Big picture: summer reading
“It is too late to be a pessimist”, I sometimes say, and continue to try to do things in relation to the climate, speak here, nudge there and start a project. Comes summer holiday, we may have some time to reflect on the big picture and on what we can do.
A recent study published in Nature tries to answer the following question: what would happen if we stop building fossil burning stuff?
To answer that question the researchers looked at all the emissions from electricity, energy, transport, residential and commercial infrastructure as of 2018. They then estimated the total “carbon commitment” – the future CO2 emissions from those structures and devices -, based on the average number of years they will be in service. A new coal plant built today, for example, will emit millions of tons of CO2 every year throughout its 40-year lifespan. A new car that emits four tons of CO2 a year has a lifetime carbon commitment of 60 tons based on a 15-year lifespan. Although some of that CO2 gets soaked up by forests and oceans, most of it will remain in the atmosphere, trapping heat, for hundreds of years – unless we deploy technologies to suck it back out again. Add up all those lifetime emissions from existing infrastructure, the researchers estimated a total carbon commitment of about 658 billion metric tons of CO2. That’s 78 billion tons above the maximum the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says can be emitted to have a chance that’s better than 50 percent of stabilizing temperatures at 1.5°C of warming.
These numbers are earlier conservative than alarmist, since they do not include emissions from agriculture and deforestation, sectors representing about 24% of emissions today. The study counted up the potential carbon commitment from the coal, gas, and oil-burning power plants that are currently under construction or in the planning stages. If those are completed, the global carbon commitment shoots up to around 846 billion tons of CO2. That would use up most of the carbon budget remaining between today and a world that’s 2°C warmer.
And that’s just power plants: the researchers didn’t attempt to estimate the carbon commitments from other new fossil fuel infrastructure — vehicles, buildings, factories — that are being built this year, or will be in future years.
Big picture: the rapid growth of renewables is not sufficient to cover the annual increase in energy demand, and to stay below the Paris 1,5°C or 2,0°C targets will require earlier retirement of fossil infrastructure than planned which poses a concern, for economic stability, as recently has been expressed by central banks and financial institutions.
Remember? Too late to be a pessimist, so what now? Several science bodies, including the IPCC, have concluded that every path to reach the 1,5°C target includes methods to suck CO2 from the sky. These “negative emissions”, CO2 removal techniques, are an essential bridge to a clean energy future. These techniques have advanced over the last decade and pilots are underway to capture CO2 from smokestacks, storing it underground or create other products with the CO2. In addition, political will to subsidize carbon removal seems to be growing.
Big picture: sucking CO2 out of the air has gone from moral hazard to moral imperative.
CO2 removal and usage technology can at best fill gaps in an overall effort to decarbonise the economy. A more holistic view needs to include our land use.
A large percentage of the forests is already lost, and billions of hectares of land are degraded. Closing the carbon cycle and managing land for carbon reduction means restoring forests, planting more trees in cities, restoring seagrasses and introduce better forest management to avoid wildfires. A study on the potential of planting trees globally was published recently, it concluded that there is enough land available to increase the world’s forest cover by 1/3 without affecting cities or agriculture. The scientists conclude that forest restoration is the best climate solution available today. New forests take decades to mature, so protecting existing forests is of vital importance. Trees use the energy of sunlight, and through the process of photosynthesis they take CO2 from the air and water from the ground. In the process of converting it into wood they release oxygen into the air. In addition to the CO2 they capture, they also help soil capture significant amounts of carbon.
Half the potential to restore trees can be found in 6 countries: Russia, USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China. The restoration potential is large because some of these countries already removed much of their existing forests. Similarly, to renewable energy, forest restoration and planting trees need to involve local communities and distributed solutions. This can be in different ways, from enriching pastures with trees, to growing coffee or cocoa beneath a forest canopy, to adding forest buffers for national parks and protected areas to enhance tourism.
Countries pledge to end deforestation, campaigns mobilize citizens. In some high potential forest restoration countries, unfortunately, leaders have been elected to office who deny the problem altogether.
Big picture: nature is about balance. Re balancing nature’s cycles; carbon, hydro and thermal, requires massive restoration of forest, degraded land and planting of trees. This is a high return option since trees have multiple environmental and social benefits. We will need a few trillion of them the coming decades, a few hundred per global citizen per year and large scale programs in the countries mentioned above.
Enjoy your holiday and hug a tree, or better, plant one.