|Source: Cheerfulmonk, Creative Commons
Two weeks ago the (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the concentration of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm).
In 1997 in the Japanese city of Kyoto an international Protocol was signed by 169 of the World’s nations. This Protocol required the World’s industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% compared to 1990 by the year 2012.
Signing is a largely symbolic act. The more significant act is to ratify an Agreement. Significantly, two of the World’s leading emitters, the US and Australia, refused to sign the Protocol until the end of 2007.
Since 1997 global emissions have increased well beyond what our international leaders intended to happen.
The World Meteorological Organization reports that the level of radiative forcing1 in 2012 was 32% greater than in 1990, with CO2 emissions accounting for 80% of this increase.
In 1990 (the base year for the Kyoto Protocol) atmospheric CO2 was around 350 ppm. By 2012 (Kyoto’s target year) it had surpassed 390 ppm and was climbing quickly towards 400 ppm.
Why? What happened to the intentions of 1997?
Future Intentions versus Present Actions
Some research a few years ago strongly suggests that our values better predict our future intentions than they do our present behavioural actions.2 So, when it comes to how we act now, we often ignore our values and act according to much lower standards.
We do so at our peril. Delaying action in some areas of our lives still gives us the option in the future to act according to our values and desires. However, with greenhouse gas emissions and global warming we do not have that luxury. What we do today has a significant effect on what happens in the future. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are cumulative. It is not a case of 400 ppm this year and then on 1 January next year we start over again. The concentration on 1 January begins at whatever the concentration was on 31 December.
It’s like having a bathtub without a plughole. If in the first minute of running the bath you have a litre of water in the bath then in the second minute the bath will have a total of 2 litres and so on. You never drain any of the water. Keeping on at that rate the bath will eventually overflow – at our peril.
So it is with greenhouse gas emissions. We keep adding to the atmospheric concentration until the atmosphere cannot cope – at our peril.
1. Radiative forcing is the difference in radiant energy received by the Earth and that radiated into space. A positive forcing warms the system (the Earth).
2. Eyal et al. When values matter, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, January 2009, Vol 45(1), pp 35-43.