Hotel Diaries - Why 80 Percent?

Editor's Note: Continuing our Hotel Diaries series, Tom Rand pauses in his work to explain why he's aiming for an 80% reduction.

I’ve been repeatedly asked: why aim for a 80-90% reduction in carbon output, when Kyoto only calls for 6%? (1) “Hey – hotshot - what’s the point of being so aggressive, bit holier-than-thou, no ...?!” [I’ve actually been accused of this, in spite of my obvious and very visible range of regular, everyday sins ... you know, like .... a bottle of good scotch and ... ]

There are variants on this theme: “Why do anything? – relax, man!”, “What about China? – they’ll swamp what you do!” and of course “It’s too late – batten down the hatches!” And on and on – all of these ‘skeptical’ points are aimed, of course, dead square on the "Don’t-make-me-change-my-behaviour!” target ....

Reducing Carbon by 80-90%

So – first off, why try to reduce the building’s CO2 footprint by 80-90%? Why not just try to hit a target that corresponds (roughly) with the Kyoto requirements?

Well, the first problem with the smaller number is that – with all the “hot air” and inexcusable hemming and hawing our government has done (see Jeffrey Simpson’s 'Hot Air' for a full account of the absolute crap coming out of our capital city on this issue) - our emissions here in Canada have risen considerably since 1990. This means that our cut needs to be around 30% just to make Kyoto. The point remains, though - why try to reduce so much more?

Well, to be honest, Kyoto is a drop in the bucket. Meeting Kyoto is unlikely to mitigate, one small, measurable bit, the impending climate catastrophe – on this the “do-nothing” folks are absolutely right. Kyoto was meant to start a process, not be the end-point. Heck, there’s enough CO2 out there in the atmosphere right now to ensure we keep heating up for decades to come (a carbon dioxide molecule stays up there around 200 years (2)). Lots of people use this as a reason not to act, of course – “Hey, if Kyoto doesn’t make a difference, why bother?”- but the lesson to draw from this short-coming is not that we don’t need to try to hit Kyoto, but that we need to go way, way past it – and fast.

Perhaps on a site like this, I’m preaching to the choir here, but look ....

At this late (3) stage in the game all we can try to do is mitigate the damage as best we can and Kyoto ain’t gonna do it. Climate change is going to happen, it’s only a matter of degree. So, where do we draw our line in the sand, in this war against the climate? What is a ‘danger’ point beyond which we do not want to send CO2 levels? Well, it’s complicated, and there are a lot of positive feedback mechanisms (4) that could easily send us over some horrible edge and it is not possible to quantify an exact answer (‘why, then, do anything?’, I hear the ‘skepics’ chant ...).

The European Union has identified 2 degrees C warming as a kind of limit – this is not a safe place for us, but it’s considered way less dangerous than the ranges above. Note that at 1 degree increase, some crop yields begin to decline, and at 1.5 the onset of complete melting of the Greenland ice is triggered (5) ... 2 degrees is not a nice place, but it seems some of the positive feedbacks and nastier implications kick in after this point (6) – so say we wanted to stop the warming there; what CO2 levels, and what corresponding change in our footprint, stops us somewhere near that limit?

The answer is not a pleasant one. Current CO2 levels are around 380 ppm, up from pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm. It’s been estimated that curtailing CO2 levels to 440 ppm by 2030 roughly corresponds with this warming level . Now let’s do the math. Bear with me.

One problem is that the 440 ppm figure is an ‘equivalency’ figure – it means the effective equivalent of 440 ppm of CO2. Unfortunately, CO2 is not the only GreenHouse Gas (GHG) – there is methane, NOx, etc. – so we are actually already at the ‘effective 440 ppm’ level. So, we need to keep GHG levels constant at current levels to limit the rise to 2 degrees.

Unfortunately, by 2030, the total capacity of the biosphere to absorb carbon will have been reduced (from the current 4 billion tonnes to 2.7 billion tonnes) – don’t forget CO2 is part of a cycle: some is emitted, some is absorbed. The biosphere will decline in absorption rates simply because the planet is becoming less hospitable to our particular, unique, evolved biosphere (the atmosphere has changed alongside the life that has evolved – this is one of James Lovelock’s now well-accepted fundamental Gaia hypotheses. So, we can’t emit more than 2.7 billion tonnes per year. The population is now 7 billion, it will be roughly 8.2 billion by 2030. So, per person, the total CO2 emission levels that correspond to a 2 degree rise in global temperatures (that line in the sand I talked about) is around 0.33 tonnes per year per person.

Let’s not forget the developing world is increasing their emissions, and they will - like it or not - be demanding (or just grabbing) an equal slice of the economic pie. So we all have, roughly, that allocation. What does that mean for our Western democracies? Well, in Canada, it means a 94% reduction. That’s right, folks, 94%! Even if we want to TRIPLE our allowance, and reduce that of the developing world (since we got ‘here’ first!) - we’re still talking an 82% cut – and that cut, to keep temperature increases to 2 degrees, would need to happen tomorrow. So, no joke, Kyoto’s irrelevant. What we need, and need now, is a Super-Kyoto.

If anyone wants to deny these numbers, or the magnitude of the problem – one rule applies: only peer-reviewed science counts. Please don’t quote the idiots at 21st Century Science and Technology or that fraud Dr. S. Fred Singer (www.sepp.org) or he-who-likes-to-fake-letters-from-science-societies Frederick Seitz. Don’t tell me what someone said in the Daily Mirror: please refer me to real science.

This is scary stuff – and if you’re not in denial, you already know it. Well beyond the 2 degree mark, which is where we’re currently headed, we are quite likely to face a catastrophe the likes of which we just managed to avoid during the nuclear terror that was the Cold War. War on Terror my ass, the war that really matters is the War on Climate Change.

So, that’s the 80-90% figure. But hey – why do anything if the carbon-monster that is China is rising? What’s our piddly little cut matter? One thing is true – China’s carbon is coming, it’s coming fast - and it’s really, really bad news. Check out this depressing little piece.

I’ve been told that what we do in the face of this monster is irrelevant - insert your favourite carbon-reducing policy stat here, and it will indeed pale in comparison to what’s coming from China, India, Brazil ... So, let’s not do anything until they do, right? First off – see footnote 9 below. If we spent on windmills in China what we spent beating the snot out of each other in Iraq (see also)....

Regardless, I think waiting for China is complete horses---! Did Canada wait for the U.S. to join Britain in WWII? No, I don’t think so. Did we wait for the developing world on ozone? No.

This China problem is a hard one, though, I admit it – but I can’t see how the proper conclusion is to ... somehow .... wait some more. Are you kidding me ?! I want to know what you think about this one. For myself, I reckon:

  1. Leadership is not about waiting for others
  2. Leadership inspires, coaxes, behooves and forces others to act
  3. Regardless of what China does, we still have to do our bit
  4. As we cut our bit, we’ll be teaching them what to do. Innovation will come from the developed world
  5. There are lots of reasons to get off the fossil train, so let’s do it anyway
  6. First countries to figure it out gets rich!
Since when do we only change our behaviour in the face of metaphysical certainty ? I can only estimate my chances of success with the cute girl wearing polka dots at the bar, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Hell, it isn’t even certain I’ll make it across the street some nights, but I’m not scared to go ... As the British elite forces say – Who dares, wins! And remember – the stone age didn’t end because they ran our of stones.

Next week we’ll stop this geopolitical rant, and get to work on the Hotel.

References:

  1. Or some variant, each of our respective governments negotiated a similar figure.
  2. www.royalsoc.ac.uk/downloaddoc.asp?id=1630
  3. Oh, it’s final innings, that much is certain: scientists have been ringing the warning bell in their dry, conservative way for over twenty years now and carbon outputs have been accelerating almost the whole time. Even Margaret Thatcher gave a stirring speech, alerting us to the dangers, back in 1990 (www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=108237) – evidence that the old left/right distinctions are more blurred on this issue than one might think.
  4. A positive feedback loop is something that tends to further accelerate some action. A pencil on it’s end goes into a positive feedback loop when it begins to fall. A marble in a bowl, in contrast, goes into a negative feedback loop if it’s pushed up the side. For the carbon-warming cycle, positive feedback loops would be: frozen methane in the Russian north meting and being released, the oceans warming to the point they can no longer absorb CO2 at the same pace because the plankton dies, the ice at the poles melting and no longer reflecting the sunlight back into space, and so on. Here's a good example.
  5. www.stabilisation2005.com/impacts/impacts_human.pdf
  6. www.defra.gov.uk/environment/climatechange/internat/pdf/avoid-dangercc.pdf
  7. www.pik-potsdam.de/publications/pik_reports/reports/pr.93/pr93.pdf - Fig7, pg. 24
  8. Chris D. Jones, et al, ‘Strong Carbon Cycle Feedbacks in a Climate Model with Interactive CO2 and Sulphate Aerosols’, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 30, pg. 1479
  9. How much have we spent beating the crap out of each other in Iraq? Half a trillion? How many windmills is that equivalent to – something like 500 GW of them? Fer gawds’ sake, someone teach, impeach or out-reach that guy!
Continue to Part III

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  • Posted on Nov. 14, 2007. Listed in:

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