The Peril of Faith in a Net-Zero Target for Carbon Emissions

Global warming from power stations generating electricity
Photo: Anon. Pixabay, CCO. Electric Towers during Golden Hour.

“… Our goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 …” Joe Biden (Reuters, February 23, 2021)

A laudable goal reinforced by the President this week on Earth Day. However, the same day, three leading climate experts writing in The Conversation (US edition) condemned ‘net zero’. Of course they weren’t recanting global warming as an existential threat. They fear by putting off to a future gamble what needs to be done today we will lose the race to rein in average global temperature rise by < 2ºC. False hope in unproven technologies promised ‘just over the horizon’ encourages CO2 emissions to soar from business as usual.

Commentators have welcomed the frankness, though one admitted that few people, even those who deeply care, will read a lengthy article. He recommended reaching people through bullet points. I therefore wrote the summary below, hoping to be faithful to the authors while acknowledging I am no expert.

  • James Hansen (NASA) testified to the US Congress in 1988 that greenhouse gas emissions from human sources were already warming the planet
  • Faith in technological salvation has continued to diminish the sense of urgency, postponing solutions to the future
  • The polemical mantra is we can burn now (fossil fuels) and pay later, trusting the ‘wisdom’ of the market
  • From the 1990s, elegant computer models attempt to project emissions from investments in new technology with links to impacts on economies. Testing scenarios in silico (e.g. planting trees, carbon sequestration) offer quick and cheap projections compared to real-life simulations. They continue to be a bedrock even as successive hopes have dashed
  • The first hope: plant trees, though we can’t plant enough in the world to sink all the anthropogenic carbon and the attempt would harm biodiversity and food production
  • The second: improved energy efficiency with a gradual switch from coal to gas (+ nuclear) has hardly shifted the ascending curve
  • The third: carbon capture from power plants with storage underground, a great concept though exceedingly costly to scale up (admitted at Copenhagen Summit 2009)
  • The fourth: a combination of burning wood and farm waste plus carbon storage was a principled achievement for climate justice at Paris 2015, but is it workable?
  • The fifth: direct capture of atmospheric CO2 but only been achieved on a small scale in practice
  • The sixth: geoengineering by injecting sulphuric acid into the stratosphere to reflect back solar radiation, but what could be the unintended consequences?
  • Beautiful in theory, but can a computer algorithm match the deep and dynamic complexity of social and political realities across the globe?
  • The 1992 Rio Summit was supposed to kick start mitigation, but since then, instead of stabilizing, atmospheric CO2 has risen by 60%

The emperors of technology have no clothes. Among the many problems facing humanity, none requires more urgent attention than warming of our planet that is happening too fast for the biosphere to comfortably adapt. Net-zero policies are focused on reigning in emissions targeted to some wobbly date in future. Meanwhile, precious time is lost with irreversible damage to ecosystems.

The authors give stark advice: “The only way to keep humanity safe is immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.”

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Can’t bear very much reality …

T.S. Eliot: Burnt Norton

If Eliot meant we can’t imagine a world without us, perhaps this poem also speaks to our inability to grasp a world molded by global warming, so utterly beyond our comprehension yet one that generations to come must endure.

By Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology. Career as professor & research director spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. Retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and recover from 'nature deficit disorder'. Currently a visiting scholar at William & Mary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Gosden

2 comments

  1. We are presently taking a seventh option: Don’t fo anything that will change our lifestyle or cause pain, and let our grandchildren deal with it the results.

  2. I seem to recall that the volcanic eruption in Iceland has put more Co2 and associative pollutants in the atmosphere than all the combined pollutants of the Euro/North American emissions combined.

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