Climate Change: Global Development Model on Trial

Bridges vol. 40, July 2014 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Helmut Haberl

Helmut HaberlFar-reaching changes in the patterns of using energy, land, and other natural resources – in short, a sociometabolic transition – are urgently needed to limit global warming to 2° Celsius as agreed upon within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The following is a personal reflection on four years of involvement with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Despite all the climate change mitigation measures taken so far, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2010 rose an average of 2.2 percent per year, a far greater annual growth rate than between 1970 and 2000. Without effective measures to counter this trend, the world is heading towards global warming of between 3.7 and 4.9 degrees Celsius (°C) at the end of the century, more than twice the internationally accepted target of a maximum rise of +2°C (see http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/).

The +2°C goal is by no means an arbitrary figure: Any further increase in global warming raises the risk of triggering what is termed “tipping points.” When tipping points are reached, systems undergo nonlinear, irreversible changes, such as forest dieback or the thawing of permafrost layers. Thawing of permafrost could, among other things, release huge volumes of greenhouse gases and further accelerate the process of climate change. Another such change would be the melting of ice sheets, for example in Greenland, which could cause sea levels to rise by several meters.

It is pointless to ask whether adaptation to climate change is more important than climate change mitigation, or vice versa. Both are urgently needed. However, there are limits to adaptation – we cannot be sure that it will be possible to adapt to very far-reaching, rapid processes of global change. Only timely and decisive action can ensure that global warming is limited, at least to an extent that allows the consequences of climate change to be partly contained through appropriate adaptation strategies.

Action is needed now

Rapid action is necessary to achieve the 2°C target. The longer we take a "wait and see" approach, the more utopian are the options for containing climate change. If effective climate protection is delayed for another 10-15 years, then large-scale measures such as earth management or carbon capture from the atmosphere will have to be implemented to reach the 2°C target. An example of earth management would be reducing solar radiation – for instance, by introducing aerosols into the atmosphere. An option for reducing the atmospheric carbon concentration (carbon capture) would be the coupling of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – for example, in oil or gas storage facilities. These technologies are the subject of controversy because they are costly, underdeveloped, and pose attendant risks.  Moreover, in order to meet the 2°C target using such “delayed action” scenarios, the rates of implementing low-carbon energy would need to be much higher than can reasonably be expected.

Reaching the 2°C target means that global greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced by 40-70% by 2050, and thereafter practically to zero. The industrialized countries have a decisive role to play in this regard. Although emissions in the industrialized countries themselves are only increasing gradually, they must decrease sharply if the 2°C goal is to be achieved. Furthermore, industrialized countries are importing increasing volumes of products, the manufacture of which is driving greenhouse gas emissions skyward. Last but not least, the rich, industrialized countries should lead by example and abandon their use of fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas in both the mid- and long term.

The role of resource use

Reducing resource use will be crucial, if restructuring the energy system is to take place in ways that are flexible and responsive to regional needs. If resource use continues to increase, it will be impossible to expand the use of renewable energy and raw material sources fast enough to sufficiently reduce emissions. There are good reasons for taking a skeptical approach to large-scale technology-based solutions, which can create the illusion that current growth trends might be able to continue with no negative impact on climate and environment. 

The debate surrounding the social, economic, and ecological risks posed by agrifuels, such as for food security, ecosystems, and biodiversity, is a case in point. Increased use of biomass for energy provision can help reduce fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but only if implemented in a manner that does not jeopardize food security, healthy ecosystems, or biodiversity. An integrated approach to landscape management is required in order to optimize the supply of food, fuels, and raw materials as well as providing vital ecosystem services. Bioenergy is no “backstop technology” that will replace all or most fossil fuels in the next few decades. In fact, biofuel policies such as those launched by the US and the EU in the last decade have resulted in massive land-use competition while supplying only limited amounts of energy. Such policies are also likely to have fallen short of their stated aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when the full effect of increased land-use competition (e.g., deforestation) is taken into account. 

These experiences suggest that the growth and development model of industrialized countries is at stake. It is utterly implausible that transforming the energy system, resource supply, and pattern of production and consumption could occur without profound changes in society and the economy. The technologies required already exist or are being developed:  among them, efficient public transport, low-energy buildings, or efficient electrical appliances. The issue is now about setting a course in the right direction, for example, through the design of energy and transport infrastructures or human settlement patterns, and through socioecological reform of taxation policies. It is particularly important to focus on strategies that will reduce the risk of further lock-in situations (such as energy-inefficient buildings or traffic infrastructures that promote individual car use) created by infrastructures incentivizing consumption patterns that result in high greenhouse gas emissions. Examples of such strategies are demand-side options such as transitions to healthy low-greenhouse gas diets, energy-efficient buildings, or settlement patterns that reduce commuting distances.

Sociometabolic transitions

The transition to a low-carbon society will entail large-scale changes in the way we live, work, eat, commute, and spend leisure time. This will require far-reaching changes in production and consumption, lifestyles, and many other aspects of everyday life, and hence may provoke concerns. Yet it was precisely during the largest economic and financial crisis of recent decades that the question arose as to whether it was desirable to continue the industrial model of growth. In the last 40 years, the real GDP of most countries in the industrial core has more than doubled. Consumption has increased, as has life expectancy, and technology has brought new possibilities. But have contentment, social cohesion, or quality of life increased at a comparable rate?    

A reduction in resource use brings benefits not only for climate protection but also in other areas: for example, health. Consider eating as an example. Eating less meat and other animal products than is currently the norm in the industrial core would contribute to climate protection as well as being a lot healthier. The same applies to the opportunity to make the daily journey to work by bicycle rather than by car, if that possibility exists given the available infrastructure. As important as such individual choices may be, they are not sufficient to solve the climate conundrum. The transition to a climate-compatible society will take place only if decisive action to achieve this  goal is driven forward at all levels.

Dr. Helmut Haberl is director of the Institute of Social Ecology Vienna (SEC), Alpen-Adria Universität (AAU), Austria (1070 Vienna, Schottenfeldgasse 29), and KOSMOS Fellow at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Integrative Research Institute on Transformations in Human Environment Systems, Quartier Stadtmitte, (Friedrichstrasse 191, D-10117 Berlin, Germany). He contributed to chapter 11 (Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use) and the Methods Annex of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the IPCC as a lead author, and to the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) as a contributing author. Haberl also attended the WGIII approval plenary in April 2014 in Berlin.