In the Drawdown meeting, Exponential Roadmap’s Johan Falk told the audience,
The starting point in our narrative is we need to face the blind fact we are entering a climate crisis, we risk a hothouse earth future. We think it’s very important to face reality as a starting point. When science says what is required to save the climate, can we say that in a simpler way than a lot of different IPCC curves and so on? Well, it’s basically about we must halve emissions by 2030, in ten years cut it by two and every decade after that. Three halvings to approach close to net-zero by 2050. So that’s an easy rule of thumb. And it’s called the global carbon law. It was released about two, three years ago by a number of scientists, Potsdam Institute and so on. It’s very much inspired by Moore’s law, which you are familiar with.
There are so many conferences going on about climate change right now it is almost as though it were a new class of tourism. Sixteen-year-old Swedish school striker Greta Thunberg is in New York for the UN Secretary General’s annual high-level strategy meeting. Her crossing the Atlantic in a speed catamaran was less about having a smaller carbon footprint — it was likely larger than an economy seat on a 300-passenger commercial flight — than conferring upon her the personal moral authority to speak about lifestyle change. Her choice to sail to New York was in sync with the latest Swedish social movement of “flygskam” which translates as “flight shame.” Like global veganism, flygskam is adding adherents by about 10% per year. At that rate, it will halve commercial air travel by 2027.
Another A-team of negative emissions technologists just concluded a three-day meeting, “Achieving Net Zero,” at Oxford, England where they compared progress notes on so-called “fairy dust” solutions rapidly moving into full-scale implementation. Across the world, in the combine-crisscrossed cornfields of Western Pennsylvania, Project Drawdown brought together its own A-list to fashion battle plans for the next half-century of post-fossil cultural conflict.
For my part, after speaking at a meeting and tour organized by the International Biochar Initiative, I found myself briefing academic, cultural and political leaders in Finland and Estonia about the potential for a New Carbon Economy as an economic engine that would drive innovation across a broad spectrum of industries. Then I was back to living the drawdown walk and talk from my home garden at The Farm. Personal travel footprint: minus three tons, approximately. Even though I am withdrawing more than I emit by travel, I could watch at least some of the Drawdown and Oxford meetings without going there. I’ll be doing the same for the UN summit.
The Oxford meeting has been posted to YouTube as a string of clips. As is common for gatherings of academics these days, the meeting was broken into sessions of 4 or 5 short talks (10 minutes each) to provide a launch point for a moderated discussion between the participants, aiming for a balance between researchers, policymakers and practitioners. The same format was used in Pennsylvania. The web simulcast saves you, me and hundreds of others the climate footprint of a flight, rental car, and hotel. For the Oxford meeting, there was also the very reductionist reportage by Carbon Brief, although on July 4th they interviewed one of the keynote speakers, Amory Lovins, at greater length and that provides somewhat better context for his remarks in September.
There was neither webcam nor Carbon Brief at the Finland meeting September 3–6. You just had to be there. But unlike the other venues, in Finland, some very real solutions were being not merely discussed, but demonstrated.
The quintessential importance of all this blather should be crystal clear to anyone who grasps the existential crisis humanity now faces. Amid all the sound and fury, elbowing for research grants, pimping of special interest agendas and wangling of political and financial schemes, comes a very clear appraisal of the tyranny of time.
At 00:01 BST / 01:01 CEST on Sept 19, 2019, the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) released its latest report, Exponential Roadmap 1.5: Scaling 36 Solutions to Halve Emissions by 2030. This is the second report from the Exponential Roadmap group and eagerly awaited (for the philosophical foundations, see: J. Rockström et al., A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. Science 355.6331, 1269–1271; 2017). As a little sidebar on page 11 expresses the concept:
“We need Moonshot Thinking and exponential strategies inspired by Moore’s Law to reach the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal. The carbon law trajectory, first proposed in 2017, is consistent with the UN agreement and the limited remaining carbon budget:
- Emissions peak by 2020.
- Emissions fall about 50% by 2030, then a further 50% by 2040, and a further 50% by 2050.
- Agriculture transforms from a carbon source to a carbon sink.
- Solutions to store carbon, for example, reforestation, biochar or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, are scaled up.
- Remaining natural carbon sinks are protected and enhanced.”
I have been repeating similar carbon arithmetic since Paris in 2015 but SRC has simplified the trajectory to make it easier to swallow. If one takes the IPCC consensus position that in order to hold global warming to only 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial (locking in the currently unfolding climate chaos) nations must attain zero fossil emissions by 2050 at the latest (although many have already set more ambitious goals), that implies a decline slope of 11 to 14 percent, depending upon how soon it gets going (it has yet to begin). SRC says, let’s make the math more basic and use 7 percent. If you understand the exponential function, you know that a 7% growth rate represents a doubling every ten years. Conversely, a 7% attrition rate equals a halving every ten years. That, in essence, is what the “Carbon Law” says: half by 2030; half again by 2040, and so on. To say this number reaches zero by 2050 is a bit disingenuous, but so be it. It is a good start. Assuming we actually get started.
Rather than decry the lack of ambition shown to date, the report lauds the progress that has been made. Renewable energy is already following Moore’s Law. It is on pace to eliminate fossil fuels from the energy sector by 2050. At the same time, the report identifies several sectors that will be more difficult to decarbonize, including aviation, shipping, long-distance transport, cement, and steel production. These account for about 27% of global CO2 emissions from all 10 fossil-fuel and industrial sources (~9.2 Gt CO2).
At GM plants UAW (United Auto Workers) members are out on strike now demanding a share of GM’s success. They are like coal miners or mill weavers, blissfully unaware of a historic shift in their workplace. The Exponential Roadmap calls for fossil-based light-duty vehicles to be banned starting in 2025, replaced mainly by bicycles. UAW would serve its members best by retraining them as UBW — United Bicycle Workers.
“Some major companies are taking substantial strides to tackle these hard-to-reach sectors. For example, truck company Scania has published a Roadmap to become net-zero by 2050. The world’s largest shipping company, Maersk, has committed to becoming 100% carbon neutral by 2050. And cement 50 company Dalmia aims to be carbon negative by 2040. In Sweden, the steel industry is planning to have the first commercial-scale zero-emissions steel plant, using hydrogen fuel, operational by the early 2030s. Since 2017, Oslo has required that municipal construction projects are fossil-free and a commissioned study showed that almost all construction site emissions could be eliminated in the city by 2025.”
I can confirm this was the type of scaling up I witnessed in Helsinki, now rapidly following the example of Stockholm and other Swedish cities by embedding biochar into the city’s hardscape. Finnish company Carbofex, which hosted the IBI study tour, is supplying both Sweden and Finland with fossil-free carbon for millennial drawdown, taking its biochar feedstocks entirely from commercial carbon wastes of photosynthetic origin.
The Exponential Roadmap notes that:
“More people and organizations are changing the language they use to describe climate change. Increasingly, phrases such as “climate and nature emergency”, “climate crisis”, “climate breakdown” or “global heating” are being used by the United Nations, the UK’s Met Office, the Guardian newspaper and others. The evidence now supports this change in language. Likewise, phrases such as “business as usual” or “current trends” should increasingly be viewed as problematic descriptions of future economic pathways because their blandness masks climate disruption.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gets this. It is why he asked Greta Thunberg to address the UN summit next week.
Getting past emissions reductions, the Exponential Roadmap looks at nature-based solutions for negative emissions and latches onto biochar, although unfortunately limited only to agriculture. We sent review copies of BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth to Rockstrom and Figueres but there is yet to be any sign they have read or understood the implications of extending the biochar solution beyond agriculture. The difference is between 2 billion tons of annual CO2 removal and 50 billion tons of annual CO2 removal, so hopefully, they will get around to reading that soon.
Continuing from the remarks of Exponential Roadmap’s Johan Falk in the Drawdown conference:
“It’s really important that we don’t focus on decarbonization. We must focus on racing — raising prosperity and the reason why we’re doing this is actually to protect the biosphere, to bring better health, better and just economies. So I think in the narrative we need to shift from decarbonization to what we actually can achieve by halving emissions, this would be absolutely essential. Moving forward, our focus is very much on the first halving and why is that? Well, if you look at the carbon budget basically, if we delay action, we will consume the remaining budget very quickly and we will push the problem to our children. That’s absolutely unacceptable. There the laser focus on the next ten years is essential. 2050 is is absolutely fine, but we need to make the actions in the next ten years. And the trajectory we’re talking about on average is about 7% per year. So as a good rule of thumb for cities, for companies, for individuals, and for countries, as a baseline, you should at least deliver that. So that was a starting point for the exponential road map. The question was can we transform this carbon law to the different sectors. And basically, you know, to energy as we talked about in drawdown all the key sectors and our conclusion and the assumption is that well, that is basically achievable, the solutions to do the first halving by 2030 basically exists on a high level. All models are, of course, this is a hypothesis and the absolute mix of solutions, of course, will not look like this but it is a starting point. It’s based on data from drawdown, of course, which is a great partner from our perspective but also data sources from the low energy demand scenario, the Lancet report, circular economy and so on.”
In the Oxford meeting’s final session, the hall was addressed by Barry Gardiner MP, UK shadow secretary of state for international trade and shadow minister for international climate change.
Gardiner warned that “one of the things that really worries me about COP26 (which will be hosted in Glasgow) is the complete lack of diplomatic preparation. The recent cuts to the number of government officials dedicated to climate have left “an appalling situation as the host of the COP.”
Gardiner said that just two days earlier, Claire Perry O’Neill MP — who will be COP26 President — told him that “I do not have an office; I do not have any officials, and I have no administrative back-up whatsoever.” “I don’t know when or if that’s going to be resolved,” continued Gardiner, “but if it’s not, the idea of us actually setting realistic targets for the outcomes that we want from COP26 are straight down the pan — and this government has to get to grips with it.”
Nor are they the only ones.
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