Friday, March 25, 2011




Earth is becoming a tougher place to thrive and survive. The planet’s self-regulating systems are being altered. With a less stable environment, Earth is losing many living species and its ability to supply the world economy with basic goods and services.
The main driver behind these changes is carbon emissions. Mostly they are produced as humans burn fossil fuel for energy. Carbon emissions have been high enough to boost the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere to present day levels of roughly 390 parts per million. This is about 30% higher than atmospheric CO2 levels for at least 800,000 years before the industrial revolution.
Elevated levels of heat-trapping CO2 in the atmosphere has many impacts on the planet. Rising heat energy affects Earth’s natural climate systems. Temperature recordings are increasing across lands and oceans. Ice sheets are shrinking in the arctic and in the mountains. Droughts, downpours and storms are more frequent and severe. Fresh water is getting scarce. Sea levels are rising and bringing more floods to low-lying nations, cities, villages and crop fields.
Some of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere is absorbed by oceans as carbonic acid (H2CO3). This is causing rapid acidification and losses in plankton, shellfish and coral.
On both land and sea, CO2-induced warming and acidification are causing climate disruption and biodiversity loss. This is the general direction.
From the perspective of scientists who compare humanity’s ecological footprint with the Earth’s biocapacity to regenerate what is used, the following chart shows a significant crossover in the late 1980s. They also show carbon having the greatest impact. For the human species alone, the scientific information means that ‘basic human needs are at stake on an earth-wide scale.’
The message communicated by this chart is startling. And still, it is almost surreal. The three carbon crises are not things that ordinary people on the way to school or work or the grocery store. We must deliberately look to the information that leading climate scientists pull together. We must do this to understand the problem and what it will take to fix them.
This brief article uses concrete, objective numbers in climate science literature and provides some links to explore them at more length. The focus is on the targets that, if achieved, have a reasonable chance of putting civilization on a sustainable footing. First, we start with an ultimate objective adopted by national governments.
The ‘Ultimate Objective’ for National Governments
Since the Earth Summit in 1992, 194 countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). This global climate treaty, like the Kyoto Protocol and the less significant Copenhagen Accord, have an ultimate objective to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. The achievement of this ultimate objective is vital.
Today, atmospheric concentrations for humanity’s chief greenhouse gas are rising faster than they were before the FCCC was initiated. CO2 levels are now further from stabilization than before the Earth Summit.
As of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, the FCCC has set no atmospheric target for CO2 or any greenhouse gas. Based on the emissions reductions proposals that national governments made, atmospheric CO2 would rise from about 390 parts per million in 2010 to about 770 parts per million by 2100. As Bill McKibben says, these numbers add up to hell on Earth. On another level, about 100 nations are advocating for an atmospheric CO2 target of less than 350 parts per million. This is more than half the nations in Copenhagen. None of them are industrialized. The FCCC does has not hitched an atmospheric CO2 target to its ultimate objective because atmospheric targets were not on the table until 2009, and because consensus has not been achieved since.
The lack of an atmospheric target among industrialized countries, and at the FCCC, is a good second reason to look to climate science for clear targets. The first reason is that science is more informed and objective on these topics.More info at

The ‘Target Atmospheric CO2’ paper says, “Stabilizing atmospheric CO2 and climate requires that net CO2 emissions approach zero, because of the long lifetime of CO2.”
The science points to the need to get carbon emissions near zero on a global scale.
This is what it will take to stabilize CO2 levels in the atmosphere and advance the sustainability of human civilization.
Further, a global target of zero implies a target of zero for individuals, groups and institutions. For many, zero carbon emissions may seem daunting. The target itself is daunting. So is the need for almost everyone to hit the target together. The place to start is with the emissions that each of us control.
For myself, I made a personal decision that I would never buy anything new that runs on fossil fuels. This was a fairly easy decisions to make. In practice, I may need to deviate if I buy a plug-in hybrid to replace my gas powered van. Instead of reducing direct carbon emissions by 100% with an all-electric, my emissions would drop by 85% to 95% with a plug-in hybrid.
I also took an inventory of all the household fossil fuels I buy and use directly. There are four of them. My aim is to eliminate them all by the end of 2013. The gas lawnmower and propane barbeque have already been replaced. (The electric lawnmower is great, the electric barbeque is not, although we’re not going back to fossil fuels.) The oil furnace and gas-powered car are next. This “fossil fuel inventory approach” is easier than using an online carbon footprint calculator. It’s also more effective because it brings focus to the task of eliminating fossil fuels.
There is a third thing I have done. I started paying extra to get 100% green electricity in my home. The premium I pay supplies wind energy to the British Columbia power grid where I get my electricity.
Others have already done more than I. Some people will beat me to 100% elimination, I am sure. Many others may need more time, or perhaps some form of grant or carbon pricing incentive. The point is that zero carbon emissions, or near zero carbon emissions can be achieved in the short term when we get focussed on the target.
Here is an interesting observation. Getting one’s direct emissions to zero exceeds, on a per capita basis, the emissions targets of the most climate-progressive government on the planet. This is the Maldives. The government for this country of about 350,000 people has pledged voluntarily that the country will achieve carbon neutrality by 2020. The Maldives will rely on some carbon credits to achieve this target. However, the pledge applies to the people of the Maldives, not just government operations. Still, individuals around the world have the potential to stop using and buying fossil fuels in their daily lives. Individuals can set an example that enables others, individually and organizationally, to expedite policies and actions that cut fossil fuels out of the local picture, and out of the global landscape. Challenging issues will no doubt arise, but sitting still is the wrong course of action. As more people get moving to zero, a new will and ingenuity will develop that carries us past hurdles that seem insurmountable today. More info at

This article shows that human carbon emissions and high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are at the heart of three planet-altering crises: global warming, climate disruption and ocean acidification. Atmospheric CO2 has already reached the dangerously-high level of 390 parts per million. Concentrations are accelerating upward. Based on government targets, it looks like they will hit 770 parts per million before 2100. With 350 parts per million identified as the safe upper limit for CO2 concentrations, and limited time for a temporary overshoot, it is not reasonable to assume that the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change has the situation under control. It is not reasonable to assume that national governments are close to achieving the ultimate objectives of stabilizing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and preventing dangerous human interference with the climate system.
We need the United Nations to succeed in averting the carbon crises, and the United Nations needs the help of ordinary people. Ending the carbon crisis is not a task to be left for select experts and institutions. It is going to take the self-empowerment of ordinary people. It is going to take billions of fossil fuel users, myself included, to see past the immediate benefits of these fuels. It is going to take a broad realization of the greater, longer-lasting benefits of clean energy and near-zero carbon emissions.
There are things that can and should be done that do not involve the replacement of fossil fuels or the elimination of carbon emissions. But here’s the thing. We can’t end the carbon crises without getting carbon emissions near zero and atmospheric CO2 back below 350. These carbon targets are bullseyes for ending the carbon crises. Humanity needs to get to safe ground, and it is the science-derived carbon targets that point us in the right direction.
Much damage has already been done to our planetary home, and yet, those damages pale in comparison to the degradation that can be avoided. The time has come for a big move, individually and collectively, to a clean energy regime that can sustain a healthy, prosperous civilization. It is vital that we become open to physical realities and targets that have not been part of our everyday lives. It is just as vital that we bring the concrete carbon targets of “350” and “zero” into the centre of our conversations about global warming and climate change. This is how we shift our thinking, actions and habits, on both a personal level and global scale. By making these kinds of deliberate changes today, we can learn to share the many fruits of the earth with countless generations that follow.


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