Is it politically possible to avert dangerous climate change?

The Stockholm Network’s Carbon Scenarios describe 3 plausible futures resulting from 3 different approaches to climate policy at the international level. Worryingly, none of the scenarios provides a policy which achieves climate ‘success’ as defined by the UK, EU and UN (a greater than 90% chance of no more than 2°C warming above preindustrial levels).

In a comment a few days ago, I mentioned Mark Lynas’ article in the Guardian titled “Climate chaos is inevitable. We can only avert oblivion.” That article refers to a new report from the Stockholm Institute, which builds scenarios for climate change based not on technical possibilities, but instead on political possibilities. Even though we have the technological capability to avoid “dangerous climate change” if the will is there, what is the chance that the actions necessary will actually be implemented. Here’s their rather oddly worded Press Release on the report:


Carbon Scenarios: Blue Sky Thinking for a Green Future

The Stockholm Network’s Carbon Scenarios – known as Kyoto Plus, Agree & Ignore and Step Change – describe 3 plausible futures resulting from 3 different approaches to climate policy at the international level. More specifically, they examine the various climatic, economic and social costs – and consequences – of international policy. Worryingly, none of the scenarios provides a policy which achieves climate ‘success’ as defined by the UK, EU and UN (a greater than 90% chance of no more than 2°C warming above preindustrial levels). Only one, Step Change, even meets the weaker definition of success of a greater than 90% chance of no more than 3°C warming above preindustrial levels that some in the UK and EU are now considering adopting in recognition of the fact that the 2 degree goal has already been missed. This should provide serious food for thought for environmental policymakers.

Summaries of the 3 scenarios follow:


  • This scenario presents one way of achieving a significant level of climate change mitigation, but still falls short of the current UK, EU and UN target.
  • It envisages a gradual process of cooperation, leading to a global cap on CO2 emissions by 2012.
  • Global average temperature has a greater than 90% chance of rising by no more than 3.15°C above preindustrial levels by 2100, and the global economy continues to grow, having successfully absorbed the costs.
  • However, longterm temperature may rise further beyond the threshold of ‘success’ and the cost and complexity of administering a global emissions trading system remains a longterm drag on growth.


  • This scenario examines the stages at which the positive momentum described above can stall and backslide, leading to competitive regionalism.
  • Global average temperature has a greater than 90% chance of rising by no more than 4.8°C above preindustrial levels by 2100, leading to a significant likelihood of substantial climate change to 2100 onwards. Moreover, while the initial costs of the global cap are not borne, regional schemes are less efficient.
  • Additional costs come from intensifying regional economic competition, including the use of carbon tariffs, and the very sizeable direct economic costs of a changing climate. Concerns about the economy in the short term lead to shortsighted decisions that substantially constrain growth in the long term and lead to serious direct human costs of climate change.


  • This scenario looks at the possibility that policy may take a radically different course in response to a step change in concern about climate change, which leads to the adoption of an entirely new policy framework – a global production cap.
  • This scenario shows the least climate change, with global average temperature having a greater than 90% chance of rising by no more than 2.85°C above preindustrial levels by 2100. As such, it is the only scenario that avoids crossing the 3°C threshold.
  • Initial costs are higher than in the other two scenarios, but the global economy sees the highest overall longterm growth due to the efficiency of the scheme, showing that a marketoriented system that focuses on the efficient allocation of carbon rather than a smorgasbord of specific sectoral policies offers the best chance of both avoiding severe climate change and maintaining economic growth while cutting emissions.

We invite readers to draw their own conclusions and use these scenarios as the basis for their own analysis. However, 3 lessons that stand out for us as critical for successfully addressing climate change are as follows:

The failure to achieve ‘success’ as defined by the UK, EU and UN: None of our scenarios has a greater than 90% chance of not going above the 2°C ceiling currently seen as the basis for climate ‘success.’ Policymakers must think seriously about adaptation to climate change now, as some degree of adaptation will be necessary, regardless of the scenario. While none of the scenarios meet the 2°C target, only Step Change meets the weaker 3°C target. The horse has bolted, but scope remains to contain the greatest damage via innovative and efficient policy.

The risks in the UNFCCC process: The current thrust of policy, although it may lead to significant climate change mitigation, is fraught with possibilities for backsliding, delay and inefficiency, as it relies on all the world’s countries moving forward slowly together. While this does not mean that this process cannot bring about significant climate change mitigation, it does mean that there are great policy risks involved.

The importance of wealth transfer: Although the developed world is responsible for the bulk of past carbon emissions, the bulk of future emissions will come from the developing world, especially its most dynamic economies. It is therefore crucial that the developing world is assisted with obtaining clean technologies. Furthermore, as at least in the short term, the bulk of the costs of a changing climate will fall on developing countries, financial assistance must be provided for allowing adequate adaptation.

Notes to Editors: The Stockholm Network is the leading panEuropean think tank and marketoriented network. It conducts research in the fields of energy & environment, health & welfare, intellectual property & competition, and offers a unique network of 130 + marketoriented think tank
s across Europe.

Using emissions modelling done by the Stockholm Network on the basis of IEA Reference and Alternative Policy Scenario emissions models, the Met Office Hadley Centre used a simple climate model to project likely temperature rises to 2100 for all three scenarios. It is important to note that the emissions modelling was done by the Stockholm Network. The Met Office Hadley Centre’s role was to convert the emissions into climate scenarios. The Met Office does not prefer any particular scenario or advocate any particular set of future emissions.

The scenario descriptions in the main report give a lot more detail, which gives us the chance to make some conclusions on the likelihood of their coming to pass.

All three scenarios make the giant assumption that the post-Kyoto process which began in Bali concludes in Copenhagen in 2009 with a global agreement on targets for reducing emissions from 2012 on, including China and the USA. If this doesn’t come to pass, then the Agree & Ignore scenario probably represents the best outcome we can hope for.

The Kyoto Plus scenario assumes that the incoming US President moves quickly to implement a cap-and-trade scheme within the US and backs a global scheme; China and South Korea join in in 2013; and in 2015 there is global agreement on measuring and controlling emissions; although there are holdouts, generally the major emitters stay on board through the next twenty years.

The Agree & Ignore scenario basically assumes that many countries do not accept the provisional targets and there is considerable backsliding. Worth quoting some details:

The opponent in the 2012 Presidential election argues that the US must not yield sovereignty to an international body and must keep climate change policy implementation at home. In the course of a bitterly fought contest, the President narrowly loses the election.

After the global cap comes into force at the end of 2012, a number of problems start to emerge.There are cases of continued foot-dragging by certain governments, which fail to meaningfully implement their national carbon cap and continue to insist on overly large allowances.The argument most often put forward is that, despite the need to deal with climate change, for many developing countries economic growth still takes priority. Many countries thus avoid the cap and do not force their industries to accept carbon pricing. South Korea, for example, is unwilling to accept a national cap despite being near the top of the developing country ladder.

As a result, parties that intend to stick to their targets, such as the EU, increasingly face substantial domestic lobbying pressures from business, which is seeking some compensation for increased costs and lost international competitiveness. Business is sceptical that the international agreement will be enacted in a meaningful way and decides to focus on lobbying at the regional level.

Developing countries are still negotiating as a bloc and are unable to agree with the developed countries on the proportional distribution of the incoming revenue. The developed bloc remains reluctant to commit to making large wealth transfers to the developing world, particularly on an ongoing basis. Increasingly, developing countries read this delay in sorting out wealth transfer, particularly adaptation provisions, as evidence of the developed world’s unwillingness to help them to reduce their carbon emissions and to adapt to climate change. As redistribution fails to materialise, developing countries – especially the major emitters, flounder and fail to actively pursue the policies that are necessary for tackling climate change, blaming their lack of progress on the absence of a wealth transfer from the developed world.

All sounds terribly plausible.

The Step Change scenario assumes the intervention of chance: there are major climate disasters in 2010 and 2011 in both the USA and China, leading to popular pressure to do something drastic. That something is agreement on a global cap on the production of fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – with the market left to find the (much higher) price that will force consumption down to meet the emissions-reduction targets. Or essentially the exact opposite of current global political leaders’ statements.

The Press Release wording is also somewhat opaque on the predicted outcomes: the desire to compare with the EU/UN targets leaves us with the horrible construction “greater than 90% chance of not going above …”, which tells us what we have a good chance of avoiding in each scenario, but doesn’t tell us what is most likely. The full report has the graph below that we need to make that conclusion.

So, the lowest scenario (the deeply implausible production cap Step Change) still has a 50% chance of exceeding a 2°C rise, the “all goes as well as could be hoped in Copenhagen and thereafter” Kyoto Plus scenario has a 50% chance of exceeding 2.5°C and a 20% chance of exceeding 3°C, while the most likely scenario (Agree & Ignore) has a 50% chance of exceeding 4°C. We can assume that any scenario where the post-Kyoto talks collapse is at or above this level.

Now is a good time to remind ourselves of what this means for Australia, referring back to “How warm will Warming be?”.  The essentially unavoidable 2°C rise means:

  • sub-tropical rain-bearing wind and weather systems will move further from the equator, meaning that drought events like those of the last few years will become more frequent and more prolonged: agricultural yields in the Murray-Darling will dr
    op dramatically;
  • about half of Queensland’s Wet Tropics will die, along with a large proportion of the species in them; the Great Barrier Reef will bleach, bleach again, die and then dissolve as the oceans absorb carbon dioxide and become more acidic;
  • cyclones will range further south and the combination of higher sea levels and consequent storm surges will wash away many coastal areas built on sand; bye-bye Noosa and Surfers
  • at two degrees or above, the Greenland ice shelf will melt: it may take centuries, but a 6-metre or so sea-level rise is coming sooner or later.

Predictions for Australia with a 3°C rise:

  • days above 35°C in NSW could increase 2- to 7-fold by 2070, while rainfall drops by 25%
  • in northern Victoria, rainfall will drop by up to 40%
  • the Murray-Darling basin will lose between a quarter and half its flow.

There is also the possibility of El Nino events that go on for decades or even the whole century.

“The combination of fire, heat and drought will make life in Australia increasingly untenable as the world warms. Farming and food production will tip into irreversible decline. Salt water will creep up the stricken river systems, poisoning groundwater supplies. Higher temperatures mean greater evaporation, further drying out vegetation and soils, and leading to huge losses from dwindling reservoirs stored behind dams.

At the very least, these changes mean big disruptions in everyday life for the average Australian, major economic losses and strict rationing of water. At worst, they may lead to population movements out of areas with too little water, and towards Tasmania and the northern tropical region whose rainfall remains more reliable. Life may simply not be possible in much of the interior as temperatures reach scorching new highs.”

So that’s the 3°C world – even the Kyoto Plus scenario probably gets us closer to this than to the 2°C rise: and as for the 4°C rise of the most likely political outcomes.

” none of the continent of Australia – except perhaps the extreme north and Tasmania – will be able to support significant crop production in the four-degree world because of heatwaves and declining rainfall.”

For completeness, we should just remind ourselves that Agree & Ignore has a 10% chance of reaching the 5°C rise world – in Mark Lynas’ words:

“With five degrees of global warming, an entirely new planet comes into being – one largely unrecognisable from the earth we know today. The remaining ice sheets are eventually eliminated from both poles. Rainforests have already burned up and disappeared. Rising sea levels have already inundated coastal cities and are beginning to penetrate far inland into continental interiors. Humans are herded into shrinking zones of habitability by the twin crises of drought and flood. Inland areas see temperatures ten or more degrees higher than now.” 

“I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that millions, and later billions, of people will die in such a scenario.” 

We already know that our new not-so-shiny government thinks that it is more important to fund a tax cut for working families than it is to act to prevent this happening. It has shown itself firmly in the Agree & Ignore camp rather than Kyoto Plus.

We can hope for better: but hope is not a plan.