A 2019 Climate Change Report - What's Changed Since 2014

On mitigation2014.org today we are going to be discussing the current state of climate change and what has happened since 2014.

The impacts of climate change will be experienced all over the world maybe even faster than any of us could have imagined.

According to recent reports on this topic from recognized organizations such as the IPCC and the US Global Change Research Program, stopping the world's temperature to reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels seems almost impossible. Actually, there is an extreme likelihood that the temperature will increase to 2°C in a matter of 11 years if radical actions are not taken at the political, economic and social level.

These actions must be committed to decarbonizing the entire infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry. In other words, no home, or property of any kind must be heated or powered by gas or oil; no vehicle must be powered by gasoline; all fossil fuel power plants from coal, natural gas or oil must be shut down and taken out of the grid; any industry that requires the use of carbon for its manufacture must be redesigned to include new processes that use carbon-free resources or develop the equipment to store the CO2 produced permanently.

As you can imagine, taking all of these actions on the international scale in a matter of 11 years is nearly impossible. However, even if we do reach the 1.5°C we must not dismiss our efforts to keep pushing carbon emissions down. The reason is that the consequences of having an increased temperature to 2°C will be much worse than at 1.5°C, and considering 2.5°C would be catastrophic.

We can notice that there has been an important change in the tone and the imminent need to take action when compared to 2014 reports, so what has changed so much in these 5 years?

Before finding an answer to that, let’s first take a look at some of the results and findings from the IPCC in 2018.

The Current Situation - IPC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a United Nations body that was founded in 1998 to evaluate the impacts of climate change over time. The IPCC develops continuous research on this topic and every 5 to 7 years releases a summary report with all the results from the research to be publicly available.

The most recent report of the organization is the IPCC Special Report “Global Warming of 1.5°C” where the most recent updates on the topic are available for 2018. This study is focused on assessing the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels along with related global greenhouse gas emissions solutions.

Let’s analyze some of the most important statements from this report:

  • Global CO2 emissions will reach net zero in 2055

According to the estimated projections based on gathered data, the observed global temperature is modeled in response to human activity and results show that by 2055 the temperature of the Earth will definitely have reached the 1.5°C

  • The consequences of Climate Change models at 1.5°C will become harder as temperature increases.

The evidence shows that an additional of 0.5°C in global temperature will lead to a severe growth in extreme temperatures in some regions, increases in frequency and intensity of precipitations in other regions and increases in intensity or frequency of droughts in several regions as well.

Moreover, many species may face extinction and some will receive severe impacts in their ecosystems where animals and plants will need to adapt to survive new conditions. Also, warmer temperatures will mean warmer oceans which will translate into fisheries and ecosystems that will be at risk.

Models show that the intensity and frequency of this phenomena will increase as the temperature keeps going up. Actually, the impact of temperature on each sector can be seen in the graphic below, where:

  • Purple areas: Indicate very high and irreversible risks
  • Red areas: Indicate severe and widespread impacts
  • Yellow areas: Impacts are detectable and attributable to climate change
  • White areas: Undetected impact

Fig 1. Impacts of climate change for selected human sectors

Source: IPCC Global Warming Report

US Global Change Research Program

According to the Global Change Research Act of 1990, the U.S Global Change Research Program needs to deliver a report to the Congress and the President every four years that analyzes the effects of global change in several aspects such as energy production and consumption, agriculture, social systems, and biological diversity.

Water

One of the findings is that currently rising water and air temperatures are directly affecting the availability of water in many regions of the US. Actually, as you can see in the picture below, the depletion of groundwater resources in the biggest US regional aquifers is alarming, especially since in less than 10 years this depletion has exceeded previous records from the Twentieth Century.

Fig 2. Depletion of groundwater resources in the US

Source: Fourth National Assessment Report

There have been changes in the relative amounts and timing of rainfall that do not match with the needs of water availability in some regions. Heavy rains also lead to more soil erosion and nutrients lost in the Midwest crops.

This also affects the reliability of an important source of electricity in the US, hydropower. Besides, many power plants in the US, depend on a steady supply of water for cooling purposes in steam turbines which are also being affected currently. Flash droughts have also spread in many regions of the Northern Great Plains and even in the Colorado River basin which has reduced by half since 2000. These droughts have a nationwide impact that exceeds $33 billion only considering the damages from 2012.

Energy Supply

The impacts of climate change have also been seen in the energy sector. Increasing temperatures also drive the demand for cooling spaces across the US and reduce the capacity of generators to supply such loads. These rising temperature values will increase energy expenditures by up to 20% in States like Texas.

Moreover, wind, ice storms, wildfires or hurricanes also damage transmission and distribution infrastructures that cost thousands of dollars to repair (to re-build power grid infrastructure in Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria represents $17 billion in costs). On the other hand, other natural disasters such as floods damage substations, pumping stations and underground lines as well, while increasing the risk of disruption in dams.

Forests

Driven by severe droughts and insect outbreaks, more than 300 million trees in Texas have died in 2011 and more than 129 million died in California from 2010 to 2017.

At the same time, wildfires have burned at least 3.7 million acres nationwide from 2000 to 2016 (a bigger area than Connecticut) and even 10.2 million acres in 2015.

The Sierra Nevada has also received an important impact in tree mortality due to five consecutive years of droughts until 2017 which killed 40 million trees, which is translated to thousands of dead trees per square mile during this period.

Human Health

Another important topic is related to the impacts of climate change on health. Heat-related deaths are one of the most dramatic consequences of climate change and they are projected to increase as well.

There are also projections related to the distribution of diseases carried by mosquitos and other insects as heat increases. Actually, in 2015 California was passing through a severe drought and several health impacts related to this phenomenon were reported, such as allergies, mental stress, asthma, and other respiratory issues.

Dry environments can increase the reproduction of a fungus found in soils, leading to sicknesses as the Valley fever which had a high number of cases reported in Arizona and California. Climate change can even affect mental health as it has been seen in rural Alaskans who are increasingly challenged by changing and unpredictable weather.

Food supply

Food is a sector that is directly affected as well.

Frequent droughts will also reduce food and forage production in some regions. Also, the researchers found that combining high temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns will radically intensify wildfires, accelerate the depletion of water supplies for irrigation and probably expand the incidence of pests or diseases for crops and livestock.

Other factors like heat stress also have devastating results in livestock. Large economic losses for producers go from $897 million, $369 million, $299 million and $128 million for dairy, beef, swine, and poultry respectively. High temperatures change the respiration rate, blood chemistry, reproductive efficiency, heart rate, hormones, and even metabolism. These changes also lead to an increased intake of water and reduced feed intake, which is why these conditions can result in significant livestock deaths.

Dairy production is also affected in every region due to heat waves as it can be seen below in a figure with the projected reduction in milk production by 2030. As we can see, the Southern Plains are the most affected ones.

What has Happened Since 2014?

According to NASA studies, temperature levels of the Earth are currently 0.82°C above pre-industrial values (until 1900) and back in 2013 this value was 0.64°C. That may not sound like much, but when you realize that the top is 1.5°C to reach irreversible climate change, then you will find out that it is not too far away.

When we evaluate what has changed since 2014 in the previous report of the US Global Research Program, we notice several factors that indicate us the process is accelerating. For instance, in 2016 the annual sea ice extent minimum in the Arctic Ocean was the second lowest on record since the early 1980s as well as 2014 and 2015.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that the United States has experienced 44 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 2015 which all represent an approximated cost of $400 billion.

Moreover, during the hurricane season in 2017, over $250 billion were lost in damages and over 250 lives were lost in the Southern Great Plains, Southeast, and the US Caribbean. Also, more than 30 inches of rain fell during Hurricane Harvey affecting the lives of almost 7 million people. Hurricane Maria also caused extreme devastation to Puerto Rico’s transportation and energy infrastructure with over 37 inches of rain that fell across the island causing floods and mudslides everywhere.

2016 was a historical year for floods across Louisiana. Nearly 20 to 30 inches of rainfall devastated a large area of the State and caused over $10 billion in damages. Many properties were destroyed during this natural disaster, representing 50,000 homes, 100,000 vehicles, and 20,000 businesses. West Virginia also suffered during that year with many floods that damaged thousands of homes and cost many lives.

Droughts also caused $5 billion in damages across the Southwest and Northwest in 2015 and thousands of acres of farmland remained fallow. Then, in 2017, an extreme drought caused $2.5 billion losses in agricultural damages along with field crops that were severely damaged in the Northern Great Plains

Carbon Emissions

One of the most important causes of climate change is carbon dioxide emissions originated by the transport and the power sectors.

According to the US Global Research Program report of 2018, it is necessary that the world cuts 45% of its current carbon emissions before 2030 in order to stop the global warming from reaching the 1.5°C.

Still, despite large efforts from international organizations and political framework in favor of renewable energy sources like solar energy, wind, hydropower or biomass, carbon dioxide emissions keep rising and are actually reaching their highest levels on record.

Reports from 2014 and 2016 showed that emissions remained flat between those years, which increased hopes and showed that the world was on the right path to sustainability and safety for our planet. However, in 2017, global emissions suddenly grew by 1.6 % and in 2018 raised 2.7% reaching nearly 37 billion tons of CO2. Meaning that 2018 was the year with the highest growth record since 2010 as it can be seen in the figure below. This is definitely alarming in many aspects.

What is the reason behind this sudden increase in carbon emissions? The answer is simple, economic growth. Global gas emissions from the industry and the power sector remained stable as the global economy grew by little. However, in 2017 these emissions increased to 1.2% along with a higher GDP.

Major contributors to these numbers are China, the US, and India, although other countries are not matching their targets to reduce carbon emissions such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Russia, Turkey, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and some countries in the EU.

When evaluating the major contributors' cases we notice that in the case of the US, energy use has increased continuously over the last five years. Mainly due to this fact (many times associated with the effects of climate change to supply cooling demands due to heat waves) and low oil prices, emissions were expected to increase between 2017 and 2018.

On the other hand, India had the highest emissions growth with over 6.3% increase in CO2 emissions between 2017 and 2018, a rate that was three times higher than the previous year. China also increased its carbon gas emissions to 4.7% despite that the country is been committed to complying with its renewable energy targets.

Based on these factors and also in projections to 2019, experts agree that emissions are expected to rise as well in this year. Oil, natural gas, and economic growth projections indicate that the consumption from these sources will keep increasing over the year which is related to the expected increases in CO2 emissions.

For instance, natural gas use is being accelerated at an enormous pace with continuous growth of 2% every year over the last five years. This is mainly because this fossil source is now seen as the replacement of coal power plants since it is a reliable fossil source that produces less CO2 emissions than coal. Oil consumption has also increased by 1.2% annually since 2012, especially in countries like China and India where the reliability and the number of vehicles increases.

Not Everything is Bad News

Coal, the greatest contaminator of the planet is seriously being eliminated from the power grids in the world, especially in Europe. Energy consumption from this source declines 1% every year and taking a look into Canada and the US, coal consumption has reduced nearly 40% since 2005.

Also, the UN estimates that over 7,000 cities, along with 6,000 companies with at least $36 trillion in revenues have committed to fighting climate change. More can be expected since over 50,000 companies have similar revenues and could make a bigger impact if they pledge as well to this cause.

Renewable energies have also triggered important emission reductions as they continue growing in many countries and sectors.

Bioenergy has been recognized as the giant of renewable energies since it provides nearly 13% of global energy demand with China as the largest biomass electricity producer. Geothermal energy has also increased in countries like Indonesia, Turkey, Chile, Iceland, the US, and Japan, using over 25GW for space heating and 13GW for geothermal power. Hydropower is not left behind as an important renewable energy source with over 1,114 GW of installed capacity worldwide and with China as the biggest contributor, but also in countries like Brazil, India, and Turkey.

Solar energy has also seen the greatest deployment in 2017 mainly due to the large growth in power capacity in China, numbers indicate that net additions of solar power surpassed fossil fuels and nuclear power additions combined. Solar power installations through the use of solar panels have already reached 402 GW by 2018.

Are we out of Time?

As we have seen previously, many effects of climate change are starting to spread across the US and the world as well. Longer droughts, stronger hurricanes, severe floods, extensive wildfires, and heat waves, have already caused cost billions of dollars only to the US economy and most importantly, many lives.

The effects can be felt in the reduction of food supplies as livestock is affected by heat waves and also in the health of Americans as dryer conditions also spread the appearance of diseases.

These natural disasters and conditions are likely to increase as the Earth temperature grows towards the 1.5°C limit. The projections of the Fourth National Climate Assessment report have concluded that in order to avoid reaching this temperature value, it is necessary to cut down carbon emissions by almost half by 2030, and reduced them completely by 2050.

So far, according to the report, peak carbon emissions should be reached before 2020 in order to start making the path towards sustainability. However, the trend currently does not indicate such a turn. Actually, between 2014 and 2016, the carbon gas emissions were stabilizing due to global economic contraction, and experts expected that this might be a turning point, but since 2017, CO2 emissions have increased again to their highest levels on record.

We are indeed running out of time, and stopping the world’s temperature from increasing to 1.5°C will be a really tough challenge to face, since it requires an enhanced political framework and commitment from all countries and especially from major contributors such as the US, China and especially India.

Events such as the US signing out of the Paris Agreement in 2020 could have a devastating effect on carbon emissions since all that has been built could be lost. It is part of the American people to do their part and make sure this does not happen.

References

https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/12/new-global-co2-emissions-numbers-are-they-re-not-good

https://www.washingtonpost.com/energy-environment/2018/12/05/we-are-trouble-global-carbon-emissions-reached-new-record-high/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.539d7f21363d

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46347453

https://www.iea.org/renewables2018/

https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/downloads/

http://www.ren21.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/17-8652_GSR2018_FullReport_web_-1.pdf