Why Emissions Must Be Cut Now, Not Later

Climate Change Action Now Or Else
Climate Change Action Now

It seems that climate change is in the news nearly every day, in one form or another. There is a lot of buzz around the upcoming international talks in Copenhagen. Some worry nothing or not enough will come of it whilst others are hopeful progress will be made. I fall into the moderate category: think something will come from it (for if nothing else, political reasons), but I am worried that it will not be enough.

So far Europe has by been ahead of the curve on cutting their emissions, in regards to other developed nations (most notably the US). The US has definitely change its stance on global climate change: now our government acknowledges its existence, unlike the previous administration. However, talk about serious cuts is still only circling around the long-term cuts, not the immediate ones.

This doesn’t work – the biggest cuts have to come soon. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that we must cut our emissions by 25-to-40 percent by 2020 but we’re only talking about the 80 percent cut by 2050. Worse yet, those cuts are supposed to be base on 1990 levels, whereas we’re basing them on current levels which are higher (still “yet to be specified”). The IPCC is basing these numbers on the total concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (the top scientist recently admitted this should be around 350ppmthe current level is 387ppm).

It’s All About the Integral

Alright, I’m going to throw a little math your way – be prepared. It’s conceptual so you should be fine (there are even pictures and links!). The concept is simple, the rate of emissions doesn’t matter as much as the total amount of emissions. Why is that? Think about it this way: we’re in a race towards the apocalypse and the US is in the lead. Not because the US has the fastest car, but because we had the largest head start.

Sure, China is going faster than us but they are behind us in total CO2 emissions contributed. Actually, per capita we emit about 4x as much, they just have a lot more people. However, arguing about who’s the fastest car on the track is silly when the US has covered the most distance to date – see this pdf I complied with data from World Resources Institute. That’s not to say China couldn’t catch up – that’s beside the point. My point here is that it’s distance that wins the race, not necessarily speed.  And that is why in the land of totals, the integral is king….

Fast Versus Slow Carbon Reduction: The Integral Matters Most
Fast Versus Slow Carbon Reduction: The Integral Matters Most

I have heard this idea before and see some visualizations, but it was in George Monbiot‘s book Heat that I saw the visual that brings home the point. Take a look at these simple graphs. They show two options: (1) the slow carbon reduction – making the biggest cuts closer to our end date, and (2) the fast carbon reduction – making the biggest cuts now. Remember, it is the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is what makes up the concentration (that ppm number that we want down to 350ppm) that is increasing the greenhouse effect leading to global climate change.

You’ll notice the shaded area below the lines on these graphs (in mathematics the area under the curve is called the integral). Those areas represent the total CO2 emitted. This is the important number – the one we’re trying to reduce – not the rate of emissions (or the slope of the line), but the total concentration (the area under the line). While the rate is important, it is the total concentration that will decide our fate.

This is why immediate cuts are more important and will make the biggest impact. (Sideline: The first 40% is cheap) Big cuts now will make the area under that line much smaller than the long term cuts. Short term targets are just as, if not more, important than long term targets. I hope the agreements made at Copenhagen make some serious headway on concrete, short-term goals as well as the long-term ones.

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