As world leaders gather in New York this week for the UN's climate summit, one expert warns not only about the dangers of delayed action, but also the costs.
MUNICH — The numbers are new, but not the awareness: Worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases continue to grow. Data published Sunday by the Global Carbon Project shows that this year they will increase by 2.5%. That corresponds exactly to the trend of the last 10 years. And most people, including decision makers in politics and the economy, wave aside the information as something we all know. They consider the UN climate summit this week empty talk. And yet the incredible thing is that emissions from the burning of coal and oil continue to increase, molecule by molecule, percentage point by percentage point.
Is climate change too slow? Too slow to scare people into doing something about it in time? It's usually said that a development is too quick for there to be time to do something about it. With regard to climate change, this appears to be juxtaposed in some fatal way. The impact of man-made warming will only really start to hurt in the second half of this century, so it sounds as if we still have plenty of time. But that's not so.
Today's weather extremes, melting glaciers and the inexorable rise in sea level, are unmistakable warning signs. The second half of this century isn't actually that far away. What's happening now will impact our kids, the very children that we supposedly want the best for. The right time to act is earlier, much earlier.
Let's consider the not-so-radical idea that every person on the planet has the same right to use the atmosphere as a carbon repository. If we don't want to exceed the two-degree warming limit, then the world only has a limited carbon budget at its disposal that has to be divided among the nations of this earth.
Even Germany, a supposed climate pioneer, shows a big discrepancy between the federal government's actual climate goals and the necessary emission reductions. By 2024, Germany will have used up its carbon emissions budget, and historic emissions are not included in that because, since industrialization, Germany has emitted much more carbon dioxide than, say, India.
Time is short, and not doing anything is expensive. The later the world decides to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the steeper the emissions curve is going to have to be bent downwards. All studies show that acting late is going to be considerably more expensive than acting early. The risks grow with the emissions. Heat waves damage crops, extreme rainfall leads to flooding, the rise in sea level encourages storm tides. The later we systematically protect climate, the higher the final bill will be. In the worst cases, security and peace in many regions of the world are at stake.
UN climate summit
According to the Global Carbon Project, China's emissions of greenhouse gasses were down by 4.2% in 2013 from the year before. But that's small comfort because, during the past year, per capita emissions in China overtook European ones. American emissions grew further after a previous trend of decline. In India, the increase was all of 5.1% and not just because of economic growth. Carbon emissions per dollar of economic performance rose too. Emissions decreased in the EU, although Germany of all countries has increased coal use.
These figures give some people a sense of resigned relief: None of it matters, they think. We can't do anything about it anyway. The facts do not support this outlook. This year a World Climate Council working group established that if swift action were taken, the economic costs for maintaining the two-degree limit would only be 0.06% of estimated average annual consumption growth in this century. Profits resulting from avoided climate damage were not factored into that. There's no question that climate protection is going to cost a lot. But research clearly shows that our economy, our wealth, will continue to grow with more climate protection, and what's more, it will be sustainable.
Can the UN climate summit in New York this week help drive a turnaround? UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is trying to make leaders accountable, which is good. Researchers will present the facts and figures. But at the end of the day, similar events have yet to lead to real breakthrough. What appears to be missing is a solid, load-bearing architecture of responsibility.
Citizens delegate the responsibility for stabilizing our climate to politicians. The state should deal with it. Many want to lay the blame for the environmental consequences of their lifestyle at no increase to their living expenses. What this leads to is politicians who don't want to take responsibility. Why should they do something when other countries aren't pulling their weight? Why should they make themselves unpopular with certain voters such as business leaders? With a few exceptions, most business leaders want no responsibility whatsoever for climate.
Yet there are possibilities. Harvard University has decided to no longer invest billions of dollars in endowments in the fossil fuel industry, which is to say oil firms or coal companies. The university isn't going to go along with the usual schizophrenia anymore, which on the one side takes the results of climate research seriously and on the other makes money in fuel investments. This option, called "divestment," is open to everyone paying into a bank account or private pension plan, every company, every institution.
If emissions of greenhouse gasses are to decrease instead of increase, everyone — consumers, investors, academics, business leaders, politicians — must assume responsibility, independently of the supposed willingness of others to do so. That's the only way a risk for our civilization can become an opportunity for the planet and thus for us all.
* Hans Joachim Schellnhuber is the founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and chairman of the German Advisory Council on Global Change.