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Dr. Christopher Smith of Leeds University explains that meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord remains possible if we end meat consumption and build no new fossil fuels infrastructure
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.
The Paris climate agreement includes the aim to pursue efforts to limit global mean temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, we are now so close to that threshold, and efforts to reduce global emissions have been so inadequate, that more and more members of the scientific community have questioned whether remaining below that limit is realistically possible.
Now a new study has revived hopes that we can indeed keep the global temperature increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The study is entitled Current Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Does Not Yet Commit Us to 1.5 Degrees Celsius Warming, and here with us to discuss it is its lead author, Dr. Chris Smith. Dr. Smith is a research fellow in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. He is a climate scientist whose expertise includes climate modeling. And he joins us today from Leeds. Thanks for coming onto The Real News, Dr. Smith.
Dr. Smith, before we get to the study, could you tell us how close we currently are to the 1.5 degree threshold?
CHRIS SMITH: Yes. So in the study we looked at the combined human warming effect since pre-industrial. And we figure this to be 1.1 degrees up until the present day. And this is based on the total anthropogenic warming since around about–it’s mid-1800s. And so we’ve basically got another, another 0.4 degrees of warming that we can afford before we hit 1.5 degrees. And we sort of really need to try and sort of figure out the best way of keeping temperature change as low as possible over the coming century.
So what we’ve done in this study, really, is look at if we sort of didn’t retire any of the infrastructure that was currently in existence before it was due to, based on the historical lifetime that we expect from things like power stations and cars, then we find that actually–we can actually keep global warming under 1.5 degrees that way if we start phasing it out immediately.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And when you say ‘infrastructure,’ I understand that to mean fossil fuels infrastructure in particular. Is that correct?
CHRIS SMITH: That’s correct, yes. We looked at power plants we looked at cars, ships, airplanes. And we also looked at some [inaudible] manufacturing. And included in the study was also the assumption that we would actually stop meat farming, as well. So we treated cows and other agricultural emissions as an asset, because theoretically we could stop eating cows if we, if we just ate them all over the next three or four years. So that would actually reduce quite a large chunk of methane. As you may or may not know, methane is another important, potent greenhouse gas, and to keep its level of emission as low as possible is another way to mitigate climate change.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So to be clear, your study concluded that in order for us to remain within 1.5 degrees Celsius we would have to not only retire existing fossil fuels infrastructure at the time of the end of its useful life, but in addition we’d have to hold meat consumption levels at their current levels? Or we’d have to cease meat consumption altogether?
CHRIS SMITH: We would have to cease meat consumption altogether. So this is a really sort of big ask that would upset quite a lot of people, to actually come out and say this. But what we find is actually that we can vary those assumptions around how we treat agricultural emissions. And there’s not a big difference in the level of temperature change over the coming century between this assumption and aggressive mitigation assumptions about agriculture that we use, for example, in the last IPCC assessment report. The big difference actually comes in the warming towards the end of the 21st century. There are assumptions the temperature continues to decline after after it reaches its peak. So in effect, the agricultural assumptions are important, but they aren’t the biggest contribution to climate change over the coming century.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So as we’ve extensively reported on The Real News, numerous governments, including and particularly the Canadian government of Justin Trudeau, are committed to building new fossil fuels infrastructure, including the highly controversial Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline in Western Canada. Are we correct in understanding that under this scenario examined in your study, even if we could persuade the global community to put an end to meat consumption, and thereby limit quite considerably our greenhouse gas emissions, we would still be obliged not to build any new fossil fuels infrastructure henceforth. Is that correct?
CHRIS SMITH: Yeah, that is, that is correct. We look at only the infrastructure that’s currently in existence. So there are other studies that have also taken into account fossil fuel infrastructure that is under construction and fossil fuel infrastructure that is currently planned. When you include the planned and under construction infrastructure then that would take you over 1.5 degrees. What we are saying is you have to stop now. If you stop now, then you can stay under 1.5 degrees.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And finally, Dr. Smith, in broad strokes, what do you anticipate? What does the scientific community anticipate the world would look like relative to conditions prevailing today, were we to warm the planet up to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels?
CHRIS SMITH: Well, any level of climate change is associated with damages. And the real focus of the IPCC special reports of 1.5 degrees was to look at–or one of the focuses was to look at the levels of damages at various levels of global warming. And for each fraction of a degree of warming, the associated losses, damages, become more severe. And, furthermore, they don’t necessarily do this at a linear rate.
So for example, compare 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees. You’re talking about the extinction of all coral reefs. At 1.5 degrees that would be very severe extinctions, but it’s likely that some would survive. So we’re talking–we’re talking differences in biodiversity loss, differences in extreme weather and how that could affect populations around the world. We also find that typically the countries and regions of the world that are hardest hit are the ones that are currently least able to adapt or prevent these damages happening.
So it’s important, really, to take a global approach on this. Because if people are affected by climate change in the developing world, this could cause, as well as being a moral issue, it can cause severe unrest, possible skirmishes over resources, and migrations, as well. So what we’re really sort of–it’s really sort of the most–the more climate change you can avoid, the lower the total damages will be.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: We’ve been speaking to Dr. Chris Smith of Leeds University about a new study examining the prospects for remaining within the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increase. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dr. Smith.
CHRIS SMITH: Thank you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network.