Despite the clean technology of the past decade, we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels more than ever before
Duncan Clark The Guardian, Wednesday 17 April 2013 12.49 EDT
A coal-fired power station in Gelsenkirchen, Germany dwarfs a wind turbine in the foreground. Photograph: Image Broker/Rex Features
We have far more oil, coal and gas than we can safely burn. For all the millions of words written about climate change, the challenge really comes down to this: fuel is enormously useful, massively valuable and hugely important geopolitically, but tackling global warming means leaving most of it in the ground – by choice. Although we often hear more about green technology, consumption levels or population growth, leaving fuel in the ground is the crux of the issue. After all, the climate doesn’t know or care how much renewable or nuclear energy we’ve got, how efficient our cars and homes are, how many people there are, or even how we run the economy. It only cares how much globe-warming pollution we emit – and that may be curiously immune to the measures we usually assume will help.
The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit?
by Duncan Clark, Mike Berners-Lee
There are three facts that tell you all you really need to know about climate science and politics. One: for all the uncertainty about the detail, every science academy in the world accepts the mainstream view of man-made global warming. Two: virtually every government, recognising the profound danger of tampering with the climate that allowed human society to thrive, has agreed the world must limit the global temperature increase to 2C – a level which isn’t by any means “safe” but may be enough to avoid the worst impacts. Three: the amount of warming we will experience goes up roughly in proportion to the total amount of carbon that global society emits – cumulatively.
Here is the rub. Even if we gave up on all the obscure and unconventional fossil fuel resources that companies are spending billions trying to access and just burned the “proven” oil, coal and gas reserves – the ones that are already economically viable – we would emit almost 3tn tonnes of carbon dioxide. No one can say exactly how much warming that would cause, but it is overwhelmingly likely that we would shoot well past 2C and towards 3C or even 4C of warming.
Four degrees might not sound much but at the planetary level it is. It is about the same as the temperature increase observed since the ice age’s “last glacial maximum”, when much of the northern hemisphere was trapped under ice as thick as the world’s five tallest skyscrapers stacked on top of each other. It is impossible to say what changes another three or four degrees would bring, but the impacts could very plausibly include a collapse in global food production, catastrophic droughts and floods, heatwaves and the beginning of ice-sheet melt that could eventually raise the sea level enough to wipe out many of the world’s great cities.
Global Climate Change http://courses.dce.harvard.edu/~envre130
Environmental Justice http://courses.dce.harvard.edu/~envre145
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