US And China Pledge To Cut Carbon Emissions

Emphasis on the word “pledge.”

First, the news. The US and China, following secret negotiations, have jointly pledged to accelerate carbon emission cuts:

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

New, and more ambitious targets, are of course necessary and welcome (more detail here). But China, with its authoritarian political structure, has a far greater probability of actually meeting these targets than the polarized, climate-denying, sacrifice-averse, American political system. At least for the near term, President Obama will have to wrestle with a Republican majority in Congress that is both nihilistic and dishonest in its attempts to suck political gain from its insistence that climate change isn’t a problem.

Here’s just one recent example of what the White House (and the planet) is dealing with:

In September, John P. Holdren, the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was testifying to a Congressional committee about climate change. Representative Steve Stockman, a Republican from Texas, recounted a visit he had made to NASA, where he asked what had ended the ice age:

“And the lead scientist at NASA said this — he said that what ended the ice age was global wobbling. That’s what I was told. This is a lead scientist down in Maryland; you’re welcome to go down there and ask him the same thing.

“So, and my second question, which I thought it was an intuitive question that should be followed up — is the wobbling of the earth included in any of your modelings? And the answer was no…

“How can you take an element which you give the credit for the collapse of global freezing and into global warming but leave it out of your models?”

That “lead scientist at NASA” was me. In July, Mr. Stockman spent a couple of hours at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center listening to presentations about earth science and climate change. The subject of ice ages came up. Mr. Stockman asked, “How can your models predict the climate when no one can tell me what causes the ice ages?”

I responded that, actually, the science community understood very well what takes the earth into and out of ice ages. A Serbian mathematician, Milutin Milankovitch, worked out the theory during the early years of the 20th century. He calculated by hand that variations in the earth’s tilt and the shape of its orbit around the sun start and end ice ages. I said that you could think of ice ages as resulting from wobbles in the earth’s tilt and orbit.

The time scales involved are on the order of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. I explained that this science has been well tested against the fossil record and is broadly accepted. I added that we don’t normally include these factors in 100-year climate projections because the effects are too tiny to be important on such a short time-scale.

And that, I thought, was that.

No, that is never that when it comes to honestly confronting the implications of reducing carbon emissions. And I have no doubt that Republicans will do just about everything they can to eviscerate both the President and his climate pledge. But at least the battle is slowly being joined. And climate needs to be central to the 2016 elections, and every election after that until real progress is made.

Calculating A Global Carbon Budget

If humanity wants to mitigate climate change, it must calculate a global carbon budget and then allocate that budget among regions or countries. Put aside, for a moment, your (justified) skepticism that governments around the world (especially ours in the US) will ever face up to this fact (because it would inevitably lead to limits that would require, um, sacrifice by the SUV- and meat-worshipping American public, not to mention a complete eradication of all wrong-headed Tea Party beliefs). Because it is a mental exercise that is worth exploring on the off-chance that the effects of climate change start to get bad enough that publics and political leaders wake up.

Calculating how much carbon we can emit before warming the atmosphere beyond the 2 degree Centigrade target that has, rightly or wrongly, become the consensus target is not easy. So many subjective variables. But different scientists and working groups have calculated a range of estimates, and journalist Fred Pearce has an excellent article at Environment 360, explaining those estimates:

The IPCC’s first analysis was included in its fifth scientific assessment of climate change, published in September 2013 and reiterated in the synthesis report released last Sunday. It suggested that a two-thirds chance of keeping warming below two degrees required the world to limit its total carbon emissions since 1860 to no more than a trillion tons of carbon. Of this grand all-time total, 515 billion tons had already been emitted by 2011. So, according to the IPCC, we have just under 500 billion tons of our budget left. Then we have to stop. Totally.

The synthesis report said that fossil-fuel power generation would have to be “phased out almost entirely by 2100″ — unless the largely untried technology of capturing CO2 emissions and burying them out of harm’s way could be deployed on a massive scale. Without a drastic slowdown in emissions within the next decade, the phase-out date could happen much earlier, probably before 2050.

The arithmetic seemed straightforward enough. But carbon budget numbers since quoted by other sources do not all follow this IPCC bottom-line figure. They reveal a bewildering array of different estimates for our remaining budget. Among environmental groups, the World Resources Institute (WRI) sticks with the IPCC estimate that we have 485 billion tons left. But other environment groups quote other numbers. For instance, Greenpeace and WWF say 350 billion tons.

Scientists are even less coordinated. A big study in Nature Climate Changein September by Michael Raupach of the Australian National University in Canberra and others, quotes 381 billion tons. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a think tank based in Laxenberg, Austria, and the Global Carbon Project says we have 327 billion tons to go. While the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, an international research consortium based in Sweden, say 250 billion tons.

To confuse things further, another blue-chip study, published last December by Jim Hansen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and others, argued that we could emit a further 350 billion tons and still keep below 1.5 degrees of warming.

Simple, right? Okay, not really. But you have to start somewhere. Even more difficult is the question of how yo allocate whatever carbon budget you have left among advanced and developing countries. The fair way to do it would be to include historical emissions, so countries that pumped lots of carbon into the atmosphere while achieving great wealth (like the US), would have to figure out how to sharply curtail emissions while developing countries would have more leeway to emit carbon as they grow their economies further. Or rich, developed countries could buy carbon permits from developing countries who have lots of carbon budget left, which would help those countries reduce poverty and achieve more stable, productive economies. But you can imagine how that idea would play in the US Congress.

I don’t have much faith that the United States and other developed nations will pursue limits that are either sufficient or fair (though I will continue to support and vote for any politician who takes climate change seriously). But I am interested in trying to calculate what an individual carbon budget would look like if we did in fact set global limits that were fair and meaningful. And then exploring what it would take to get my budget down to that level. That would give anyone who wants to stop being part of the problem, who wants to be an Earthist, a target they can aim for. Should be fun, er interesting.

Food Waste = Resource Waste

Following up on my post last week about food waste, hunger and population, here’s a video analysis of all the resources that also get wasted every time food rots or gets thrown out. (h/t Sam10K).

Talk about an updated version of your parents’ old: “Aren’t you going to finish your dinner? There are starving people in PICK YOUR PLACE that would kill for that food.”

It also gives new meaning to the importance and potential of the “sharing economy.”

One Way To Fight Hunger: Stop Wasting Food

As usual, when it comes to waste (or consumption) per capita, North America leads.

Politicians, agricultural experts, and scientists are all fretting about how to feed the 9-10 billion humans that will blanket the planet in 2050. And environmentalists are having nightmares about what it will do the earth.

Here’s one strategy that offers a big head-start on the problem:

The global population is expected to grow from about seven billion today to over nine billion by 2050. Producing enough food for this population will require a 70 percent increase in agricultural production and $83 billion per year of investments in developing country agriculture.

Yet, one third of the food produced globally—about 1.3 billion tons of food per year—is never consumed at all. This food is wasted or lost at some step of the supply chain between when it leaves a farm and when a consumer would typically eat it.

The solution to feeding a growing population is not simply to produce more food, but also to save, preserve, or recycle the food already produced. Cutting current food wastage in half, for example, would yield enough food to feed one billion people—half of the additional population expected by 2050.

Cutting back on waste is a general theme which will serve the human species well over the coming century. Cutting back food loss and waste will also fill some bellies and reduce pressure on the planet.

Now, if only I could get my kids to eat that bruised banana.


Silver Bullet Solutions: Half-Earth

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Desperate times call for bold solutions. E.O. Wilson is up to the task, proposing that half of earth be reserved for human use and the other half preserved for the planet’s 8 million other species. Here’s how he describes “Half Earth”:

We’re just one species, but we’re covering the entire planet with ourselves and our artifacts and activities. As a result we’re systematically eliminating a large part of the remaining species.

Half of them by the end of the century could be extinct or on the brink of extinction. Based on estimates made with fossil species and what we know about ongoing declines, that’s about a thousand times faster than before humans arrived on the scene. So this is a serious problem for the estimated eight million species that constitute the living world—which we’re tearing up.

And we really should be considering the moral implications of what we’re doing. What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: We arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

Now we come to the solution, which I’m developing fully in a book that will come out toward the end of the year. I’m not trying to sell the book. I just wanted to say that, yes, this has matured to the point where it can be presented systematically. Simply put, half to us, half to the other eight million species. Of course you’ll say, Oh, but that’s impossible! We’re still increasing in numbers. We’re breeding and multiplying—that’s human nature, and we’re not going to stop it.

According to United Nations estimates, the population will peak at about ten billion by the end of the century and then begin to come down. There are also reasons to argue that the digital age, and the spearpoints of industry and the economy, indicate that the amount of space needed by each human is going to shrink a great deal. This will free up territory for the other species.

The way it could be done is to take the remaining wildernesses of the world, on both land and sea, and set those aside as inviolate, while we go on with our chaotic and unpredictable, destructive future. Safeguard the rest of life until we settle down.

The big task is to settle down before we wreck the planet. There are large enough sections of wilderness or near wilderness, and there are procedures for protecting them that can work. This is especially true of the sea. Deep, blue-water reserves, along with the coastal shore waters, can easily be divided into inviolate areas. Marine ecologists believe that endangered species would then multiply back rather quickly. This is practicable. And I think we should at least start seriously considering it as an alternative.

It’s a breathtaking idea, yet compelling in its simplicity. Of course, the political hurdles would be enormous. But they exist only because we don’t value the other species on earth, and we are not willing to make sacrifices on their behalf. If that doesn’t change, we will wreck the planet no matter what is proposed. But if that COULD change, an entirely different way of life, and political-economic system, would be possible.

Wilson, in fact, is counting on growing awareness of just how much damage we are doing to wake us up and open us up to new thinking. I think that is right, but of course the real question is WHEN we will collectively wake up as a species, and what will be left to protect when we do.

At the very least, the benefit of such bold and creative thinking is that it forces us to confront all the issues of morality and planetary impact that we so easily ignore or dismiss.

Annals Of Humanity: The Albanian Bird Slaughter

The routes of many migratory birds, roughly depicted above, connect Europe and Africa. The blue arrow marks the Adriatic Flyway.

Though it is an endless process, it is always worth chronicling the myriad ways in which we inflict death and destruction on the natural world:

Each spring, hundreds of thousands of migrating waterbirds flock northward from Africa across the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas. In search of food, they alight briefly on Albania’s Buna Delta — one of the largest remaining wetlands in all of the Balkan Peninsula.

The delta is also one of the most notorious killing grounds for migrating birds in all of Europe…

Environmental groups have estimated that more than two million ducks, geese, songbirds, and raptors are shot along the Adriatic’s eastern shores every year — part of what’s known as the Adriatic Flyway, a key migratory route for birds making their seasonal journeys between the European and African continents. A recent analysis by Wetlands International, a conservation group based in the Netherlands, concluded that as many as one-third of all birds using the Black Sea-Mediterranean Flyway — an area that includes the Adriatic Flyway — are now in decline, in large part due to illegal hunting.

Apart from the tragedy of it all, this turns out to be a cautionary lesson in the destructive nature of capitalism unleashed:

Albania was once a haven for wildlife. For decades the country’s communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, pursued extreme isolationist policies that stifled development and all but eliminated access to the country’s forested borders and coastal wetlands. When the country opened its doors to the outside world in 1991, rampant development and exploitation of natural resources followed, including unlimited hunting of birds — primarily for sport, but also for market.

When the communism of Enver Hoxha can be favorably compared to the status quo, you have a problem. And that problem is that wildlife, or at least living wildlife, is not valued and protected in the anti-regulatory, free-market fever of modern capitalism.

What would a world in which all those birds were valued, and given moral consideration, look like? Beautiful, diverse, and resilient. We just have to somehow figure out a way to get there.

Climate Siren Is Going Off

Climate warnings don’t get much clearer than this:

The gathering risks of climate change are so profound that they could stall or even reverse generations of progress against poverty and hunger if greenhouse emissions continue at a runaway pace, according to a major new United Nations report.

Despite growing efforts in many countries to tackle the problem, the global situation is becoming more acute as developing countries join the West in burning huge amounts of fossil fuels, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said here on Sunday.

Failure to reduce emissions, the group of scientists and other experts found, could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.

“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” the report found.

What does all that mean? That we can only put another trillion tons of C02 into the atmosphere if we want to keep global warming below the 2 degrees C/3.6 degrees F threshold that scientists believe marks the difference between manageable and disastrous. That may sound like a lot, but at current growth rates the globe is projected to emit that trillion tons in just 30 years.

This sort of projection from the key scientific panel tracking climate change exposes climate denialism in the pursuit of political advantage as both cowardly and nihilistic. And the failure of the mainstream media to force the public and politicians to come to grips with the threat of climate change. If we feared it as much as we fear ebola, and paid as much attention to it as we pay the threat of ebola, we might actually be getting somewhere. But that is a rant for another time.

Most important, it also demands leadership and a willingness to change and sacrifice from a global culture of advanced economy consumers who are pursuing lifestyles that are clearly incompatible with a healthy planet.

How our lifestyles, values, and choices might change to become more compatible with a healthy planet, and what that means for our politics and the global political structure,  is a subject I want to start exploring in depth in the coming year. I am calling it The Earthism Project, and I will need lots of help…

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