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.

Cherry blossom time

Our Weeping Cherry tree started to bloom on March 28, an old lady now yet still graceful. She has a voluminous floral dress spread wide from her ‘hips’ by branches like the hoops and side panniers of a woman in the court of George III. She cheekily displays through the cascade the one silvery leg she stands on. We hope she dances in the spring breeze for more years.

The same day, the National Park Service announced the famous lines of cherry trees lining the National Mall reached peak bloom. Fewer people stroll there in a pandemic year but can view them at #BloomCam. This year the blossom that celebrates beauty and grace is a brilliant contrast to the chaos and violence viewed from the Mall of the Capitol steps on January 6. But it also symbolizes the impermanence of life.

The trees were gifted to Washington DC in 1912 by the Japanese, who celebrate bloom time with spring festivals (hanami). This year the peak occurred in Kyoto on March 26, earlier than usual, as in the Mall. Bloom times have been recorded in Japan for 1,200 years. The date varied depending on when winter lost its grip, but on average stayed constant over centuries or rose slightly until the 19th century since when it has steadily advanced.

The ancient recorders of first blooms and shoots could not imagine why they should interest us today. But there are no more blazing signs of a  warming planet than trees exploding in color. On March 28, Red Maple buds burst at Mechanicsburg, PA and Pawpaw at Gibsonville, NC, although Redbud is still dormant at Spring Hill, TN (already rose pink here in Williamsburg, VA). If you doubt our climate is changing, ask the trees.

Climate Change Sirens

I’m still reeling about our climate crisis/ emergency. We hear the urgency confirmed over and again by experts. Threats imagined far over the horizon that we thought we’d never see in our lifetime are now in plain sight (fires, inundations, etc.). This is probably the biggest shock in my life, and certainly the most momentous.

I am grappling for metaphors of how this makes me feel. I have an old memory of a day walking on the ‘downs,’ the rolling grassy hills in southern England. I headed toward a thin blue-gray line of English Channel on the horizon. The coast was far off but after an hour I had drawn close enough to see choppy waves and white caps. I was eager to watch the tide rolling over the beach and sanderlings snatching a landed morsel by pattering bravely ahead of its foamy front. Still striding on I didn’t realize I was getting close to the cliff edge. There were no cues. I stepped back with a deep breath when I almost stumbled on the precipice and giddily gazed down 300- sheer feet of crumbling white chalk.

Cliffs at English Channel
Seven Sisters, East Sussex

Likewise, I feel panic about global warming, although my metaphor fails to account for how we can’t step back to resume life as usual, forgetting the brink, as I did after heading back from the downs.

I am now casting around for other memories. When did I become conscious of climate change, and when was I persuaded it was anthropogenic? I ask because people draw a line in the sand at different dates, and some still refuse to. If climate denial is a symptom of a ‘post-truth’ society, it is ironic because science marches with ever greater confidence.

When I checked the history of the greenhouse effect, I found it was known in the Victorian age. Later in the century the Swedish scientist Arrhenius (vaguely remembered from school chemistry) estimated a doubling of atmospheric CO2 would increase average global temperatures by 5°C, not a bad estimate considering the primordial state of atmospheric science. Some 30 years later, a British scientist celebrated the prospect of warming by CO2 emissions because that would improve the dreary national climate! Smog was the greater concern then, although it is evanescent compared to greenhouse gasses.

The winter of 1962-63 was so severe my igloo in our London garden didn’t melt for six weeks. No subsequent year has been so relentlessly cold. In the 1970s there was talk of planetary cooling and a new Ice Age. No more! It was a statistical blip that briefly fooled us about rising trends, like losing sight of the sea for a moment after stumbling in a rabbit burrow on the downs.

By the 1980s there was serious talk about global warming, and I became a believer. I even published my convictions in a Church of Scotland magazine in 1989, the year before the first report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. My only satisfaction was the invitation to speak at Women’s Guild meetings at which I showed a home-made model of the greenhouse effect. It was moving to meet  elderly women in the audience who worried about our human legacy for the planet; they were streaks ahead of their clergy. I can’t boast of being a pioneering activist because my lifestyle hardly changed. I thought there was plenty of time for society to adjust to a warmer world. No more!

Al Gore did a wonderful service with An Inconvenient Truth. As atmospheric science hardens, most projections in the 2006 film have been confirmed, except the timescale was not pessimistic enough. Probes to measure gases in polar ice recording the fossil atmosphere and in mud cores of ancient lakes to identify prehistoric tree pollen reveal the climate has occasionally changed abruptly in geological history. Instead of centuries or millennia, it can flip from one equilibrium state to another in a matter of decades. This is a tipping point, like a cliff that looks solid one day but tumbles into the sea the next, treacherous to the unwary stroller who thinks the edge is stable and still some way off, until he steps into air.

Next post: Where have all the birds gone?