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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: The Sources of Warming – Knowing What We Don’t Know

Tim Nixon

24 Sep 2018

There are a few things we do know with a high degree of certainty about climate.  First, we know the earth’s surface is warming and sea levels are rising.  Second, we know that this warming and rising tracks the rise of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Third, we know this current rise started with the industrial revolution, and accelerated at an unprecedented rate over the last 50 years.  This chart from Professor Jess Adkins at Caltech helps put the unprecedented rise in atmospheric CO2 and temperature in historical context (note our current CO2 state is at the tip of the arrow, or at 410 ppm – off the historical chart):

What we don’t know is equally impressive, and becoming more of a problem as we seek to do something effective to stop the runaway climate change train.  Two key questions we don’t have good answers for are, first, what are the plans to reduce emissions from the largest global emitters, and second, how do we engage those emitters who are not planning on reducing to convince them to do so in time to matter?

The first problem is all about disclosure.  When we look at the historical emissions data itself, we find that that around 2/3 of all anthropogenic (human sourced) emissions came from private sector sources.  Even more importantly, about 1/2 of that total every year comes from just a handful of around 250 global corporations and their supply chains.  These are the oil, gas, transportation, capital goods, and mining engines of the world from which we have all benefited, and through which lies a key solution to climate change.

The problem is essentially that most of these companies do not voluntarily disclose their past GHG emissions and their go-forward plans for reduction.  In lieu of disclosure, outside experts try to estimate the numbers.  What results is a guessing game on who matters most, and what their rate of increase or decrease is over time.

It’s like having 100 factories on a river from which we all must drink.  One-third disclose what they put into it.  Two-thirds do not.  It’s simply untenable at a time when the data on C02 concentration is literally off the historical chart.

So what to do about it?  What are our pathways to engagement which lead to transparency and then actual decarbonization of global business models?

First, we can ask for disclosure in increasingly compelling ways.  This means regulation requiring disclosure, which is slowly but surely emerging, as we see with recent European moves to require corporate and investor reporting on carbon.  This also means other stakeholders like investors and consumers demanding disclosure, which is also happening, with slow but steady progress.  Witness the recent engagements with Exxon and Chevron by investors to require public planning for a carbon constrained world.

But what can move the needle more quickly, helping the world to move in the next five years when the opportunity for action is least expensive and disruptive?  The answer increasingly may be scientists in partnership with policymakers some of the largest and most progressive global corporations and investors.

European Space Agency scientists revealed in a recent report that the capability to measure GHG levels and emission sources from orbit will allow for the generation of “unprecedented images” of the global distribution and change over time from greenhouse gases.  And the collaboration across space agencies is increasing. Next month in Paris, the United Nations Science, Business & Policy Forum will be hosting a special meeting with most of the global space agencies on how to combine data, artificial intelligence, and key partners to identify and manage sources of emissions.

And key partners are aligning with this work.  Google’s Rebecca Moore, Director, Google Earth, Earth Engine & Outreach, recently launched an Environmental Insights Explorer, designed to make it easier to analyze carbon data and act on it.  She says next steps will include “expanding to thousands of cities around the globe and adding more valuable data sets which will be put in the hands of everyone to help build a dynamic digital planet.  We seek to hep understand, manage, conserve and protect the one planet we have.”  Google’s recently launched beta version includes views like this:

What does all this mean for the second question on how to do something in time to matter?   First it means that if the major global emitters are not disclosing, their emissions could soon be measured for them and disclosed.  Second, it means that if they have been disclosing incorrectly, their emissions can be publicly corrected.  Dr. Neil Fromer, Executive Director for the Resnick Institute at Caltech adds that “this will likely include not just CO2 emissions across networks of suppliers, but also the most dangerous emissions which must be reduced most quickly, such as methane venting from oil and gas fields.”

But most importantly, it means that the world will soon have increasingly powerful measurements to better manage the climate problem.  Reputational, investor and regulatory risk will increase with emissions.  It means we can focus on the climate problem in a way which makes what was unknown known, and gives us all a chance to measure and manage earth’s largest and growing risk by engaging with the largest emitters of the world with increasing levels of data, leverage and opportunity for future-proofing their businesses.



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