World has jumped the proposed 2-degree-Celsius ‘guardrail’ and is moving to a more dangerous climate, expert says

Source: Lauren Morello, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, December 7, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — The world has missed its chance to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the level many scientists and governments say is necessary to avoid “dangerous” climate change, former U.K. environment adviser Bob Watson said yesterday.

Keeping under that 2-degree guardrail would have required industrialized countries to begin cutting their emissions in 2010, he told attendees at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.

“We are not on a pathway to a 2-degree world,” Watson said. “Much more likely, it will be 3 to 5” degrees Celsius, roughly 5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the world’s chance of limiting warming to 3 degrees Celsius, the lower end of that range, is only “50-50,” he added. “When you look at the observations, when you look at the political debate, it does not fill you with optimism,” said Watson, who recently stepped down as chief scientific adviser at the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

His long career in science has also included a term as head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and several years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In his address yesterday, delivered in the midst of U.N. climate talks in Doha, Qatar, Watson said limiting climate change will require all major greenhouse gas-emitting countries to agree to policies to limit their carbon output.

That includes the United States, whose participation is crucial to ensure that rapidly developing countries like China and India agree to limit their own emissions, he argued.

Need for a price on carbon and nuclear power

Watson said cutting greenhouse gas production would probably require putting a price on carbon, which could be achieved by instituting a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme.

And there is still a lot of work to be done in technology development to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, he said. “We need an evolution,” Watson said. “We really need to really get to grips with carbon capture and storage.”

He also called for development of new varieties of biofuels that can provide lower-carbon energy without harming food production; expanded public transportation; and more use of renewable power sources like wind, solar, tidal and wave power.

Watson also endorsed the use of nuclear power, calling it “critical.”

“I’m a little concerned about what happened in Japan and the reaction against nuclear in Germany,” he said, referring to the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and Germany’s subsequent decision to phase out nuclear power.

“It was a very old power plant, and it got nailed by a tsunami, but we need safe nuclear power. I find it very hard to believe we’ll have an efficient low-carbon system without carbon capture and sequestration or nuclear, or both.”

Watson also warned about relying on adaptation without sufficient effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions and said geoengineering techniques alone are not a solution to the climate change problem.

“We screwed up the planet by not understanding the planet,” he said. “It’s a little bit unwise to think we could geoengineer, but I do think it’s a wise area for more research as a back up or to complement the low-carbon economy.”