By Jonathan Cloud
Over the past several decades, scientists have warned us that we need to curtail further greenhouse gas emissions if we wish to keep global warming below 2°C, which many consider a major danger limit for the Earth’s climate. The latest IPCC Special Report suggests that our economy must undergo a series of rapid transformations if we are to have a chance of staying at or below 1.5°C, and going over that could have disastrous consequences for many millions of people. The global emissions trajectory we are on is clearly incapable of even slowing the rate of temperature growth and sea-level rise, and must be reduced dramatically if we are achieve even a modest extension of the time we have before the Earth hits another milestone and potential tipping point.
Both U.S. and NJ emissions have been declining since the early 2000s, and NJ actually hit its 2020 goal of bringing emissions down to 1990 levels by 2008. But reaching the next set of objectives, an 80% reduction by 2050, will be significantly harder. According to a 2017 Rutgers report, “meeting the state’s limit of an 80 percent reduction from the 2006 level by 2050 will require a 75 percent reduction from 2012 emissions.” The UN estimates that global emissions overall must be trending firmly downward by 2020 (just over a year away) if we are to have any hope of staying “well under the 2°C limit,” which is the language of the Paris Accord.
It thus appears increasingly obvious that we must do more than reduce emissions if we are to prevent the polar ice caps from melting—we must also remove some of the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, to bring the level down to 350 ppm or below if we want to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. This is a tall order, but many scientists, researchers, and quite a few businesses are already working to accomplish this. Earlier this year, Paul Hawken published the results of a two-year intensive study of both existing carbon removal strategies, and ones appearing to be just over the horizon, as Drawdown: the most comprehensive plan to reverse global warming. And the Healthy Climate Alliance ((https://healthyclimatealliance.org), founded by Peter Fiekowski, regularly debates Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) strategies, and is even starting to re-examine some of the more plausible “geo-engineering” strategies that have been proposed.
CDR is still widely criticized by some climate activists as likely to diminish the pressure to reduce emissions, and “geo-engineering” conjures up such critical resistance that most reputable scientists and commentators are still inclined to avoid it. But it seems increasing necessary to revisit these arguments, and to begin to recognize that the fossil fuel consumption that has led to today’s global warming itself represents the biggest “advance” in geo-engineering since the dawn of agriculture.
In fact, it’s clear from the geophysical evidence that life itself has been geo-engineering the planet for close to four billion years—and that humans have been doing so since prehistoric times, for instance by Ice Age hunters setting forest fires “in an attempt to create grasslands and park-like forests” about 20,000 years ago. Whether or not we fully embrace the Gaia hypothesis, the biosphere is created and dynamically sustained by life’s processes, including respiration, food consumption, and every other kind of organismic activity, from the action of the bacterial world to our land use and mobility patterns. And the impact of our activity is so clearly measurable that there should not be any debate about its contribution to climate change or habitat and biodiversity loss or the many other potential crises we face as species in the 21st Century.
Surprising, life’s presence is even connected with the Earth’s plate tectonics, not simply because they are vital in creating and sustaining life, but also because in life’s absence the planet tectonics would likely cease, if the oceans and the atmosphere were to become lifeless, either because the planet froze or entered into a hothouse stage. That’s how interconnected we and the planet really are. And the conditions that make it habitable and keep it that way are the ones we need to understand and sustain. In fact, it’s important, if we want to sustain anything like a semblance of modern civilization (however perverse it might seem to be at the moment), that we return the Earth to a more temperate climate and sustain it there, so that we refreeze the poles and some of the mountain glaciers and snow-packs upon which millions of humans and other life forms depend.
These sorts of things are regularly discussed and debated by the Healthy Climate Alliance on a daily basis. They are also the subject of astrobiologist David Grinspoon’s remarkable book, Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (2016). As he points out, right at the outset, “We suddenly find ourselves sort of running a planet—a role we never anticipated or sought—but without knowing how it should be done. We’re at the controls, but not in control.”
It’s clear, therefore, that we need to dismiss the debate between reducing emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere; we need both, and we need them now.
So the recent event at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center — Accelerating Climate Action in the United States: What Are We Doing and What More Can be Done? (Sept 20-21, 2018) —seems particularly timely. While it was not thecomprehensive overview the title suggests, it did reflect many of the trends in today’s climate debate, such as the relevance of nuclear as a “transition fuel”; innovative financing models; and the importance of state, local, and business action in the face of the Trump Administration’s rollbacks of climate policy.
The critical role of financing, which is the area we focus on at Possible Planet, is rapidly coming to the fore. A couple of years ago, the UN declared that the world needed to invest $90 trillion over the next fifteen years in order to transition to “a low-carbon, environmentally sustainable and resilient economy, and to do so rapidly.” Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times agreeing with this and arguing that it is feasible and necessary to do this, but finding the money won’t be easy. Our “Global 4C” project (Global4C.org) proposes that the best way to do this is through a global monetary policy created as an insurance policy against the inevitable shocks to the economythat a real climate catastrophe would entail. Never mind the untold misery and destruction of life, it’s really the preservation of the economy alone that can justify this kind of expenditure — the cost of which is actually spread over the entire society — calculated to match the “risk cost” of carbon.
In Matt Polsky’s concurrent series of articles on “New Jersey Now “Gets” Climate Change. What We Are Still Missing (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 ), he and I and others discuss some of the specific measures that New Jersey can take that will accelerate our progress in addressing the climate challenge—and provides a series of recommendations for policy makers, the first of which is essentially to capitalize on the emergent green economy, and put New Jersey back into a leadership position in all areas of clean technology, clean energy, and clean economy.
Some of this is reflected in the Murphy Administration’s new “economic master plan,” an NJEDA report titled “The State of Innovation: Building a Stronger and Fairer New Jersey.” Elsewhere we discuss the green elements of this program, and we’re pleased to report that the NJEDA’s new of Office of Economic Transformation has already reached out to discuss the implementation of PACE—Recommendation 4—with us.
Other recommendations include:
- Set an Explicit Goal of Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions within New Jersey by 2050 or Soon Afterwards
- Install Solar on Railroad Right of Ways and Between the Sides of Divided Highways
- Encourage Environmentally Benign and Tolerable Forms of Carbon Sequestration
Here’s a link to Part 2 of the series, starting with an examination of the “organizational culture” in the two key agencies, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, and the NJ Board of Public Utilities.
 Pacyniak, G., N. Kaufman, J. Bradbury, A. Veysey, H. Macbeth, M. Goetz, M. Kaplan, J. Herb, J. Senick, T. Abrahamian, and K. Zyla. 2017. An Examination of Policy Options for Achieving Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions in New Jersey. doi:10.7282/T30C4ZPZ.