Apocalypse 2011: The year of climate alarms

By Tierney Smith

In this year's starkest warning the IEA said the door for action against climate change would only remain open until 2017 (Source: UN)

Scientists offered  stark warnings in 2011 about what the world would experience if climate change ran out of control.

As people ready themselves for a new year full of new promise, RTCC asks what lessons can be learnt from last year’s key research findings.

Greenhouse gas emissions

One of the clearest warnings in 2011 came from the International Energy Agency (IEA) who said that the world has just five years to prevent dangerous climate change.

Speaking at the report’s launch Fatih Birol, the IEA’s cheif economist said: “If by 2017 there has not been major investment then the door for two degrees will close. We looked at the current infrastructure in terms of power generation and vehicles. Under current policy we are looking at a potential warming of six degrees.”

This was supported by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report ‘Bridging the Emissions Gap’. It found limiting warming to 2°C is possible but would require a speedy roll-out of renewable technology and increased energy efficiency.

The report also warned that without such action there would continue to be an annual gap of 12 gigatonnes between what the world is producing and what sciencists recommend it can take.

These warnings came just weeks after a report from the US Department of Energy (DOE) found that 2010 saw a record rise in global carbon emissions – showing that the dip caused by the global recession was well and truly over.

The DOE’s figures also calculated that greenhouse emission levels were higher than the worst case scenario outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) four years ago, a finding that was echoed by the IEA and the Global Carbon Project this year.

2012 could also see a shift in the way that countries think about and record their emissions following research this year. Currently countries’ registered emissions are only those produced within the states boundaries.

Research this year from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research looked to take into account the role imports and exports and consumption patterns could have when reporting emissions.

Within the study, a country which has high emissions but also exports a lot of products overseas – like China – would see its registered emissions go down, while a country like the UK which imports a lot of goods would see their recorded emissions go up.

Extreme weather

The weather was another hot topic this year. In February research from the University of Oxford and the UK’s MET Office  became the first of its kind that attempted to directly link a weather event and climate change.

They concluded that the severe flooding the UK experienced in 2000 could be attributed to climate change.

In April, another attempt was made to develop this link. This time research published in the journal Science examined the ‘mega-heatwaves’ which baked much of Europe in 2003 and 2010.

The research called for adaptation methods to be put in place, such as early warning systems and increased help for the vulnerable. It predicted heatwaves would increase in frequency.

A special report by the IPCC also aimed to clarify the link. Unlike other studies, this research looked at multiple types of weather events and found that rainfall, storms and droughts will be more frequent with uncontrolled climate change.

Speaking at the launch of the report summary Dr Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC said: “We want policy makers to pick up several areas of this report to come up with actions at all levels; national, regional and international.”

2011 finished with figures from the UK MET Office revealing that 2011 was the second warmest year on record in the UK.

Glacier melt and rising seas

As well as increased weather extremes, research this year pointed towards the growing threat of glacier melt and sea level rise on people’s lives.

Two separate reports, one from the US based National Snow and Ice Data Center and one from the University of Bremen point towards record sea ice melt in the Artic during the summer months, a figure which is backed up by NASA.

Meanwhile the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that sea levels were increasing at the highest rate in over 2000 years.

After examining sediments from the US Atlantic Coast the research found that after many centuries with fairly stable sea levels, these suddenly started to rise around the year 1900.

Research published at COP17 in Durban from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) – which is responsible for tracking glacier retreat – found examples across all regions of Asia’s mountainous Hindu Kush-Himalayan, where 30% of the world’s glaciers are found alongside some of the world’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest.

Climate impacts

Research this year also looked at where the effects of climate change will be felt the most.

A study by the MET Office’s Hadley Centre found that the impacts of climate will be shared across the globe. Their research focused on 24 countries, both in the developed and developing world and found that a majority would see rises in temperatures as well as increased risk from sea level rise, flooding and declining food security.

Meanwhile a study from Maplecroft, mapped countries’ vulnerability to climate change. This highlighted the  fact that those countries that did least to cause the problem would be most vulnerable to future impacts.

A report out this year from the Foresight Group predicted widespread migration away from areas at high risk from climate disasters. It warned that previous research into this area had been underestimated.


Not all of this year’s research pointed to doom and gloom. In May, the IPCC released another special report which took a look at the potential for renewables in supplementing energy supply.

The report found that as much as 80% of the world’s energy could be produced by renewables by 2050 if it were backed by the right policies. This in turn could mean cumulative greenhouse gas saving equivalent of 220-560 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide between 2010-2050.

Researchers at WWF predicted even higher levels of renewable capability in their report.

Their Energy Report paints a scenario where by 2050, the world is run on 100% renewable energy, a target which WWF says is achievable.

Moving into 2012

2011 was a remarkable year both in terms of quality and weight of climate research conducted. Despite a continued climate skeptic camp, there can be little doubt about the cause and effects of climate change.

For now there is still time but Fatih Birol from the IEA warned, this time is running out.

In the UK, companies are showing their faith in the renewables sector, with £2.5 billion worth of investment, meanwhile wind company Vestas has ended its year with deals in Poland, Germany, France, the UK and Pakistan – representing over 259MW of power.

While science and business are leading the pace heading into the new year, the question now is will the politicians follow?

Contact the author of this story @rtcc_tierney or email [email protected]

CLIMATE CHANGE TV: IPCC chief Dr Rajendra Pachauri says he’s worried at the ‘lack of urgency’ among the world’s politicians to tackle climate change.

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