Happy New Year (It Likely Will Be a Hot One—They All Are Now)

Both NASA and NOAA have come out with confirmation that 2014 was the warmest year on record (here). The temperature anomaly (difference from the 1951-1980 mean) was 0.68 degrees Celsius, ahead of 2010 (0.66), 2005 (o.65), 2007 (0,62) and 1998 (o.61). Data set is here.

While we have only just popped above the past record, 2014 is notably for one key fact: it is not an El Nino year. In short, we are at a stage where a typical year’s temperature is now in line with the climate skeptics favourite year: 1998. Most climate skeptic blogs cherry pick 1998 as the starting point of any analysis since this then suggests we have been in a temperature change hiatus. In reality, the year 1998 encompassed a record-breaking El Nino event, in itself an anomaly due to its sheer size.

Against this background, when the next El Nino does arrive, expect the temperature record to be smashed by a wide margin. Will it be 2015? I don’t know. But I do know that 1998 will soon seem insignificant in the historical temperature record (click for larger image).

Annual Temperature Anomaly jpeg

Accompanying the announcement, NASA also released a short video showing data visualisations of the changing global temperatures:

Unfortunately, the main driver of temperature rise is CO2, and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise (Source: NOAA here):

Atmospheric CO2 jpeg

On a longer time scale than that show in the chart above, we have seen atmospheric CO2 levels rise from around 280 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial age to around 400 ppm now. Further, the scientific community have calculated that to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a change deemed dangerous, we should put a maximum of 1,250  tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere going forward.

Given that we have a limited budget of carbon that we must stay within to keep temperature change below 2 degrees Celsius, how are we doing? According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the answer is “not good”. Every year, the IEA publishes its flagship report World Energy Outlook (WEO), and every year they assess whether we are on track to move sufficient energy generation away from fossil fuels so as not to outspend our carbon budget.

2 Degree Carbon Budget jpeg

Unfortunately, the IEA believes that on the current emissions trajectory we are going to use up the entire budget by 2040. This means that after 2040 we will have to stop burning fossil fuels completely—obviously impossible.

Moreover, in order to turn the emissions trend around we will need to quadruple investment in energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage from current levels.

Another major problem also exists. In order to stay below the 2 degree warming threshold, a large percentage of current oil, gas and coal reserves will need to stay in the ground. According to a study by University College London published in Nature, a third of oil, half of coal and 80% of coal reserves must not be burnt (see here):

It has been estimated that to have at least a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming below 2 °C throughout the twenty-first century, the cumulative carbon emissions between 2011 and 2050 need to be limited to around 1,100 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2)2, 3. However, the greenhouse gas emissions contained in present estimates of global fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this2, 4, and so the unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with a warming limit of 2 °C.

In particular, nearly all of the recently identified unconventional oil and gas reserves must not be used if we are to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change (click for larger image).

Unburned Fossil Fuels jpeg

There is an irresistible logic in these numbers that demands a step change in thinking by politicians and policy makers. The United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of the year presents a chance to try to change the trajectory of carbon emissions.

Every concerned citizen should be putting pressure on government to address what in undoubtedly the greatest risk humanity has ever faced: climate change. Here in the UK, the Campaign Against Climate Change’s Time to Act” campaign has a day of action on March 7th.  Elsewhere, 350.org continues to act as clearing house for events around the world. Personally, I believe that the campaign to prevent climate change will evolve to become the largest and most important social movement in modern times. Don’t be a bystander: get involved. To quote Churchill:

It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.

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