There is no silver bullet for climate change, just as there’s no silver bullet for software engineering. To understand why this is, you need to understand the magnitude of the problem.

Firstly, there’s the question of what a “safe” temperature rise would be. There’s a broad consensus among climate scientists that about a rise of around 2°C (above pre-industrial levels) is a sensible upper limit. I’ve asked a number of climate scientists why this threshold, and the answer is that above this level, scary feedback effects start to kick in, and then we’re in serious trouble. If you look at the assessments from the IPCC, the lowest stabilization level they consider is 450 ppm (parts per million), but its clear from their figures that even at this level, we would overshoot the 2°C threshold. Since that report, some scientists have argued this is way too high, and 350ppm would be a better target. Worryingly, the last IPCC assessment was based on climate models that did not include feedback effects.

Then, there’s the question of how to get there. Stabilizing at 350-450ppm requires a reduction of greenhouse emissions of around 80% in industrialized nations by the year 2050. Monbiot argues that if you think in terms of a reduction per capita, you have to allow for population growth. So that really means a reduction more like 90% per person. And again, due to our uncertainty about feedback effects, the emissions targets may need to be even lower.

How do reduce emissions by 90% per person? The problem is that our emissions of greenhouse gases come from everything we do, and no one activity or industry dominates. I was looking for a good graphic for my ICSE talk, to illustrate this point, when I came across this chart of sources of emissions:


World Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector

World Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector



I think that’s enough on it’s own to show there is not likely to be a silver bullet. The only way to solve the problem is a systemic analysis of sources of emissions, and we have to take into account a huge number of different options. If you want more detail on the figures, Jon Rynn at Grist has started to put together some spreadsheets to add up all the sources of emissions, and some specific contributors.

BTW, the IPCC’s frequently asked questions is a great primer for anyone new to the physics of climate change.

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