The future is changing, with or without us.
When the latest IPCC report landed with a thud on government desks around the world, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists opined:
“There have been many climate warnings issued in the past few decades, but the latest one is more like an air-raid siren than an alarm clock with an overworked snooze button.”
Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate (high confidence). — IPCC
To keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, the report says that human emissions of carbon dioxide must fall dramatically: by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and to “net zero” around 2050. The real situation is worse than that.
Depending on where you start, we are already close enough to 1.5 that we can feel its hot breath on our collar. The IPCC did a nifty trick of shifting the starting point nearly a century forward from its earliest reports, the ones the set the temperature goal. They literally moved the goal posts. If they can keep doing that, we will never warm 1.5 degrees. Pretty cool, huh? The report’s authors say that 1.5 degrees is still financially and technologically feasible, and maybe this is why. We can always just manipulate the numbers.
For its part, deep in a 500-page Transportation Department environmental impact statement, the Trump administration made a startling admission: On its current course, the planet will warm 4°C by end of century. Placed against that background, it is foolish to tweak minor things like automobile fuel standards because they would have almost zero impact in comparison.
The magnitude of the changes in climate effects that would be produced by the least stringent action alternative (Alternative 1) by the year 2100 is roughly a 0.6 ppm higher concentration of CO2, three thousandths of a degree increase in temperature rise, a small percentage change in the rate of precipitation increase, about 0.06 centimeter (0.02 inch) of sea-level rise, and an increase of 0.0004 in ocean pH.— NHTSA
“The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” said Michael MacCracken, who served as a senior scientist at the U.S. Global Change Research Program from 1993 to 2002.
Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (high confidence) — IPCC
Alternative 7, the lowest CO2 emissions alternative, would result in CO2 concentrations of 687.4 ppm, an increase of 0.15 ppm compared with the No Action Alternative. — NHTSA
You have to wonder why the administration made such a stark admission. MIT Sloan School of Management professor John Sterman explained it this way:
“First, the administration proposes vehicle efficiency policies that would do almost nothing [to fight climate change]. Then [the administration] makes their impact seem even smaller by comparing their proposals to what would happen if the entire world does nothing.”
NHTSA’s 4°C rise revises IPCC’s chart to look like this:
As we have observed in this space before, to have a realistic chance of averting disaster, the global economy would need to reach an 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or better, a 20 percent decline slope from 2037 (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).
An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture. Phasing out the worst fossil fuels in favor of the less evil heritage fuels (sunlight, wind, firewood), will not bring carbon back into the safety zone fast enough.
— Bates and Draper, Annual Meeting of International Society for Biophysical Economics (2018)
Human economics, like modern humans themselves, evolved in an era of favorable climate and nearly unfathomable natural abundance. To classical economists, nature’s abundance was never really in the equation. Merely an endowed capital resource. A given. A neglected externality. It is just always there. Sure, you can run it down, deplete it, use it up. The cost is still just the extractive cost — paying for miners or lumberjacks. The penalty is having to meet the higher replacement costs. Whether there even is a replacement is seldom considered. As long as the money is there it is assumed there will always be replacements, and probably better ones. And you can always just print more money.
Some peak oil theorists, eschewing classical economics, imagined twenty years ago that climate change, like many other types of pollution, would suddenly abate when we ran out of economically extractable fossil reserves. That assumption failed to account for atmospheric residence times, lag and feedback effects and thermodynamic inertia.
The warming from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea-level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence)….
We passed that peak point for conventional fossil sources around 2005, but kept going, moving into the domain of more expensive, still marginally affordable, unconventional sources (oil shale, tar sands, fracked gas). Now unconventional sources, along with what remains of coal and sweet crude, are being exhausted more quickly than ever before, their discovery, extraction and refining costs ratcheting up but subsidized to the tune of $5.6 trillion per year, not counting military adventures and foreign intrigues (add another trillion for just the US military). At some point the unconventionals, like the conventionals, will move over into the “unaffordable” column because the Paris Agreement, like the new IPCC report, puts subsidies on death watch, and without those they are, each and every one eventually, money losers for those who mine and drill. When that process will start is anyone’s guess. For now, buying politicians is a better business model for oil companies than exploring biofuels.
We use dinosaur carbon in many ways. Look around you. Almost everything you touch owes its existence to an invisible army of fossil energy slaves. From your computer, to the truck that transported it, to the road the truck drove down, to the chair, bed or floor you are sitting on. Fossil slaves cater your most basic needs. They provide food from farm to factory to store. They shear the sheep and weave your sweaters.
Energy is their heartbeat. If the energy flow slows, the blood flow weakens, slave labor grinds to a halt, and the invisible army falls dead in its tracks. Unless we can summon new reserves of energy, or learn to do with far less, a withering away of the industrial economy is inevitable.
We should free our fossil energy slaves as quickly as possible and recruit solar replacements. Down that road lies clean, renewable energy — carbon neutrality — and farther along, the cleansing transformations of agricultural and consumer wastes into continuous soil amendments and enduring passive sequestration — carbon drawdown. But make no mistake, after the revolution, it will not look like your daddy’s industrial world any more.
If only by virtue of the fact that we are going to be running on a budget of sunlight and not a million-year savings account of hi-octane fossil energy our future will be much more sedate. As science fiction writer Bruce Sterling says,
“Switchgrass is also aptly known as “Panic Grass,” a pretty good coinage for an attempt to run a superpower on hay.”
Until now, biomass energy crops like corn or cane have pushed their negative impacts onto ecosystems — deforestation, land and sea degradation, loss of biodiversity, erosion, water pollution, coral destruction and scarcity. With the newest IPCC report urgently telling us we need Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) for carbon dioxide removal, governmental and non-governmental institutions, academy, and society in general have raised concerns about the whole Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) scheme. What is the sustainability of using land to grow crops for energy? What is the longevity and safety of geological storage of CO2? What will this mean for forest and farm communities? What will all this cost?
Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options (medium confidence).— IPCC
Despite what modern herdsmen might tell you about the power of managed grazing to store carbon in grassland soils, nothing matches trees when it comes to socking away greenhouse gases. Even when the leaves have dropped for the winter, leaving only bare bristles raking the sky, they are still atmospheric scrub brushes. At their roots mycelia never sleep, transporting carbon exudates below erodible soil crusts, snow and respiring humates.
A plantation is not a forest any more than a CAFO is a farm. We need more forests, all over the planet, to remove more carbon and return it where it belongs. Old growth should be protected. Newer forests should be managed, at least in the near term, to optimize growth and carbon drawdown, and that will involve the gainful employment of hundreds of millions of us. China had the right idea when it deployed 60,000 soldiers to plant trees over an area the size of Ireland.
Broadscale reforestry must also consider the social, economic and environmental dimensions of that social restructuring — including: food competition, basic services, family involvement, equal opportunities, land tenure rights, access to land tenure, retirement benefits, regulatory regimes, scientific and technological innovation, self-financing, income diversification, soil health, chemical safety, net land use degradation, biodiversity, waste management, availability and reuse of water, training, family health care, childrens’ education, child labor, lateral organization, and open, transparent participation.
From the standpoint of ecosystem services and biodiversity both above and below ground — not to mention the human social impacts — the industrial bioenergy model imagined by climate capitalists would be a disaster. Bioenergy as a side-product of forest harvesting, food and wood processing, can be inherently a local enterprise — optimally a family enterprise. We should plant healthy forests everywhere, not ship forest products halfway around the world.
Planting and then keeping healthy forests is going to be very challenging in a rapidly warming world. One thing we know will help is biochar, confering upon every seedling the blessings of favorable soil biology, fungal mass, drought and flood resilience, and pest resistance required to reach maturity.
Fortunately there is no shortage of waste biomass to be carbonized. That orphaned resource represents energy, which means economy, which can mean happiness. Look around! We are positively drowning in wasted organics; sewage sludge, livestock manure, invasive species of plants attacking mono-crops, green waste, food waste, and woody biomass scraps from various industries from papermaking to home furnishings, pallets to packaging, and the list goes on.
Apart from bacteria, the total live biomass on Earth is about 560 billion tons C. The total annual primary production of biomass, wild and domesticated, is just over 100 billion tons C/yr. Of that, farmed annual cereal crops are about 2.3 billion tons. And more than half the cereal biomass by weight is considered “waste.”
When we consider available “food-grade” wastes that could be turned into biomass energy, bio-fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and other uses, there is ample supply waiting to be tapped to turn the carbon cycle around and begin drawing down legacy emissions. Are those sources enough to accomplish the task of avoiding “dangerous” or “catastrophic” climate change? Probably not, so we can go beyond “food-grade” wastes to employ municipal solid wastes or hog manure to blend into carbon polymers, cement buildings and asphalt highways. There are untapped gigatons of unconventional feedstocks, and many more potential products and services that can cascade into fun and profit.
Cereal and agroforestry crop waste can go through several transformations — mashed for leaf protein extraction, fed to cattle or fish, fermented and distilled, dried for barn fodder, placed into rainwater filters, and carbonized for energy — before returning to the soil to support new crop growth as compost and biochar. Ultimately rewarded in this way, soils are rejuvenated, robust, resilient and ready to provide again for future generations.
If we begin to look at paper mill waste, poultry litter, waste treatment plant slurries, mountains of old tires, red tides of seaweed and algae or any of scores of present-day pollution nightmares, we quickly discover how easy it is to pyrolyze those feedstocks at local scale and at negative cost, with negative emissions and positive energy yielding a future we can all live with. It just needs a more honest form of economics to support it, or at least stop knocking it down.