CO2 Output Must Cease, Entirely. What To Do?

A normally forgiving planet has been pushed too far. The Earth has a fever.
James Lovelock, I think, could relate well to a set of studies that have just been revealed by U.S., Canadian and German scientists. Mr. Lovelock is the well respected but highly pessimistic British scientist, or self styled 'Planetary Physician', who contributed to the discovery of the holes in our ozone layer and who in the 1960s formulated the then controversial Gaia Hypothesis -- the theory that all elements within the biosphere, as a collective whole, constitute a complete living organism, with the myriad elements working together to maintain a stable state, or state of homeostasis.

Essentially, elements like our oceans, flora, fauna, atmosphere, etc., all work together to regulate the climate and environment, and maintain the stable condition that has kept man and animal kind alive for millennia. Although largely dismissed and ridiculed in the 1960s, the Gaia concept has since come to form the basis of modern climate science, and is seeing the development of ever-increasingly complicated computer modelling systems -- so we can get a better approximation of where we're headed as our industrialised world pushes deeper into the 21st Century.

This latest series of studies doesn't make for encouraging reading, so if you're of a delicate constitution, I'd encourage you to turn the page -- perhaps go check out some Celsias Projects to get inspired instead...

CO2 output must cease altogether, studies warn -- Research points to years of warming even with ambitious emission cuts

The task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert a dangerous rise in global temperatures may be far more difficult than previous research suggested, say scientists who have just published studies indicating that it would require the world to cease carbon emissions altogether within a matter of decades.

Their findings, published in separate journals over the past few weeks, suggest that both industrialized and developing nations must wean themselves off fossil fuels by as early as mid-century in order to prevent warming that could change precipitation patterns and dry up sources of water worldwide.

Using advanced computer models to factor in deep-sea warming and other aspects of the carbon cycle that naturally creates and removes carbon dioxide (CO2), the scientists, from countries including the United States, Canada and Germany, are delivering a simple message: The world must bring carbon emissions down to near zero to keep temperatures from rising further.

"The question is, what if we don't want the Earth to warm anymore?" asked Carnegie Institution senior scientist Ken Caldeira, co-author of a paper published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. "The answer implies a much more radical change to our energy system than people are thinking about." -- MSNBC (emphasis added)

The statements above won't surprise regular Celsias readers, as we've... er... told you so before. Indeed, the acknowledgement from the IPCC scientists in their Synthesis Report that adaptation is going to be just as important as mitigation can be seen as an official endorsement, by a very conservative body, that we've already gone too far in our unwitting meddling in the affairs of Gaia. By pulling thousands of years worth of carbon out of the ground, and pouring it into our atmosphere in the short space of a century, we've thrown the Earth's amazing balancing act all out of kilter. This is just what James Lovelock has been telling us for years.

So, to restore planetary equilibrium, emissions must come down -- and dramatically so. But, they're not. They're going up instead.

Although many nations have been pledging steps to curb emissions for nearly a decade, the world's output of carbon from human activities totals about 10 billion tons a year and has been steadily rising. -- MSNBC
This is especially true of the developing world, who are plugging into the globalised economy -- their billions of hands outstretched, reaching for the western lifestyle they see on the silver screen and through the advertising efforts of corporate transnationals. If we got into this mess through the influence of a small percentage of the world's population -- imagine the impact of another couple of billion people getting closer to even just a European-sized carbon footprint.

Worse, any positive actions we undertake today won't be acknowledged by Ms. Gaia for decades to come -- perhaps long after the industry heads and citizenry currently benefitting and profiting from her abuse have departed this mortal coil.

Today it was announced that oil hit a record $108 per barrel. But where peak oil could be seen as a planetary saviour (even if a socially catastrophic one), it's just prompting the coal industry to step into the gap -- with their effectively planning to double CO2 emissions per unit of energy output by using liquid coal as fuel instead of oil. Ironically, the melting ice sheets that result from global warming will likely make even more fossil fuels accessible -- and with it increase international tensions, and CO2 emissions.... It's incredible that we may fight each other for the right to release even more greenhouse gases.

Our fossil fuel addiction must end, but this requires a shift to a low-energy lifestyle that many would like to avoid, and many of the rest don't know how to achieve. Some, including James Lovelock, would promote nuclear as the answer -- but, as we've written before, even putting aside issues of potential 'incidents', the fact remains that future generations may well not have the immense energy resources that are necessary to maintain radioactive wastes in a safe condition. Additionally, one of the areas of greatest concern for the next century is water shortages -- and nuclear plants use more water (for cooling) than any other energy source.

Just as the Gaia hypothesis indicates, everything in the world influences everything else. Our solutions also need to be such that they're win-win. We need holistic answers to complicated problems.

Learning how to power down should thus be seen as both a way to lessen the impact of our lifestyles on future generations -- giving our descendents better odds -- as well as to prepare ourselves and our children for surviving in a world in a state of flux. As this BBC clip indicates, the time of plenty is over. Priorities will ultimately have to shift from luxuries to necessities, and, with the added impacts of a disagreeable climate and resource depletion, those necessities will become more difficult to produce and more expensive to obtain.

A year before ending his presidency in 1993, George H.W. Bush, speaking at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, stated that "the American lifestyle is non-negotiable". His son certainly seems to share the same view. If we personally persist with this belief, we're not only dooming future generations to difficulties we can only dare to imagine, but also failing to make use of a critical time for preparation for ourselves. James Lovelock famously regards it as impossible that most people will make the necessary adjustments to their lives. He may well be right, but this doesn't mean that you can't. If the science is correct, then we're not talking about trouble arriving in a fuzzy distant future, but just in the next few years.

It's often stated that the poorest will suffer the consequences of climate change the most. While there is a great deal of truth to this, I also believe that some of who we in the North may regard as 'the poor' are in a better position to 'maintain their lifestyles' than the rest of us. Many of the citizenry of poorer countries are not wholly dependent on products and services that can only be produced and transported through the use of waning fossil fuel supplies. Many of the poor still know how to make a living in difficult conditions, and have maintained a community-oriented way of life that rewards skill-sharing and a healthy low-carbon localised interdependence. Many of the poor still remember how to grow their own food -- and some are very good at it, knowing how to cultivate without chemicals and how to build soils and conserve water. Many of the poor are accustomed to living with little in the way of 'goods', and necessarily prioritise health and security over consumer products. Indeed, you could say that many of the poor are not 'poor' at all -- but rich in health, community and family connectedness and valuable traditional knowledge. At least, this is true for those that haven't been forced off their land and pushed into urban slums by modern agricultural practises taking hold.

Unfortunately, though, western businesses are falling over themselves to get into these developing markets, and thus hasten their transformation into unsustainable societies, and the 'technology transfers' that could somewhat reduce the impact of this transition are just plain not happening, as industries seek to protect their inventions and market share. Even the supposed 'green products' we buy from such nations are perhaps not green at all.

More than ever, this is a time to re-evaluate our futures. We can't count on pension plans and insurance cover to get us through this.

I would encourage you to think of things that you can do, or that you can stop doing, that will make a positive contribution, and share these with our Celsias community. We have set up a Projects section where people are submitting ideas and concepts and projects that would help inspire and steer us towards a more secure future. Check out the projects and submit your own ideas -- we have a lot we can learn from each other. The best ideas will be featured on our blog. If there was ever a community that mattered, this is it.

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  • Posted on March 10, 2008. Listed in:

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