention to pursue this path.
Yet the countries at COP21 are not yet negotiating decarbonization. They are negotiating much more modest steps, to 2025 or 2030, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The United States’ contribution, for example, commits the U.S. to reduce CO2 emissions by 26-28 percent, relative to a 2005 baseline, by 2025.
Though the fact that more than 150 intended contributions have been submitted represents an important achievement of the international climate negotiations, most pundits are asking whether the sum of these commitments is enough to keep global warming below the agreed limit of 2º Celsius (3.6º Fahrenheit). They are debating, for example, whether the contributions add up to a 25 percent or 30 percent reduction by 2030, and whether we need a 25 percent, 30 percent or 40 percent reduction by then to be on track.
But the most important issue is whether countries will achieve their 2030 targets in a way that helps them to get to zero emissions by 2070 (full decarbonization). If they merely pursue measures aimed at reducing emissions in the short term, they risk locking their economies into high levels of emissions after 2030. The critical issue, in short, is not 2030, but what happens afterward.
There are reasons to worry. There are two paths to 2030. We might call the first path “deep decarbonization,” meaning steps to 2030 that prepare the way for much deeper steps after that. The second path could be called the way of “low-hanging fruit”—easy ways to reduce emissions modestly, quickly and at relatively low cost. The first path might offer little low-hanging fruit; indeed, the low-hanging fruit can become a distraction or worse.
Here is the reason for worry. The simplest way to reduce emissions to 2030 is by converting coal-fired power plants to gas-fired power plants. The former emit about 1,000 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour; the latter emit around half of that. During the coming 15 years, it would not be hard to build new gas-fired plants to replace today’s coal plants. Another low-hanging fruit is great gains in the fuel efficiency of internal combustion engines, taking automobile mileage from, say, 35 miles per gallon in the U.S. to 55 miles per gallon by 2025.
The problem is that gas-fired power plants and more efficient internal-combustion vehicles are not nearly enough to get to zero net emissions by 2070. We need to get to around 50 grams per kilowatt-hour by 2050, not 500 grams per kilowatt-hour. We need to get to zero-emission vehicles, not more efficient gas-burning vehicles, especially given that the number of vehicles worldwide could easily double by mid-century.
Deep decarbonization requires not natural gas and fuel-efficient vehicles, but zero-carbon electricity and electric vehicles charged on the zero-carbon electricity grid. This more profound transformation, unlike the low-hanging fruit eyed today by many politicians, offers the only path to climate safety (that is, staying below the 2º C limit). By pursuing coal to gas, or more efficient gas-burning vehicles, we risk putting ourselves into a high-carbon trap.
The figure above illustrates the conundrum. The low-hanging-fruit pathway (red) achieves a steep reduction by 2030. It probably does so at lower cost than the deep-decarbonization pathway (green), because the conversion to zero-carbon electricity (for example, wind and solar power) and to electric vehicles might be more costly than a simple patch-up of our current technologies. The problem is that the low-hanging-fruit pathway will achieve fewer reductions after 2030. It will lead into a dead end. Only the deep-decarbonization pathway gets the economy to the necessary stage of decarbonization by 2050 and to zero net emissions by 2070.
The allure of the short-term fix is very powerful, especially to politicians watching the election cycle. Yet it is a mirage. In order for policymakers to understand what’s really at stake in decarbonization, and therefore what they should do today to avoid dead-end gimmicks and facile solutions, all governments should prepare commitments and plans not only to 2030 but also at least to 2050. This is the main message of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, which has mobilized research teams in 16 of the largest greenhouse-gas emitting countries to prepare national Deep Decarbonization Pathways to mid-century.
The project shows that deep decarbonization is technically feasible and affordable, and it has identified pathways to 2050 that avoid the traps and temptations of low-hanging fruit and put the major economies on track to full decarbonization by around 2070. The pathways all rely on three pillars: major advances in energy efficiency, using smart materials and smart (information-based) systems; zero-carbon electricity, drawing upon each country’s best options, such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage; and fuel-switching from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles and other shifts to electrification or advanced biofuels.
A key question for Paris, therefore, is not whether governments achieve 25 percent or 30 percent reductions by 2030, but how they intend to do it. For that, the Paris agreement should stipulate that every government will submit not only an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution for 2030, but also a non-binding Deep Decarbonization Pathway to 2050. The U.S. and China have already signaled their interest in this approach. In this way, the world can set a course toward decarbonization—and head off the climate catastrophe that awaits us if we don’t.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is professor of sustainable development, professor of health policy and management, and director of the Earth Institute. He is also special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on the Millennium Development Goals. Guido Schmidt-Traub is executive director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Jim Williams is director of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.
By Isabela Messias and Kathy Zhang
Wondering what’s going on in Paris? And why you should care? A team of young people working on climate issues from many perspectives—policy, science, media, activism—have created Climate Countdown, a video web series that follows the people who are crafting paths toward a meaningful climate agreement at the Paris climate summit. At the heart of it, Climate Countdown is director Kaia Rose’s personal journey to find out what people are actually doing to tackle the climate crisis and how we, as ordinary citizens, can push for solutions.
Over the course of 2015, the Climate Countdown team set out to make the acronym-laden process of climate change negotiations digestible, conversational and shareable. The episodes range from 8-12 minutes long and cover such topics as COP21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties, as the UN talks are known), the INDCs (the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”—what countries are proposing to do), implementation, carbon pricing, and China.
Kaia Rose and Eric Mann, executive producer and director of photography, are currently in Paris for the UN climate conference. Visit climatecountdown.org to learn more about the web series and connect on @ClimatCountdown for live updates from Paris.
To further understand the challenges and opportunities in climate communications, the Sustainability Media Lab with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Youth Initiative organized the first film screening of Climate Countdown at Columbia on Nov. 15, featuring two panel discussions on the web series and climate media at large.
The event’s first panel focused on the Paris negotiations and the making of the Climate Coutndown series. “It feels like Paris is going to be turning the corner,” said Rose. Panelists discussed reasons for optimism, including the bottom-up approach of countries submitting their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and the recent China-U.S. joint announcement on climate change. The panelists underscored the importance of public awareness and an active civil society in pushing politicians and holding them accountable to the carbon reduction pledges they present in Paris.
The event also featured a panel on “The state of climate change and COP21 media.” Climate communications professionals highlighted the importance of modifying the vocabulary, framing, and messenger to fit the context. Panelists discussed the extreme politicization of climate change in the U.S. and strategies to divorce climate action from political preference. You can listen to that conversation here, on YouTube.
Climate Countdown aims to equip the public with the knowledge, vocabulary, and tools to have a voice in building political will to avoid a global climate crisis. If you would like to join this endeavor, contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Isabela Messias is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and the NY focal point for SDSN Youth, an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network working to engage youth globally in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Kathy Zhang is the communications associate at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the founder of the Sustainability Media Lab, a Columbia student initiative working to make sustainable development more accessible, relevant, and compelling across all media.
Four students in the Masters in Development Practice program at the University of Waterloo in Canada have traveled to Paris for the climate summit to represent the Republic of Kiribati. The small island nation is one of several threatened by sea level rise, one of the most immediate impacts of climate change.
The four are among students from 28 masters in development practice programs, including the Earth Institute’s Masters in Public Administration-Development Practice at Columbia, who are participating in various ways at the climate talks in Paris.
As official delegates of the island republic, Laura Maxwell, Vidya Nair, Rija Rasul and Kadra Rayale are conscious of what these negotiations could mean to nations like Kiribati.
“This is not only an environmental crisis, but also puts at stake the right to develop sustainably for those most vulnerable to climate change but the least responsible” says Nair.
“The decisions that are made at this summit will shape the future of small island developing states across the globe. To take part in these negotiations will mean that we had a small hand in assuring that nations like Kiribati are viewed as key players in our shared goal of mitigating the effects of climate change” says Rayal.
Maxwell, Nair, Rasul and Rayale have diverse interests in ecology, health, good governance and migration respectively, and are interested on the impacts of climate change in these four realms with respect to small island developing states.
“Fostering youth participation and engagement in the development and sustainability discourse is crucial for the future of the planet,” says Professor Simron Singh, the MDP program director at Waterloo. “The youth are not only important stakeholders of the future, but also a major force of change as they bring in new insights and perspectives.”
The Paris talks—called the 21st Conference of the Parties or COP21—is the first major international summit since the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by the UN this past September. The students are concerned how the climate negotiations would advance the discourse concerning the Sustainable Development Goals. Through interactions with state delegates, NGOs and members of industry, they hope to assist in creating a greater international presence for the Republic of Kiribati.
During their time at these negotiations, they will help raise awareness on the impacts of climate change for small island nations by updating a live blog of their daily meetings attended with the Kiribati delegation as well as various side events being held in Paris. They will also be posting on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Upon return from the summit, they will combine experience and knowledge from their respective fields to produce a collaborative report integrating environmental, migration, health and governance systems.
We were supposed to sample the regular LTER stations by Zodiac yesterday, but this was the view of Arthur Harbor as of yesterday evening:
No possible way to get a zodiac through all that. We’ll have to wait until the wind comes up (but not too much…) and blows it out. In lieu of our regular sampling routine we made another visit to our ice station. The ice station has been essential this year, and we feel truly lucky to have it. We’ve made only three forays by zodiac to the regular sampling stations, but we’ve made it to the ice station six times. Originally we only planned to visit once or twice.
Scientifically this has the potential to be a real coup. We’ve managed to observe the onset of the spring bloom underneath the ice, in comparison with the delayed onset in open water, and a transition of the under-ice phytoplankton population from potentially mixotrophic cryptophytes to phototrophic diatoms. Today we observed the plot thicken further still. We knew that something was different because our filters were clogging much faster than usual, but we didn’t know what until we got back to the lab.
When we visited the ice station a week ago the phytoplankton community was largely composed of centric diatoms like these:
I spent quite a while on the microscope yesterday evening and couldn’t find a single centric diatom. Or rather I couldn’t find a single live centric diatom. Here’s a typical view from a water sample taken below the ice yesterday.
The large blob in the center of the image is, I’m willing to bet, the remains of one of these diatoms. You can see a stream of cytoplasm trailing off to the right, and the bright area is what remains of the nucleus (the stain used to make the image fluoresces when bound to DNA). They’re difficult to make out in this image, but the stream and the remainder of the cell are heavily colonized by bacteria. While all the centric diatoms died off a number of chain-forming pennate diatoms remained, like the Chaetoceros to the left in this image. So there was some kind of selective mortality. At this stage we have no way of determining the cause, but my guess is a viral attack – the algal equivalent of a flu epidemic. Phytoplankon viruses haven’t received a lot of study as of yet, in large part because of the difficulty in studying them and the complexity of phytoplankton ecology, but they probably play a major role in phytoplankton population dynamics, and by proxy the marine carbon cycle.
Later today we’ll have a sense of how much carbon the bacterial population is taking up as a result of this early collapse of the phytoplankton bloom (how much bacterial production is occurring). My guess is it will be up quite a bit from the last time that we sampled. Phytoplankton are the primary source of food for marine bacteria, and aged or infirm phytoplankton are quickly colonized by marine bacteria that specialize in scavenging these cells. Cell lysis is the final step in this process, and the high quality biomass inside phytoplankton cells can fuel a lot of bacterial production. Bacterial abundance is up and it was likely bacteria, and all the goopy cytoplasm from lysed diatoms, that clogged our filters yesterday.
Macroscopically it was an exciting sampling day as well. The southern elephant seals seem to be abundant this year. No one knows if the numbers are really up, or if they’ve arrived a little earlier than usual, or if they’re just being more sociable than normal, but they’re all over the ice and the station. Usually they don’t take much notice of people, but we attracted the attention of a small (fortunately) one yesterday. On land elephant seals move in 10 m lurching “sprints” with very long rest periods; not the most graceful creatures out of the water. We could see this one making a beeline towards us from a long way off, and had plenty of time to ponder what to do if it tried to join our sampling operation. As it got closer we were relieved to see that it wasn’t a mature bull (which get territorial and can top out at well over 3 tons). We made a line of ski poles and snowshoes, which was enough to deflect its course around us.
Shortly after the elephant seal departed we were joined by the juvenile crabeater seal pictured below, the first of that species that I’ve seen this season (thanks to the birders for clarifying that this was a crabeater and not a leopard seal – despite the predation of the latter on the former the two species are closely related and difficult to tell apart).
If you like pictures of Adélie penguins, and really, who doesn’t, Palmer Station’s seasonal penguin cam is now operational. Check it out to view all the stages in the penguin life cycle in all their glory…
Whenever the focus is on climate change, as it is at this month’s Paris climate conference, tough questions are asked concerning the costs of cutting carbon emissions, the feasibility of transitioning to renewable energy, and whether it’s already too late to do anything about climate change. We posed these questions to Laura Segafredo, manager for the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. The decarbonization project comprises energy research teams from 16 of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitting countries that are developing concrete strategies to reduce emissions in their countries. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project is an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
- Will the actions we take today be enough to forestall the direst impacts of climate change? Or is it too little too late?
There is still time and room for limiting climate change within the 2˚C limit that scientists consider relatively safe, and that countries endorsed in Copenhagen and Cancun. But clearly the window is closing quickly. I think that the most important message is that we need to start really, really soon, putting the world on a trajectory of stabilizing and reducing emissions. The temperature change has a direct relationship with the cumulative amount of emissions that are in the atmosphere, so the more we keep emitting at the pace that we are emitting today, the more steeply we will have to go on a downward trajectory and the more expensive it will be.
Today we are already experiencing an average change in global temperature of .8˚. With the cumulative amount of emissions that we are going to emit into the atmosphere over the next years, we will easily reach 1.5˚ without even trying to change that trajectory.
Two degrees might still be doable, but it requires significant political will and fast action. And even 2˚ is a significant amount of warming for the planet, and will have consequences in terms of sea level rise, ecosystem changes, possible extinctions of species, displacements of people, diseases, agriculture productivity changes, health related effects and more. But if we can contain global warming within those 2˚, we can manage those effects. I think that’s really the message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports— that’s why the 2˚ limit was chosen, in a sense. It’s a level of warming where we can manage the risks and the consequences. Anything beyond that would be much, much worse.
- Will taking action make our lives better or safer, or will it only make a difference to future generations?
It will make our lives better and safer for sure. For example, let’s think about what it means to replace a coal power plant with a cleaner form of energy like wind or solar. People that live around the coal power plant are going to have a lot less air pollution, which means less asthma for children, and less time wasted because of chronic or acute diseases. In developing countries, you’re talking about potentially millions of lives saved by replacing dirty fossil fuel based power generation with clean energy.
It will also have important consequences for agricultural productivity. There’s a big risk that with the concentration of carbon and other gases in the atmosphere, agricultural yields will be reduced, so preventing that means more food for everyone.
And then think about cities. If you didn’t have all that pollution from cars, we could live in cities that are less noisy, where the air’s much better, and have potentially better transportation. We could live in better buildings where appliances are more efficient. And investing in energy efficiency would basically leave more money in our pockets. So there are a lot of benefits that we can reap almost immediately, and that’s without even considering the biggest benefit—leaving a planet in decent condition for future generations.
- How will measures to cut carbon emissions affect my life in terms of cost?
To build a climate resilient economy, we need to incorporate the three pillars of energy system transformation that we focus on in all the deep decarbonization pathways. Number one is improving energy efficiency in every part of the economy—buildings, what we use inside buildings, appliances, industrial processes, cars…everything you can think of can perform the same service, but using less energy. What that means is that you will have a slight increase in the price in the form of a small investment up front, like insulating your windows or buying a more efficient car, but you will end up saving a lot more money over the life of the equipment in terms of decreased energy costs.
The second pillar is making electricity, the power sector, carbon-free by replacing dirty power generation with clean power sources. That’s clearly going to cost a little money, but those costs are coming down so quickly. In fact there are already a lot of clean technologies that are at cost parity with fossil fuels— for example, onshore wind is already as competitive as gas—and those costs are only coming down in the future. We can also expect that there are going to be newer technologies. But in any event, the fact that we’re going to use less power because of the first pillar should actually make it a wash in terms of cost.
The Australian deep decarbonization teams have estimated that even with the increased costs of cleaner cars, and more efficient equipment for the home, etc., when the power system transitions to where it’s zero carbon, you still have savings on your energy bills compared to the previous situation.
The third pillar that we think about are clean fuels, essentially zero-carbon fuels. So we either need to electrify everything— like cars and heating, once the power sector is free of carbon—or have low-carbon fuels to power things that cannot be electrified, such as airplanes or big trucks. But once you have efficiency, these types of equipment are also more efficient, and you should be spending less money on energy.
Saving money depends on the three pillars together, thinking about all this as a whole system.
- Given that renewable sources provide only a small percentage of our energy and that nuclear power is so expensive, what can we realistically do to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible?
There are a lot of studies that have been done for the U.S. and for Europe that show that it’s very realistic to think of a power sector that is almost entirely powered by renewables by 2050 or so. It’s actually feasible—and this considers all the issues with intermittency, dealing with the networks, and whatever else represents a technological barrier—that’s all included in these studies. There’s also the assumption that energy storage, like batteries, will be cheaper in the future.
That is the future, but 2050 is not that far away. 35 years for an energy transition is not a long time. It’s important that this transition start now with the right policy incentives in place. We need to make sure that cars are more efficient, that buildings are more efficient, that cities are built with more public transit so less fossil fuels are needed to transport people from one place to another.
I don’t want people to think that because we’re looking at 2050, that means that we can wait—in order to be almost carbon free by 2050, or close to that target, we need to act fast and start now.
- Will the remedies to climate change be worse than the disease? Will it drive more people into poverty with higher costs?
I actually think the opposite is true. If we just let climate go the way we are doing today by continuing business as usual, that will drive many people into poverty. There’s a clear relationship between climate change and changing weather patterns, so more significant and frequent extreme weather events, including droughts, will affect the livelihoods of a large portion of the world population. Once you have droughts or significant weather events like extreme precipitation, you tend to see displacements of people, which create conflict, and conflict creates disease.
I think Syria is a good example of the world that we might be going towards if we don’t do anything about climate change. Syria is experiencing a once-in-a-century drought, and there’s a significant amount of desertification going on in those areas, so you’re looking at more and more arid areas. That affects agriculture, so people have moved from the countryside to the cities and that has created a lot of pressure on the cities. The conflict in Syria is very much related to the drought, and the drought can be ascribed to climate change.
And consider the ramifications of the Syrian crisis: the refugee crisis in Europe, terrorism, security concerns and 7 million-plus people displaced. I think that that’s the world that we’re going towards. And in a world like that, when you have to worry about people being safe and alive, you certainly cannot guarantee wealth and better well-being, or education and health.
- So finally, doing what needs to be done to combat climate change all comes down to political will?
The majority of the American public now believe that climate change is real, that it’s human induced and that we should do something about it.
But there’s seems to be a disconnect between what these numbers seem to indicate and what the political discourse is like… I can’t understand it, yet it seems to be the situation.
I’m a little concerned because other more immediate concerns like terrorism and safety always come first. Because the effects of climate change are going to be felt a little further away, people think that we can always put it off. The Department of Defense, its top-level people, have made the connection between climate change and conflict over the next few decades. That’s why I would argue that Syria is actually a really good example to remind us that if we are experiencing security issues today, it’s also because of environmental problems. We cannot ignore them.
The reality is that we need to do something about climate change fast—we don’t have time to fight this over the next 20 years. We have to agree on this soon and move forward and not waste another 10 years debating.
Read the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project 2015 report. The full report will be released December 2.
Laura Segafredo was a senior economist at the ClimateWorks Foundation, where she focused on best practice energy policies and their impact on emission trajectories. She was a lead author of the 2012 UNEP Emissions Gap Report and of the Green Growth in Practice Assessment Report. Before joining ClimateWorks, Segafredo was a research economist at Electricité de France in Paris.
She obtained her Ph.D. in energy studies and her BA in economics from the University of Padova (Italy), and her MSc in economics from the University of Toulouse (France).
The Science, Revisited
Tony Barnston, a scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, took a few hours out of his day and answered questions on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session.
Here are three questions from his session, but you can visit the full Reddit appearance here. Two more Reddit “Ask Me anything” sessions will be will be announced in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Which short-term effect of climate change do you feel we should be most worried about?
Sea level rise. As the polar ice melts, it adds water to the oceans. Also, a warmer ocean expands upward. We humans continue to build on very low-lying land, which is a mistake. We are short-sighted and give too much weight to short-term profitability.
But sea-level rise is not extremely short-term; it is very slow. But individual sea level events (related to storms or spring tide conditions) will gradually take bigger bites out of our developments in places like Miami, the Pacific islands, etc.
If global warming continues at its non-linear pace, what will be the effect of melting Greenland glaciers on the Gulf Stream over the next 10 years? How will that affect climate in Europe and beyond?
This is complex. The Gulf Stream would continue, but would encounter cooler ice-melt water near Greenland. The effect on the Gulf Stream’s trajectory toward Europe is not easy to answer, and would require a comprehensive research project. But part of the Gulf Stream would probably still make it to Europe unimpeded.
Even though climate change will play out over a long time frame, the intensely negative implications of human impact and ramifications of a shifting climate will be extreme. How do you maintain a positive outlook when all predictions point down the drain?
Although many predictions do point down the drain, not all of them do. There is a large amount of uncertainty in these long-term climate projections. So, my outlook is uncertain. It is not in any definite direction yet. While there is no doubt in my mind that climate change is occurring, and that it is affecting human welfare, there is much uncertainty about the rate of climate change.
The Science, Revisited
Although scientists have known for some time the role that ice had in shaping the landscape, still many questions have been left unanswered. In the last few decades, new techniques have allowed scientists to date the original remnants in the landscape. With this new data, scientists can track back what glaciers did in the past, and how it is related to climate change. This provides a link to predict what could be happening in the next 100, 200, 500 years.
In the above video produced by the American Museum of Natural History, a professional film crew follows the scientists from New Zealand to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s geochemistry lab in Palisades, N.Y., to show how the process works.
In the coming weeks leading up to 2015 Paris Climate Summit we will be looking back at some key State of the Planet stories about climate science. Visit the full article here and stay tuned for more posts about climate science.
The Science, Revisited
Climate scientists continue to look to the role that greenhouse gases, specifically C02 play in the climate system. CO2 molecules in the atmosphere absorb heat (infrared radiation) coming from the Earth’s surface and then re-radiate some of that heat back to the surface to generate a warming effect.
In this past State of the Planet article, Kelsey Dyez, a geochemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, describes how the carbon dioxide (CO2) content of the atmosphere influences climate. Kelsey describes this process while also explaining the significance past climate research has in understanding our world today.
In the coming weeks leading up to 2015 Paris Climate Summit we will be looking back at some key State of the Planet stories about climate science. We hope to help readers better understand the science and its consequences. Stay tuned for more.
We gained two more members to our team this week; Conor Sullivan, a field technician with the Ducklow group at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Ribanna Dietrich, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. After dropping them off (along with a massive quantity of cargo) the Gould made a fast departure to start a four-week research cruise to study fjord processes along the West Antarctic Peninsula. Fjords are a major feature of the coastline, but haven’t received a lot of study due to the difficulty of safe access and the limited available resources. When the Gould comes back around it will be time for Jamie Collins and I to return to Punta Arenas.
Now that we have a full team it’s time to ramp up our sampling schedule. We’ve been pretty busy so far; in addition to our ice removal experiment we’ve already made it out to the regular Palmer LTER sampling sites by zodiac a couple of times. This three minute video, taken on the nicest day anyone on the team can remember having in Antarctica, highlights some of the challenges of conducting a full oceanographic sampling program from a 19 foot zodiac.
Unfortunately most days this season have looked nothing like the day in the video. As Jamie discusses in his blog here, the winds have been unusually strong this year. That’s kept the phytoplankton bloom from developing and mostly kept us on shore (boating operations shut down when the wind reaches 20 knots).
Contrary to all expectations however, the strong winds this season haven’t broken up the land fast ice in Arthur Harbor. Over a week ago I reported on our “last” visit to our ice station. With the ice in good shape we were able to make another sampling foray yesterday. I’m glad that we did, because a diatom bloom is starting to develop under the ice! The exciting thing about that is that it’s exactly what we would expect to find. The sea ice stabilizes the water column and keeps the diatoms from getting mixed too deep. For many years researchers, relying primarily on satellite observations of chlorophyll a in the surface ocean, have hypothesized that the presence of sea ice plays an important role in high latitude phytoplankton bloom formation. Direct observations of this however, are sparse. This year, purely by chance, we’ve got the opportunity to observe a well-stabilized water column underneath sea ice adjacent to a highly mixed water column in open water.