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We have 3 years to sort out carbon emissions, according to these scientists

The Wireless logo The Wireless 28/06/2017

The clock is ticking.

A hole in the ice on Fox Glacier. © Provided by Radio New Zealand Limited A hole in the ice on Fox Glacier. A hole in the ice on Fox Glacier.

Photo: Dave Appleby/Flickr

The world only has three years to “safeguard our climate”, a group of six leading scientists and sustainability campaigners say.

In an op-ed published in the journal Nature today, they argue if our carbon emissions are not reduced by 2020, we won’t be able to reach the target of net zero emissions by 2050.

Christina Figueres, who brokered the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Gail Whiteman, Johan RockStröm, Anthony Hobley and Stefan Rahmstorf (a Victoria University alum) wrote the piece to coincide with with the launch of Mission 2020 - a campaign to make this three year target a reality.

Research published in April found if global emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or remain level, the temperature goals set in Paris become almost unattainable; putting aims to reduce climate change at big risk, the authors say.

“There is almost unanimous international agreement that the risks of abandoning the planet to climate change are too grave to ignore.” but also “there is still a long way to go to decarbonise the world economy.”

Basically, if we don’t start now the budget for the amount of carbon dioxide we can have in the air will run out by 2050.

The United States, China and other nations are replacing coal with natural gas, boosting renewable energy sources. “Lowering emissions globally is a monumental task, but research tells us that it is necessary, desirable and achievable,” according to the six.

To prioritise actions for this they’ve outlined milestones to make it easier for us to understand what we need to be doing in six sections; energy, infrastructure, transport, land, industry, and finance.

If we use science to guide decisions and set targets by ensuring communication about the severity of the problem is crystal clear, existing solutions get scaled up rapidly, and optimism that we can do this is encouraged, we can avoid having too little time to make a change.

The report 2020 The Climate Turning Point emphasises the 2020 goal saying holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels is necessary to avoid risks to humanity and only feasible if we make the 2020 deadline.

If the annual emissions stay at the same level they are at, we would have to drop them almost immediately, but a more gradual descent would allow the global economy time to adapt smoothly.

Two New Zealand scientists spoken to by The Wireless agree with the aim to reduce carbon emissions by 2020, as a deadline is better than just saying something needs to happen very soon.

Dr James Renwick, a climatologist at Victoria University, says you can argue whether 2020 is the year, but it’s just really good to have a deadline to make sure our emissions are reduced rapidly in a short amount of time.

Renwick reckons the world is on the right track. In the past few years greenhouse gas emissions haven’t increased, they’ve simply just leveled, which he says is a good start. Now it’s just a race against time to see if there can be reduction to reach the 2 °C target of 2050.

“I’m sure it can be done,” he says. However, “if we don’t take this seriously then we’re not going to get there”.

Political will and legislation is needed as well as pressure from the public to make the government move with the urgency it should.

Dr Rhys Jones, a University of Auckland senior lecturer in medicine and a sustainability campaigner, says the 2020 deadline is an interesting idea as climate change is a long term battle. If things don’t start to change soon, natural disasters are going to be happening more severely and frequently.

“In a sense it's obviously not just what we do in the next three years that's important but a longer time period you know, many many decades but I would agree it's critical what happens in the next three years.”

But where is New Zealand in its move towards reducing our emissions?

In May, NZ was found to be the seventh-worst country for gross emissions per person among the 42 countries who have taken part in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Cows in a paddock. Agriculture accounts for a third of New Zealand's carbon emissions. © Provided by Radio New Zealand Limited Cows in a paddock. Agriculture accounts for a third of New Zealand's carbon emissions. Agriculture accounts for about a third of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.

Photo: zach.hodgson/Flickr

This week law student Sarah Thompson has been in court fighting the government over what she sees as a lack of action on climate change. Her lawyer, Davey Salmon, told the court New Zealand had taken the cheapest, laziest option for setting this country’s emission target.

As part of the Paris Agreement NZ has committed to reducing emission by 11 percent on 1990 levels by 2030, but the country’s net greenhouse gas emissions increased 54 percent between 1990 and 2014.

There’s also been a plan to burn tyres, which Environment Minister Nick Smith told RNZ would reduce carbon emissions by 13,000 tonnes annually, although the plan has received a lot of flack.

Agriculture is the largest contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for almost a third.


Dr Renwick explains how it works with these six easy bullets points:

> The climate is controlled only by two things – the brightness of the sun and the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. The sun isn’t getting brighter, but the amount of greenhouse gases is increasing, a lot.

> Greenhouses gases absorb heat from the earth, warming the air, and send some of the heat back down to the earth, warming the earth’s surface too. Just like a duvet on your bed at night keeps you warm under the duvet, the greenhouses gases in the air act like a duvet on the earth, keeping the surface warm.

> More greenhouse gases in the air is like a thicker duvet on the bed – it makes the earth’s surface warmer, just like you are warmer in bed with a thicker duvet.

> Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas because it stays in the air so long – for centuries. It just builds up. Some of the carbon dioxide we emit today will still be in the air in 1000 years.

> The only way to stop global warming is to stop adding greenhouse gases to the air, so our emissions have to go down to zero.

> We have already put enough carbon dioxide in the air for 1 degree of global warming. At present rates, we’ll have put enough up there for 1.5 degrees of warming in about 5 years from now. And to get 2 degrees of warming, we’ll have put enough in the air in about 20 years. So, to stop the warming we need to act fast!

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