Timescales and timeframes

One of the issues in the debate over CSG and fracking is the timeframe over which the global warming potential of methane (in the form of leakage from both conventional and unconventional natural gas projects) should be assessed. The leading critics of fracking, Robert Howarth and his team at Cornell have used a 20-year time-frame. Since methane has a much shorter residence time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but has a greater warming potential over that time, the use of a 20-year time frame makes methane seem more serious than if a timeframe of 100 years or longer is used.

The original justification put forward by Howarth for the 20 year timeframe was that this was the likely life of a project. This is nonsensical, and (to me at least) undermines Howarth’s credibility. The world is still warming as a result of coal burned in power stations that closed decades ago, and no one suggests that we should not worry about this.

Howarth has now adopted a new justification that, on the surface at least, is more plausible. Most attention in the debate over climate change has been based on the assumption of a gradual increase in mean global temperatures, equilibrating to a new higher level some decades after concentrations of greenhouse gases have stabilized, with effects that will then play out for centuries. Since stabilization is unlikely to be achieved before 2050, that implies that we should be looking at timeframes of 100 years or even longer.

However, there is also a risk that we will pass some tipping point, after which the entire process will be irreversible. We don’t know much about tipping points, but, as Howarth observes, “”the world runs a high risk of catastrophic climate change in the period of 15 to 35 years from now.””

That’s true, but unfortunately for Howarth and for us, it doesn’t help his case.

The one thing we do know about tipping points with reasonable certainty is that they will be reached when the global mean temperature reaches a sufficiently high level and stays there for some time. So, what matters is the peak temperature reached for a given trajectory of emissions.

The unfortunate fact is that, no matter what we do, global temperatures are going to keep rising for several decades to come, simply because of the greenhouse gases we have already emitted. If we reduced all emissions to zero immediately, the peak (apart from the long-run adjustment of oceans) might perhaps be reached in 20 years (that’s what the IPCC uses to estimate transient climate sensitivity, a point used, rather misleadingly by Howarth).

It’s obvious that this won’t happen. Still for someone campaigning, like David Spratt, for an all-out “Climate Code Red” state of emergency to eliminate all fossil fuels as fast as possible, it might make sense to focus on short time frames.

But in the context of practical possibilities, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are going to keep rising for decades. If there is a tipping point 20 years in the future of our current trajectory, then we are going to reach it, and whether there is more or less methane in the atmosphere at that time won’t make a difference one way or the other.

To put things slightly differently, no remotely likely course of action is going to stop global mean temperatures rising by 2 degrees relative to the pre-industrial level and staying that high for some time to come. If there is a tipping point between 1 and 2 degrees (where we are likely to be in 20 or 30 years time) we, and the global climate, have already exhausted our luck.

On the other hand, if we can stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases below 450 ppm (CO2 equivalents on the standard 100-year timeframe measure) by 2050, and then gradually reduce them, there is a good chance of avoiding a rise of more then 2 degrees by, say 2100. That’s why a 100-year timeframe makes sense.

50 thoughts on “Timescales and timeframes

  1. Freelander :
    The build up of the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is not a legacy that can be blamed on the east.

    True, but the certainty of future high emissions caused by a great many people in the East living even frugal lives is.

    Both the West and the East made irreversible decisions in the past that will inevitably worsen the environment of tomorrow. The difference is, the West’s decisions also improved it’s own standard of living. Pro industrial development policies cause a tradeoff between GDP per capita and the natural world. Pro natalist policies just make everything worse for everybody. Yes, it’s going to be harder for the East to develop now, but that’s partly their own fault.

    The past is passed. Moralising won’t help, and anyway there is blame on all sides. The practical fact is, not everyone can live like we do in the West now, the world can’t cope with it. Our only two choices are: contract and converge, or face disaster.

  2. “The ability of humans to make terrible decisions either as leaders or individuals cuts across racial lines.”

    I think this comment makes my point. There is no “us” or “them” if you are talking about individuals or countries. There really is only “us” and “them” if you are talking about power.

    To “blame” anyone in one country or region for the decisions of the powerful is folly. Only the powerful are blameworthy for the effects caused by their decisions. That they have been warned over and over again against those decisions only goes toward judging their negligence or culpability.

    By their very position they are unaccountable to citizens of the imaginary north, south, east or west.

  3. The reality is that our free emissions is represented in a larger than otherwise capital stock and higher than otherwise standard of living. The east can quite rightly tell us in the west to ‘get real’ if we expect them to share the burden of restraint equally with us from now on. If we want restraint from them they can quite justifiably say: “Well pay for it”.

    We have more to lose than they do. We haven’t done them any favours, and should expect any from them in return.

  4. According to Wiki world energy consumption is 15 terawatts. Divide by 7 billion and that’s a little over 2 kilowatts per person. Yet some of those people have heated swimming pools, big screen plasma TVs and accumulate frequent flyer points. Somebody must be missing out. The world gets 80% of its energy from fossil fuels yet world oil production and Chinese coal production have levelled out and at some point will go into irreversible decline. Therefore the chances look slim of say doubling world energy output to achieve a more equitable distribution.

    Examples of what I mean by ‘sharing the pain’ include carbon taxing coal and LNG exports, imposing carbon tariffs on energy intensive imports or rationing fuel exports in line with a CO2 cap. Since carbon tax is meant to be revenue neutral China and India can ask for the revenue to be paid into a green fund. Again the chances look slim with China threatening to cancel Airbus orders if the EU airline tax goes ahead.

    Australia can do this because going to other suppliers won’t be easy. We have the most developed coal and gas export infrastructure in the Pacific basin. Disappointingly the US is now cashing in on coal exports to China. That’s where the carbon tariff comes in. It shares the pain because Western consumers face higher prices and Asian manufacturers face lower demand. When and if they go low carbon the tariff can be dropped.

  5. Of course, we are in a position to punish them. I think not. We didn’t share the gain. But now you think we will share the resulting pain. White man’s burden that the non-White don’t understand the equity of White man’s justice.

  6. I think we have just seen why outrageous greed amongst the haves means that expecting climate change to be addressed seriously anytime soon is a pipe-dream. Those who are consuming more than their two kilowatts simply point to those consuming even more and are unwilling to make any concessions, and expect those in the developing world to ‘tighten their belts’.

    Lets hope the east doesn’t do to the west what the French did to the haitians.

  7. @Freelander
    I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’ve engaged yet with my point. Per capita emissions aren’t the only important measure, since that ignores deliberate policies in the past to increase the population.

  8. I’m not aware that, other than a certain totalitarian church, and a certain 20th century German government that there has been a policy yo increase populations .I do know that both India and China have had policies to reduce population.

  9. 1. Where is the evidence that Mao embarked on a breeding program?
    2. If so, where is the evidence that it caused more to be born than otherwise?
    3. Or that the effects were not overwhelmed by the one child policy?

  10. 4. Or that they net effect was greater than western breeding programs?
    5. Or that this ‘issue ‘ is in anyway relevant?

  11. The invasion by the West of the “New World” was a deliberate policy to increase population.

  12. I don’t want to get into any kind of acrimonious debate here Freelander, but I wish you would have a cursory look at the evidence before you start belligerently dismissing my assertions. This stuff is actually common knowledge and uncontroversial among students of modern Chinese history. I don’t want to set off the moderator by giving you links, google this stuff yourself. I will give some quotes though.

    1) Hu Yaobang, secretary of the Communist Youth League reasoned that, “A larger population means greater manpower…the force of 600 million liberated people is tens of thousands of times stronger than a nuclear explosion.”

    In 1949, the Communist Party of China (CCP) condemned birth control as well as banned the import of contraceptives.

    On August 1949, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson authored the China White Paper, in which he expressed his doubts about China’s ability to feed itself. He wrote: “The first problem which every Chinese government has had to face is that of feeding its population. So far, none have succeeded.”

    In direct response to this, a defiant Mao retorted: “Even if China’s population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production.” He also famously stated that a large population is “a very good thing … Of all things in the world, people are the most precious.”

    He saw a high population as the best way to protect China from the ravages of nuclear war.

    Mao told a visiting Yugoslav in 1957, ‘We aren’t afraid of atomic bombs. What if they killed even 300 million [Chinese]? We would still have plenty more–China would be the last country to die‘.

    2) I think we can be reasonably certain that banning or resricting birth control caused more people to be born than otherwise.

    3) It is true that the one child policy will eventually have the effect of curbing population. Demographic momentum however, means it will take time, and the initial explosion is ongoing. The population has still not peaked. The OCP is a very good thing, but it has come too late to prevent all problems.

    4) The total population grew from 450 million in the late 40s to over 1.3 billion now. Plus, there is India, whose TFR is still 2.5, and heading for 2 billion people by 2050. By contrast, the whole of Europe is only 750 million, and is mostly below replacement TFR. I should add that I’m also critical of Western breeding programs, but they haven’t added anywhere near as many people as Eastern ones. This isn’t only the fault of government policies either, patriarchal societies and the individuals within them are equally responsible for viewing women only as reproductive vessels. This all needs to change, and fast.

    5) RE relevance; Have you not heard of the expansion of the Gobi desert, disastrous river diversion projects, declining ground water in India? Your comments read like that of a person who has not the slightest familiarity with the issues involved.

  13. Other than an undocumented quote where is the evidence. Even that, if believed is that Mao banned birth control at a time when a ban on birth control was not unknown in some western countries and is still being promoted by the Pope. India had many birth control programs and the one child policy which has been in China for quite a long time now has slashed the birth rate.

    Europeans expanded their populations massively by invading, killing inhabitants and taking their lands. All of North and South America and Australia.

    Anyway, the issue is irrelevant.

  14. Freelander @33:

    “I’m not aware that, other than a certain totalitarian church, and a certain 20th century German government that there has been a policy yo increase populations .I do know that both India and China have had policies to reduce population.”

    Type Mao encouraged population growth into Google and you’ll get about 50 million links. It isn’t in the least bit controversial and is general knowledge for reasonably intelligent and educated persons. On the whole, Mao’s policy was a success with the Chinese population rising from about 550 million to 900 million people. What makes this even more impressive is that Mao’s disastrous policies caused the deaths of at least 50 to 60 million people according to conservative estimates.

    Sam @37:

    ” Your [Freelander] comments read like that of a person who has not the slightest familiarity with the issues involved.”

    Rather obviously, Freelander isn’t terribly bright or well informed. It might be best to ignore his tedious and ill-educated rants.

  15. The point is that a few pronouncements about the desirability of having a large population to withstand a nuclear attack is not is not in itself a policy to expand the population. Neither is ‘having a policy’ any indication that it was in the least effective. India only had policies to restrict its population growth yet its population has grown considerably more than China’s, hence the net impact of any initial population growth policy must have been overwhelmed by the one child policy.

    But as I have repeatedly stated the whole issue is irrelevant.

    Nice as it is to blame the foreigner for our problems, it is the West that built up and benefited from building up the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The idea that the Chinese do not have a right to exist or to have what we have without paying for our mistakes is not really defensible.

    Of course morality is simply the story one tells oneself to make oneself feel good while doing wrong.

    But we can moralise all we wish about how the Chinese ought to curl up and die and let us continue on our polluting ways, the reality is they won’t. And in a world where might is right and nothing else matters, China is becoming mightier by the day.

    So even if your ‘moral’ arguments wash with the great unwashed in the West, they won’t wash in the East.

  16. The de facto position seems to be that China and India can burn all the coal they want while Europe, Australia and others practise restraint. Major capital goes along with this in the hope that the West will buy ever expanding quantities goods manufactured with little regard for labour laws or greenhouse emissions. Not only does this suit business but our own politicians endorse it, despite warnings of problems like coal ship damage to the Great Barrier Reef.

    The trouble with this theory is that our own middle class may not see it that way. Australia may lose both its steel mills and most of the six aluminum smelters. When power bills go up substantially in just a few weeks time it will be hard not to notice China and India get all the Australian coal and gas they want without any restrictions. These countries will gain at our expense, not because they have physical resources just a lot of people willing to work cheap without regard for the environment.

    This view is at odds with those who say that this time next year we’ll have come to accept carbon tax. If we slide backwards while others prosper using our resources that’s unlikely to be the case. I predict carbon tax will not go smoothly and major changes will be made.

  17. The ongoing failures to engage the climate problem in China and India are down to the same fundamental problem – failure to appreciate the full seriousness and urgency of the problem.

    Australia’s inadequate and compromised domestic ‘action’ is overshadowed by it’s absolute support for expanding fossil fuel mining and export. Internationally, which element of Australian policy will be seen as genuine and what will be seen as a PR exercise in mollifying voter concerns? The leading political voice of US commerce and Industry – the Republican Party – will not put up a candidate for President who is not openly a climate science denier. If the wealthy developed world spends more effort to avoid having to do what’s necessary on emissions than in efforts to avoid catastrophic climate change, how can a global effort be expected to gain strong global support? The best we can expect from China and India is the same kind of greenwash intended to appear to be addressing the concerns whilst having no impact on fossil fuel usage.

    That essential tipping point in acceptance of the problem – as something that has mainstream bipartisan support and that’s worth some short term economic sacrifice if that’s what it takes to deal with – looks further away than it was 2 decades ago. Giving a green light to the exploitation of coal that’s uneconomical to extract by other means – CSG – is proof that we are embracing failure and disguising it by calling it a step towards success.

  18. Australia will just have to adapt to annual once in a hundred year floods ( in every state) .

  19. Arguing over whether CSG is better or worse than something else, is a little missing the point. We need actual reductions in total GHG emissions per annum, and we’re apparently incapable of rousing ourselves to do it.

    Dr James Hansen, in this talk, makes it abundantly clear that every year we wait means a much larger percentage reduction is required. His example is that if we had started five years ago, it required a 3% emissions reduction per annum; now, it is 6%pa; in 10 years from now, it is 15%pa. Hansen’s point is that subsidising fossil fuel industries simply means it is economic for them to exploit every available fossil fuel resource, with all of the environmental consequences it implies. Assuming that James Hansen is correct, it puts talk of timescales into sober perspective.

  20. Er, reductions being made to stabilise climate and (hopefully) avoid reaching one of the key tipping points. Should have made that clearer.

  21. OK. So avoiding 2 degrees is impossible, and science suggests that the consequences may be more serious than first thought (ie floods, droughts, invasive species, spread of disease, moderate sea level rise, loss of fisheries…). So it might be helpful if our host started building a movement within the economic expert community on the sorts of policies that might make sense in this changed world. If the global politic framework is insufficiently strong to engineer a global solution, does free trade make sense? We will need local expertise and skills to transition to a different economy – probably a much more constrained one in real terms. We will need to intensively manage our ecosystems – can we do that if we adhere to market-dominated agriculture? We may need to disperse population. We will certainly need to invest heavily in revamped transport (rail is much less vulnerable to climate extremes than road) – can we do that if we keep privatising? In short, how does the present economic consensus hold up if we need to promote social cohesion, move to greater self-sufficiency, and have a greater government role in the economy?

  22. You’d think that recent events would be a call to action. In Australia we’ve had floods in the east and record heatwaves in the west. Much of the UK is in drought despite a severe cold snap. However it seems moves to carbon tax airline fuel are regarded as extreme.

    Meanwhile many river bank towns are to stockpile portable flood levy panels perhaps kept next to the bushfire evacuation centre. Sea level rise is set to restrict coastal development. No doubt before long another China bound coal ship will grind its way into our iconic barrier reef. At some point we might ask how much adaptation is enough.

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