Understanding what ’12 years to save the planet’ really means

January 26, 2019

What does ’12 years to save the planet’ really mean?, by , January 23, 2019

It’s a number that’s been thrown around a lot recently. There’s a danger it will be misunderstood.

When I wrote about a report suggesting the pace of decarbonization needs to treble, I also mentioned the recent IPCC report which has garnered various versions of the following headline: “We have 12 years to save the planet.” Let’s start with what it does not mean:

1) It does not mean that we have 12 years before we have to act.
2) It does not mean that we have 12 years to completely decarbonize.
3) And it does not mean that the fight is over if we fail to reach our target in 12 years.

The pace of decarbonization needs to be picked up fivefold in order to have a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 C.

The overwhelmingly salient fact is that carbon emissions need to be rapidly reduced and eliminated from the electricity sector. (And everything that can be electrified needs to be.) Everyone who understands climate change understands that basic imperative….

It stands to reason that everyone who agrees on the need for decarbonization needs to speak in a single voice.  We desperately need a bigger, louder, and more unified decarbonization movement.

Offshore wind power
CC BY 2.0 Flickr

It’s a number that’s been thrown around a lot recently. There’s a danger it will be misunderstood.

When I wrote about a report suggesting the pace of decarbonization needs to treble, I also mentioned the recent IPCC report which has garnered various versions of the following headline: “We have 12 years to save the planet.”

This phrase, or something like it, has been bandied about by politicians, journalists and activists alike. In many ways it’s a useful framing that drives home the urgency of the situation we face. There is also, however, a strong danger (nay, certainty) that it will be misunderstood and/or misrepresented. So let’s first cover what it doesn’t mean:

1) It does not mean that we have 12 years before we have to act.
2) It does not mean that we have 12 years to completely decarbonize.
3) And it does not mean that the fight is over if we fail to reach our target in 12 years.It was misreadings like this that lead to some fun fireworks on Twitter last night, in which famed climate scientist Michael E. Mann dived in to the fray to defend Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from accusations of alarmism:

Michael E. Mann @MichaelEMann  

Agreed–that’s the right framing, and the @AOC statement is defensible in that context. Some seem anxious to throw her under the bus…

Polisci321062@polisci321062

@AOC Doesn’t literally mean that the world will end in 12 years. She’s saying we have a very limited carbon budget and are walking into a mine field @MichaelEMann analogy the more we burn CO2 the worse drought, wildfire, coral bleaching, record temps, rising sea level etc. become 

What the 12 year figure in the IPCC report does refer to is that, if we are going to have a reasonable chance of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees, we have just over a decade to cut global emissions some 45% based on 2010 levels. We then have another two decades (until 2050) to reach zero net emissions. 

It’s still an astoundingly daunting task. But many argue that the challenges that lie in the way of achieving it are largely political, not scientific. (This does not account for the 40% more warming already accumulated in the oceans than previously thought, or tipping points with polar ice). Among all the depressing headlines and scientific reports (of which there are many), there are plenty of bright spots to suggest we could make significant progress if our leaders would put our minds to it.

The UK has already brought power-sector emissions to Victorian-era levels. Shenzhen, China—a city of 11.9 million people—has already transitioned its entire bus fleet to electric vehicles. Norwegian oil demand may be peaking due to electric cars. Both utilities and cities are setting near net zero emissions targets within the timeframe we are talking about.

Of course, none of this is anywhere near enough. In fact, Lloyd covered at least one idea of what meeting this target would look like when the IPCC report first came out. But there is more than one way to skin a plant-based cat substitute.

What we know is this: A climate movement is stirring and we now need very bold commitments and near-term efforts to move us toward them fast. The “12 year” figure is useful in focusing the mind and spurring us to action—not least to dispel the myth that we can sit on our hands and engineer ourselves out of the crisis—but it should be understood in context:

It simply means we need to move as fast as possible to the most ambitious goal we can muster. Should be easy, right?

Right!

**

Decarbonization must treble to keep up with climate change

forest fire in Alberta
CC BY 2.0 Cameron Strandberg

Progress is being made. But the climate keeps unravelling.

On the one hand, we see countries achieving Victorian-era emissionscoal miners embracing a transition to renewables, and electrification of transportation nipping away at Big Oil from almost every direction. On the other hand, the impacts of climate change are making themselves known in more obvious and sometimes terrifying ways than ever before.

As many people smarter than me have argued, the question now is not whether we will decarbonize, but rather whether we will do so fast enough to stave off the worst impacts of the damage we have already wrought. The newly released 2018 Emissions Gap Report from the UN Environment Program suggests the trajectory is not promising.

The report focuses specifically on the gap in 2030 between emission levels if all countries live up to their currently publicized commitments, and those consistent with least-cost pathways to stay below 2°C and 1.5°C. Among its findings is an eye opening conclusion that both ambition and action need to treble, and that’s just to remain consistent with a two degree scenario. To stay below 1.5°C, we actually need to pick up the pace some five fold in order to succeed.Following hot on the heels of an IPCC report suggesting we have 12 years to halve our emissions, and another from the US government (weirdly released over the Thanksgiving holiday) suggesting our economy will suffer significant damage if we don’t act now, there’s nothing particularly surprising about this report. But it is nevertheless galvanizing.

It’s time to pick up the pace, people. And it’s time to sideline those who still waffle on about “belief” and “non-belief” in an objective and very dangerous reality that is unfolding before our eyes.

**

Biomass and waste-to-energy put out more carbon dioxide per kilowatt generated than coal and tend to be located in minority and low income communities.  Just because the CO2 got sequestered in your pellet or plastic jug makes no difference to the atmosphere when it is burped out all at once now.

But that aside, David Roberts emphasizes that “100 percent renewables is the highest result. Decarbonization is the highest result.”

The overwhelmingly salient fact is that carbon emissions need to be rapidly reduced and eliminated from the electricity sector. (And everything that can be electrified needs to be.) Everyone who understands climate change understands that basic imperative….

It stands to reason that everyone who agrees on the need for decarbonization needs to speak in a single voice. The US desperately needs a bigger, louder, and more unified decarbonization movement.

Bruce Power nuclear plantBruce Power nuclear plant/CC BY 2.0

There is lots of clean, green hydro power that can be sent from Quebec and Labrador to the USA, but nobody in New Hampshire wants to look at the transmission lines. There are activists around the world fighting to close nuclear plants, and what we get instead is more coal being burned. Roberts concludes that we need…

…a common banner, a common understanding of the imperative to reduce carbon emissions quickly. That is the social consensus that is desperately needed. It would be a shame to fracture or conceal that consensus over non-carbon disagreements.