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.

Human Population Through the Looking Glass

I can’t avoid this topic forever, not under the headline Peace with Nature. It is the intractable, controversial matter of the teeming numbers of human beings. How many more of us can the Earth sustain in this Anthropocene?

Only the most pig-headed science denier can dismiss environmental challenges that threaten our future, even our survival. Among the obvious are food insecurity and infectious diseases, soil erosion and desertification, air and water pollution, fossil fuels and global warming, animal and plant extinctions. It’s hard to dwell on them for long because our responses at best are puny against the tide. Besides, pessimism is not an attractive outlook.

Much can be blamed on world overpopulation. We are doubling every 49 years and will soon reach 8 billion. That is ratcheting up the impact of our insatiable appetites for consumption, which are reflected in an obsessive drive to constantly expand economies (as if no ceiling exists).

If everyone consumed resources like a medieval peasant, we would be far behind the curve. Billions of us still live that way, though never by choice. Wealth is not distributed in a bell-shaped curve. Raising prosperity for everyone to, say, an American level is unattainable on this finite planet: for some to be rich, many must stay relatively or absolutely poor. If this present state is manifestly unjust (who can deny it?), would a smaller population shrink the gap in wealth?

Population control is the hottest of hot potatoes. The liberty of choosing to have children and how many is a cherished human right. Woe betide the institution that coerces people into contraception or mandates sterilization.

Sanjay Gandhi tried during the 1975 ‘Emergency’ in India. The son of a prime minister led an aggressive program of shoddy vasectomies and tubal surgeries for mostly poor subjects in exchange for trivial incentives or were forced to comply. People pushed the policy back and his family became a tragic story. An authoritarian government succeeded in curbing growth of the Chinese population by limiting families to one child after 1979, but that policy relaxed too.  A distorted age pyramid had huge socio-economic implications and many girl babies were ‘missing’ before birth. Fortunately, family planning methods are freely accessible in many countries, although not enough. Private decisions in bedrooms have a bigger effect on birth rates than any government diktat or contraceptive.

As a young reader of Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, ecology and population created a frothy amalgam in my head. At that more idealistic age, I believed that the pair together with nuclear weapons made a triumvirate that threatened civilization. I then leaned into a career in reproduction research, hoping to help discover new contraceptive targets. To disable the sperm or egg before fertilization seemed (still seems) preferable to hormones for blocking ovulation or the more elusive goal of knocking out spermatogenesis. I became a Population Council (NY) research fellow, but drifted to profertility technologies, like my mentor Robert Edwards who pioneered fertility treatment with  IVF.

This is no small irony since I still fret about the ‘population problem’, although my original fear of human numbers and hopes for a technological fix were naive.  Family sizes in the West started to shrink at the end of the Victorian period when bumper crops of kids were grown. This shift occurred in tandem with declining infant mortality, revealing that people had the know-how to make reproductive choices before highly efficient contraceptives were developed after WWII. Men have traditionally called the shots at home but as women gained more authority and education, they chose smaller families, or started later, or remained childless. A trend that began in the West continues to spread globally.

The population anxiety of fifty years ago when the UN and grant agencies plowed money into research and fertility services has switched from fear of too many babies to too few for replacing people who die. Some countries, notably Japan, will have half the population by the end of the century, with huge social implications. They now try to hoist birth rates above the replacement threshold of 2.1 by offering incentives like free childcare services, and will welcome more immigration to offset population decline.

And yet the world population continues to climb while other countries catch up with the demographic shift. A recent paper in the Lancet offers a more optimistic forecast than the United Nations’ official projection. Instead of peaking at 10.9 billion by 2100, it reckons there will be only 9.7 billion of us in 2064. This small mercy doesn’t quash concerns about overpopulation, and there are no quick remedies, barring a global catastrophe. But sometime next century I believe new institutions will guide us through a painful and dangerous demographic transition to a much smaller population and more stable than ever in history.

That kind of flourishing worldwide requires peace between people and with nature. A more equitable society rolling over the lottery of being born rich or poor can offer a peace dividend and deliver environmental justice. A smaller population should draw from Earth’s limited bounty more sustainably with a lower impact on the environment. It will avoid impoverishing posterity and generational injustice.

Technology has been called a bane for conservation, but it also helps to live more gently with nature. But it can’t do the heavy lifting of giving 8-10 billion people a fairer share of prosperity. With a smaller population there is more to go round, but how much smaller for everyone to have a generous slice of pie that doesn’t cost the earth?

Ballpark averages of rich versus poor populations (or nominal GDPs per capita) show a 5-to 10-fold difference in wealth. Hence, for sustainability the world population should be no greater than a tenth of the present, about one billion or close to the number alive in the year 1800.

Maybe this speculation is pie in the sky. Optimism is in short supply and we are blind sighted by the narrow window of our own experience. But each successive generation experiences the world differently and sometime in the future people may look back aghast, wondering how their ancestors living in our time managed to muddle through. I think we will, just as people did in pandemics and wars of the past, because humans are experts at surviving and Earth is our only home. Gaia will be relieved when a post-Anthropocene era emerges with human numbers and appetites she can comfortably support.

Next Post: About Nostalgia



Virginia is for Oyster Lovers

“Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” Thus, Shakespeare gave us a new idiom in the Merry Wives of Windsor repeated ever since, and Oscar Wilde wielded it with customary wit: “The world was my oyster, but I took the wrong fork.”

It means a person expects to avoid adversity and find opportunity, like the discovery of a precious pearl. But if you asked an oyster it wouldn’t sound optimistic. Our excessive love kills them, and few cared about the relentless harvest until recently. In the poem recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Alice felt sorry for oysters as the Walrus and Carpenter gobbled them on the beach.

Had we been aboard the shallop steered by the first English explorers of the Chesapeake Bay in Shakespeare’s day we would have been gobsmacked by an abundance of oysters, some as large as dinner plates and forming reefs grown close to the surface.  In 1701, a foreign visitor wrote in astonishment: “whole banks … ships must avoid them … four times as large (as English oysters) … I often cut them in two to put them in my mouth.”

The Bay was drastically impoverished by dredging its bed barren in the 19th century Oyster Rush.  The local economy collapsed and watermen switched to crabbing to make a living. The crash drastically impacted other fauna and flora since the remaining 2% of original numbers now took a year to filter the entire Bay which used to be achieved in a week. It is a classic example of the folly of free-for-all harvesting of a seemingly inexhaustible natural resource. Oyster beds are now making a slow recovery against a tide of agricultural effluent and disease, but helped by volunteers for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and less harvesting pressure as oysters are cultured commercially.

If they are on your menu today, imagine the same shells on your plate again. The suggestion is ridiculous, but the point is that some restaurants in our region recycle shells for building wild oyster beds and embedding in artificial reefs. At one time, they were used as lime for mortar and roads, but when that became redundant they were dumped in landfills, so the recycling program is positive in every way.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay
Oysters shells curing in the sun

Shells are trucked to a depot in Maryland or the Virginia Institute of Marine Science beside the York River. A volunteer tips them on a hopper for conveyance through a tumble washer and bagging to cure in the sun for a year, eliminating the last traces of condiments from your meal. The happy, hot and sweaty team beside the river is, alas, not reassembling this year because of the coronavirus contagion.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay
Oyster gardening

Cured shells are loaded in tanks of brackish water to which larvae (‘spat’) are introduced from external suppliers. The spat can attach to hard surfaces like stone or concrete, but they prefer old shells, like the reefs of old. Young oysters are then dropped in sanctuary areas of the Bay or its creeks and rivers or oyster gardeners raise them for a year in cages where they grow faster and are protected before reaching their final destination. The goal is to deposit 10 billion oysters by 2025, an effort requiring over 21,000 hours of volunteer time.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay
Oyster lovers beside the York River

Not only will future diners and watermen benefit but the whole ecosystem. It is a story of a keystone species. In purifying 50 gallons of water a day, each oyster reduces dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus and, hence, the risk of dead zones from algal blooms. Their colonies provide important habitat for fish and crabs too. The early explorers adopted the Algonquin name for Chesapeake, meaning great shellfish bay,  and perhaps one day it will be apt again.