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'Last Chance': Warming Could Be Limited to 1.5°C With Immediate Phaseout of Fossil Fuel Infrastructure, Researchers Say
It is still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications found, as long as we act immediately to phase out fossil fuels.
The study used a climate model to determine what would happen if, beginning at the end of 2018, all existing fossil fuel infrastructure—from industrial equipment to cars to planes to ships to power plants—was replaced with renewable alternatives at the end of its design lifetime. The researchers found there would be a 64 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, in line with the most ambitious goal of the Paris agreement.
"It's good news from a geophysical point of view," lead study author and University of Leeds researcher Dr. Chris Smith told The Guardian. "But on the other side of the coin, the [immediate fossil fuel phaseout] is really at the limit of what we could we possibly do. We are basically saying we can't build anything now that emits fossil fuels."
To get their results, the researchers made the following assumptions about what a fast, medium and slow phaseout beginning at the end of 2018 would mean:
- Power plants and industrial infrastructure like cement kilns would end their lifespans within 30, 40 or 50 years.
- Planes and ships would end their lifespans within 21, 26 or 31 years.
- Cars would end their lifespan within 12.7, 15.6 or 18 years.
- Meat consumption would also quickly decline.
- Tipping points such as the release of methane from permafrost would not be reached.
If, alternatively, policy makers wait until 2030 to begin phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure, warming has only a 33 percent chance of stopping at 1.5 degrees Celsius, The Guardian reported.
Smith and the other scientists who worked on the paper acknowledged to The Guardian that the targets they set in the paper were ambitious, but it was important to show that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees was still possible. A major report released in October 2018 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees compared to two could save hundreds of millions of people from climate related poverty and preserve 29 to 9 percent of coral reefs, among other benefits.
"Our research found that the current amount of fossil fuel infrastructure in the global economy does not yet commit us to exceeding the 1.5°C temperature rise limit put forward by the Paris Agreement," Smith said in a University of Leeds press release. "We may have missed starting the phase out by the end of 2018, but we are still within the margin of achieving the scenario the model put forward."
Fellow scientists applauded the implicit call to action.
"Whether it's drilling a new gas well, keeping an old coal power station open, or even buying a diesel car, the choices we make today will largely determine the climate pathways of tomorrow," University of Edinburgh chair in carbon management and education professor Dave Reay told The Guardian. "The message of this new study is loud and clear: act now or see the last chance for a safer climate future ebb away."
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By Will Sarni
It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.
The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future
We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.
"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.
One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.
Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.
Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.
These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.
We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).
We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.
We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.
Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.
Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
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