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50 by ’50 for 50

Is it really getting warmer?

This September was the warmest September on record globally, heading for 2014 to be the warmest year on record. The 10 warmest years since records began (more than 150 years ago) have all occurred since 1998.

The last month that was colder than the long term average was February 1984. That’s 247 months in a row warmer than average. If this were random natural variation, as some US Senators claim, the chance this sequence would occur is roughly 4 with 74 zeroes after it, to 1 against.

To get a sense of that improbability - if you flipped a coin every second, and you started flipping when Earth formed 6 billion years ago, you would have gotten a tail every single time. You would still be flipping today…and for billions more years… waiting for it to come up heads…

Two degree, or not two degree? That is the question…

Politicians talk about the 2oC ‘guard rail’, implying if we can keep global temperatures from rising more than 2oC beyond the long term average, we’ll be OK. That’s what was agreed in Copenhagen back in 2009, and reiterated as recently as September this year at the global climate summit.

Scientists characterize a 2oC increase as the boundary between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’.

Less than a 2oC increase has a good chance of avoiding catastrophic, sudden changes, like rapid break-up of the Greenland ice sheet (that would result in 7m sea level rise).

But it should not be characterized as ‘safe’. 2oC will:

  • Alter hydrological patterns (rainfall and evaporation) over entire regions, making entire ecosystems unviable;
  • Dramatically increase the likelihood and destructive power of extreme events;
  • Require major changes in agricultural practices in every country, disrupting cultures built over many generations;
  • Decimate biodiversity that can’t adapt fast enough;
  • Eradicate tropical glaciers and Arctic summer sea ice;
  • Create more than 5 million ‘climate refugees’; and
  • See several small island states go under the sea.

At current rates, we’ll blow past 2oC before 2060.

Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their summary of the 5th update on the science relating to the changing climate. Even in the dry language of scientists, the conclusion is stark:

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

Reading into the details, the best science estimates we need to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050 to have a 50% chance of staying below 2oC.

But concentrations of greenhouse gases are growing.

In 2013, global CO2 concentrations grew by 2.95 parts per million (about 0.8%), when they need to be falling at around 4% per year to have a better than 2 in 3 chance of staying below 2oC. The only time and place emissions have fallen at more than 3% per year, was 1991-1994 in the Ukraine and Russia, as their economies rapidly shrank after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

It’s hard to find a solution to this problem, and it’s easy to be pessimistic.

You’re looking in the wrong place!

In Rwanda, DelAgua is partnering with the Ministry of Health to deliver the Tubeho Neza campaign to provide the poorest people (about 30% of the population) with efficient cookstoves and water filters. This means people use less fuelwood for cooking and purifying water through boiling, which reduces and avoids CO2 from going to the atmosphere.

We’re also making these same climate friendly products available for sale to the other 70% of the population, to deliver even more mitigation.

Under practical field conditions, the average household uses about 50% less fuelwood, and so has 50% less emissions. There’s our target met: 34 years early!

Once the Tubeho Neza campaign is complete, according to national statistics, the total demand for fuelwood will be reduced to below the national supply. In other words, more biomass grows than is burnt.

What happens to the surplus?

Some dead wood and plants will rot and oxidise as part of natural processes that release CO2 to the atmosphere – a process that does not contribute to climate change as long as the ecosystem is in balance (as much CO2 is absorbed from the atmosphere as is emitted).

Some of the surplus will find other productive purposes: wood for construction and furniture, displacing wood that currently drives illegal logging and deforestation with much higher emission levels.

The biggest contribution will be in accumulating carbon in the landscape: more diverse and thicker forests, with multi-storeys of flora. More fallen timber, sticks and leaf litter that returns the carbon to the soils, enriching the soil and increasing the depth of the soil profile, locking the carbon safely out of the atmosphere indefinitely.

Transformation

The Rwandan ecosystem will be transformed from being a net source of emissions, to a net sink: pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequestering it safely away. CO2 that may have come from the UK, the US or China.

Rwanda is only 11 million people out of more than 2.6 billion (about 0.5%) who cook inefficiently with biomass every day. Solutions in Rwanda won’t work everywhere, but lessons are being learnt and shared by DelAgua and other ambitious companies and organisations. Variations, improvements and similar solutions can be applied in other contexts to deliver comparable results and transformations across the globe.

This won’t solve climate change.

But it can put a big dent in the emissions profile now, and put developing economies like Rwanda on a more sustainable, non-fossil development pathway to avoid making the problem worse.

More than that – very large scale emission reductions can be achieved, with concerted effort, within a decade.

This can ‘buy time’ for the developed world to transition out of coal and oil toward cleaner and zero-emissions economies, minimizing hard socio-economic shocks. It is very hard, politically and economically, to close an operating power station. It is much more tenable to replace dirty with clean, and build clean power supplies to replace the coal and oil systems as they reach the end of their design life. We should have started this process 15 years ago, but we didn’t. Now we need more time.

Help from Rwanda

Rwanda can’t afford to solve global problems. In fact, Rwanda could use a little help dealing with its own health and poverty challenges.

The Tubeho Neza campaign drastically improves lives by delivering safe water and cleaner air to protect and improve health, save time and money for the poorest households, with women and children being the primary beneficiaries.

Putting a price on carbon shares the cost: it helps Rwanda; and helps Rwanda help us buy time to transition to cleaner societies.

This is a feasible solution to what seems like an intractable problem.

Image: Jonathan Banks

Author: Matt Spannagle, DelAgua, Climate Partnerships Manager

Publish Date: 11.11.2014

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