Crossing the 400 parts per million rubicon is an alarm call for investment in climate resilience

Contributor: Will Bugler

This month the earth entered a new climatic era. We now live in a world in which carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will ‘never again’ fall below 400 parts per million (ppm). So what does it tell us? Well, it certainly emphasises that governments and businesses have failed to control greenhouse gas emissions, despite 30 years of warnings from scientists. There can be no more delay in this regard, that much is clear. But beyond that, crossing the 400ppm threshold is also an alarm call for investment in climate resilience and risk management.

Countries including China, the US and India, are busy ratifying the Paris Agreement. The ambitious text includes a commitment to ‘explore the possibility’ of keeping global average temperatures to below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The signing of the agreement was cause for much celebration last year. But if 2015 lit the first fires of hope that the world would rise to the challenge of climate change, 2016 has done a pretty good job of pouring cold (melt?) water on those glowing embers.

2016 is not just the year in which the world passed the 400ppm mark. It is also the hottest year on record, breaking global average temperature records by margins that have alarmed scientists. It is the year that has seen changes to Arctic sea ice that have been so dramatic that scientists are struggling to understand their implications for global weather systems. It is the year that set a new temperature high for the Eastern Hemisphere. It is the year that saw the Great Barrier Reef, suffer its worst ever bleaching event. The list could go on.

400 ppm is too high for 1.5°C

The 1.5°C ambition is important because it is thought that at this level, damage to the most vulnerable places on earth would be, to some extent, manageable. However, according to the UNEP Emissions Gap report meeting, this target will require a dramatic shift in the scale of action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Only a small number of scenarios meet the 1.5°C target with at least a 50% chance of success” the report states “and [these scenarios]… begin in 2010. An even smaller number of scenarios meet the 1.5°C target… beginning in 2020”. In other words, only a few of the most ambitious carbon-cutting scenarios give us a 50% chance of holding emissions to below 1.5°C… if we had started on that path 6 years ago.

A recent Climate Analytics report that analysed the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analysis showed that, “in order to keep warming below 2°C with high probability and to bring temperatures back to 1.5°C by the end of the century, CO2 emissions would need to be zero as early as 2045 and no later than 2065, with negative emissions thereafter [emphasis added].”

Given that there have only been a few occasions in recent history where the rate of CO2 emissions has not continued to grow, the prospects for meeting such ambitious targets are slim. Importantly, given this month’s news, the Climate Analytics report also says that in the long term “a warming limit of 1.5°C requires total greenhouse-gas concentrations… to be below a level of 400ppm”.

Adapting to a new reality

There is no question that cutting carbon dioxide emissions as quickly and cheaply as possible is essential to fight climate change. However, the fact that the 400ppm threshold has now been crossed forever, is the clearest possible signal that adaptation to climate impacts is vital, no matter how successful our carbon-cutting efforts in the future are. CO2 that we emit today stays in the atmosphere for several hundred years. Our emissions today have locked-in temperature rises well into the future.

A 400ppm world is markedly different from a pre-industrial 300-350ppm world. Our agricultural systems, industrial systems, urban spaces, infrastructure developments, and culture all developed in a relatively stable climate, with relatively stable CO2 concentrations. In fact, the last time CO2 concentrations were as high as they are today, humans did not exist.

The impact of climate change on businesses is already plain to see. In 2012 a report authored by more than 50 scientists, economists and policy experts, and commissioned by 20 governments – found that climate change is already costing us all $1.2 trillion a year; wiping 1.6% annually from global GDP. The flooding in Thailand in 2011 showed how businesses around the world can be affected by climate impacts centred on one region. Flooded factories in Bangkok, gave rise to global computer hard drive shortages and production delays in Japanese car plants.

Infographic showing the impact of the 2011 floods in Thailand on global supply chains (Credit: Acclimatise Group Ltd.)

Adapting to a new climate will require just as much concentrated effort and investment as it will take to set us all on a path to a zero carbon world. Currently, we are woefully behind. Recent estimates suggest that adaption costs in developing countries alone could rise to between US$280 and US$500 billion dollars per year by 2050. That is 11-22 times higher than current levels of international public finance available for climate change adaptation. The step change required is enormous.

Private finance streams and investment from major businesses is needed on top of far more ambitious government finance programmes, if we are to come close to preparing our economies and societies for a world that is 2°C or more warmer than pre-industrial levels. Climate change is not a problem for the future. We are already living in a new reality, and we have catching up to do.

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