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Guest view: Northwestern Energy Net Zero commitment too little, too late

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The International Energy Agency announced this week that global greenhouse gas emissions were the largest in history in 2021. This fact illustrates why the newest IPCC report states that if we don’t at least decelerate emissions by 2030 there is no chance of keeping global temperature increase to 1.5deg.

Consequently, the Northwestern Energy Net Zero Commitment described by CEO Bob Rowe in an op-ed on March 6 is quite literally too little, and much too late. The latest, 6th Assessment IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, last August and now last week, quantify that global emissions, and temperatures, are rising at an unprecedented rate in human history. Even the COVID related economic disruption only generated a small, temporary pause. If this upward trajectory of global emissions is not broken by 2030, there will be too much momentum in the Earth system to avoid massive climate disruption that already is beginning. There is no critical temperature threshold that initiates climate disruption. The 1.5deg limit was defined to provide a policy “target” for political leaders. In reality every additional gigaton of GHG emissions accumulates impacts.

The NWE target to keep global temperature increases below 2.0 degrees is fundamentally unacceptable. The difference in climate disruption and impacts from 1.5deg to 2.0 deg is huge, and clearly quantified in the recent IPCC reports. In Montana, going from 1.5 C of global warming to 2 C means a breakdown of our forest and river ecosystems, with a longer, drier fire season, more megafires, and the death of our cold-water fisheries. It means our winter sports, skiing, snowmobiling etc will be minimal. The result will be a precipitous decline in our prime economic industries, agriculture and tourism.

I was a chapter lead author of the IPCC report that shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Back then we were careful to describe our findings of the many varied climate responses and impacts with terms like “very likely” and “high probability”. I now read the IPCC 6th Assessment reports, and the terms describing climate trends and impacts are “unequivocal” and “virtually certain”. As scientists, we are not prone to hyperbole, if anything we may be criticized for being too careful in waiting for proof before speaking. The urgency these authors are trying to convey is palpable.

I really hope the NWE Net Zero Commitment does NOT represent the “core of who we are” in the words of CEO Bob Rowe, because it dooms Montana, and the Earth to a perilous future.

Steven Running is emeritus regents professor of global ecology at the University of Montana.


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