Why “Zero Carbon”?

Why are we here at Footprint to Wings calling for a full tilt, wholesale switch to a net zero carbon economy? Don’t we simply need to achieve a modest reduction in carbon emissions?

chat Posted Nov 27, 2013 by Rezwan | Category : Check Emissions
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In case you haven’t been following it, let’s get you up to speed.

  1. Excess Carbon Emissions = Overheating Atmosphere
  2. Zero Carbon ≠ “Stop Breathing”
  3. “Zero Carbon” is shorthand. If it helps, think “net zero carbon emission equivalents.”
  4. The world is negotiating how much we can emit.
  5. The goal is to keep things at 2˚C

Excess Carbon Emissions = Overheating Atmosphere

By burning fossil fuels (and other activities) we’ve released excess carbon into the atmosphere. We’re adding heat trapping gases twice as fast as our planet absorbs them. This means the atmosphere is getting hotter all over. If we hold emissions steady at present rates, the CO2 still keeps building and it just gets hotter and hotter. National Geographic’s Carbon Bathtub infographic explains the process.

Zero Carbon emissions does not mean “Stop Breathing”

The Carbon Bathtub infographic is also useful for explaining things to people who say this:

@ProSyn @neilttweet @JeffDSachs Zero emissions in 2070. Does that mean we have to stop breathing? Tough one, that.

— Paul Gerrard (@paul_gerrard) December 1, 2015

There is carbon being drained out of the tub/atmosphere as well as being emitted into it. The point is, our fossil fuel burning, deforestation, additional greenhouse gases are creating a major overdraft in the emissions department. It’s those extra emissions we need to cancel out to get back in balance.

So what’s the worst that could happen with excess heat? We’ll get to that in a bit. For now, just keep in mind that

2. The World is Negotiating How Much We Can Emit

The world is negotiating what to do about this. The goal of those negotiations is to hold global average temperature rise below 2˚C or 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. The world is nowhere near achieving this. We have an “emissions gap.” The United Nations Environment Program has posted the full 2015 Emissions Gap Report here (pdf).

The Blue Track

A portion of a graphic in a United Nations Environment Program report shows the gap between commitments for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions filed with the United Nations by the world’s nations (the orange band) and a track (blue) deemed safe. The gray area reflects projections with no policy. Yellow is existing policies.Credit UNEP.org

Why is the blue track deemed safe?

Avoiding the Question in Planning Documents

You would think a question as fundamental as, “what is our goal?” or “what is enough?” would be easy to answer and that the answers would be clearly spelled out in all the official documents that tackle the challenge. But they are not.

Take the New Jersey Energy Master Plan (EMP).

The EMP opens by saying that there are no easy options confronting our dependence on fossil and nuclear energy, but doesn’t tell us why this is a problem or if “independence from fossils and nuclear” is the goal. It announces the Christie Administration is committed to “furthering environmental objectives” but doesn’t say what the objectives are. It says we are marching “toward deep structural changes in New Jersey’s energy infrastructure” but doesn’t say why or how quickly we need to march or how deeply we need to change things. All of the goals are incremental.

No explanation is given for the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) targets of 22.5% of electricity to be renewable by 2021 and 70% by 2050, other than that they are legislated targets. We might assume the RPS has something to do with climate change, but the words “climate change” don’t appear once in the EMP.

The RPS goals of 70% of electricity from renewable sources by 2050 are much different from the Global Warming Response Act (GWRA) goals of greenhouse gas limit of 80% below 2006 levels by 2050.

Electricity is only ~40% of energy use in New Jersey. So if your goal is to make 70% of THAT emissions free, you’re actually talking about 70% of 40%, which is 28%.

28% of everything is a lot less than the GWRA goal of 80% of everything. 

No explanation is given for this discrepancy or for the amount of transformation that would have to occur to achieve either target.

Also, no explanation is given for why 80% less GHG by 2050 is the GWRA goal in the first place.

Where Does the “80% by 2050” Target Come From

Where did the GWRA get the 80% by 2050 numbers?

The best reference for this would be the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) -  and in particular, this summary of “Emissions Reductions Needed to Stabilize Climate” - https://www.climatecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/presidentialaction.pdf

When you read it, you discover, this target doesn’t guarantee we will stabilize the climate! Not even close.

From page 4 of the pdf above: 80% reduction in GHG by 2050 is necessary to stabilize CO2 concentrations (not climate change) at about 450ppm by 2050. 

Why stabilize CO2 at 450ppm? From page 2 of the pdf: “To have a good chance (not a guarantee) of avoiding temperatures above [2ºC], atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide would need to peak below about 400 to 450 ppm and stabilize in the long-term at around today’s levels.” And “stabilizing concentrations below about 400 CO2e would give us about an 80% chance of avoiding crossing the 2ºC threshold.” 

Why 2ºC? From page 1: “Many analysts think we have already crossed into dangerous territory and that what we must now seek to avoid is truly catastrophic climate change.  The European Union and many scientific bodies have concluded that avoiding the most severe outcomes will require keeping the total global average warming to no more than 2ºC relative to pre-industrial levels…While remaining below this threshold does not guarantee avoidance of significant adverse impacts, if we exceed it, impacts are projected to become much more severe, widespread and irreversible, and we are likely to cross more dangerous thresholds in the climate system that could trigger large-scale catastrophic events.”

In other words, the 80% by 2050 GWRA numbers are geared to avoiding the most severe outcomes - and still only give us less than an 80% chance of success in that endeavor (80% by 2050 gets the concentration to 450ppm, and the “80% chance” was based on stabilizing at less than 400ppm).

This goal is inadequate, and witnessing people repeat it as a sensible target is surreal.

It’s like mildly suggesting that people use a seatbelt as they are driving at 80mph toward a concrete wall, for a less than 80% chance of getting out of it alive. Maybe you’ll get out alive (barely), but shouldn’t the goal be to not hit the wall, to not mangle your body and total the car in the first place? Wouldn’t it be much easier to steer in a different direction?

Don’t we owe it to each other to do whatever we can to change course?

And if the GWRA goals are so inadequate, how much less adequate is New Jersey’s “70% electricity by 2050 RPS” target? Is this the best we can do? Is it all we are capable of? Is that all we are settling for? Our goal is not even a third as much as the GWRA goal, which itself is a political compromise.

Recommendation: Include the Cost of Inaction in the EMP
“Wouldn’t it be much easier to steer in a different direction?” Is that a naive question?  We all know that changing direction is socially and politically difficult and carries a cost. We tend to focus on that side of the equation. But what about the other side? What does it cost NOT to act?

The cost of various specific actions are estimated in the EMP. What is missing is any estimate for the cost of inaction. Citizens need the cost of both action and inaction spelled out in clear and unflinching detail in order to make an informed decision.  It is the job of the EMP to make this information as clear as possible.

What will climate change cost the state of New Jersey? What is it costing now? What would the damages be from only achieving the 70% electricity RPS goal? The 80% GHG GWRA goal? What are the consequences of NOT switching to a zero carbon econoour?

Recommendation: Acknowledge denial and political compromise.
We are facing an enormous challenge that people would rather not think about. The EMP can’t change this urge in people to deny and avoid, but it can put it on the table and shine light on it.  As planners, it is our obligation to help overcome the mental barriers to problem solving. Some suggestions to help the EMP accomplish this.
• Reference and direct people to the book, “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” http://www.climateconviction.org/
• Don’t turn away from looking at worst case scenarios. We need our eyes open. I quote James Box, climate scientist: “We’re on a trajectory to an unmanageable heating scenario, and we need to get off it. We’re fucked at a certain point, right? It just becomes unmanageable. The climate dragon is being poked, and eventually the dragon becomes pissed off enough to trash the place.” Source: http://www.salon.com/2014/08/06/climate_scientist_drops_the_f_bomb_after_startling_arctic_discovery/
• Reference “The Awful Truth About Climate Change no one wants to admit” in which David Roberts invites us to contemplate the range of climate modeling scenarios and lets it sink in that politicians are basing our action on the most optimistic of these scenarios. As any planner or engineer knows, you don’t design for the best case, you design for the worst case.

Recommendation: Put the Timeline on the table
How much time do we have? Is 2050 soon enough? Is 2021 soon enough? The EMP Says, “The Christie Administration recognizes that New Jersey must take a far longer view than ten years in order to pour the energy foundation for a clean and secure energy future for decades to come.” Do we have “decades”? Do we have longer than 10 years? Per the PCAP, aren’t we already in overtime? 

Why ask the citizens to reconsider the timeline? Each person in the State needs to own this problem. It is not the job of the government to impose a doctrine but to execute the will of the citizens. This is a big decision, and we need every citizen to realize they need to make a choice.

Recommendation: Put the “Zero” question on the table
As noted in the section on assumptions, the 80% by 2050 goal is inadequate, and the New Jersey RPS of 70% electricity only is even less adequate. Unfortunately, that’s as far as our legislated targets go.

The EMP is a planning document, however, and has the flexibility to include examples, scenarios, tables and all kinds of useful information to enable challenges to the legislated target. It is within its scope to provide information that enables the People of New Jersey to ask, is keeping with the legislated target good enough for us? Is a world in which we (maybe, it’s not guaranteed) “avoid truly catastrophic climate change” good enough for us?  Or do we want the option of considering a more ambitious scenario in which we actually stop and reverse climate change, and maintain our climate in the comfortable zone which we are presently accustomed to, if at all possible?

That scenario is a net zero carbon scenario, maybe even a net negative carbon scenario. The option is omitted from the 2011 EMP but it must be included in the next version, even if only as an appendix. If you don’t include it, you’re accountable to the people of this State for misleading them into thinking we didn’t need to do anything. If you include it, you have done your job, and it’s on the citizens to decide if they want to heed the warning.

Most citizens of this great State aren’t aware of just how serious the threat is. Those who are aware may not realize how much of a compromise 80% by 2050 is.  The EMP needs to be responsible and explicitly make this information known. 

We have faith that the people of New Jersey are capable of making tough decisions, if adequately informed.

After giving our comments on the New Jersey Energy Master Plan, I got this feedback:

When I make a public statement, I try to think about how it will be perceived by others.  By talking about zero carbon energy rather than say 80% by 2050,  I’m sure you realize that you are putting yourself outside the NJ environmental mainstream (Sierra Club, Environment NJ).  You could be viewed as either a visionary or a hero or a crackpot or a dreamer, depending upon who you talk to.  I guess one definite benefit of having your position made public is that it makes the NJ environmental mainstream organizations’ positions of 80% carbon by 2050 look much more plausible by comparison, and less extreme to the non-environmental community.

So the bottom line is, I applaud your courage to squarely face the reality of our climate situation and to stick your neck out in public and lead the way in NJ with a goal of zero carbon;  somebody’s got to do it. I view you as a both a visionary and a hero; keep doing what you’re doing.



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