graph by Our World in Data
The latest IPCC report says that in order to prevent catastrophic climate change global net CO2 emissions will have to reach net zero by 2050, from their current levels of 33-38B tons rising by nearly 2%/year. The IPCC’s past reports have been almost laughably conservative and optimistic, which is just one of the reasons Extinction Rebellion have set a net-zero deadline of 2025, just 6 years from now.
It should be noted that total greenhouse gases will continue to rise for at least another 15-20 years after net zero CO2 is achieved, due to the ongoing run-on effects of other greenhouse gases, notably methane, that have been unleashed ‘naturally’ as a result of the damage we have already done to the atmosphere. And it is at best a long shot that even if we were to achieve net zero CO2 by 2025, it isn’t already too late to prevent climate collapse. Our knowledge of the science remains abysmal and every new report paints a bleaker picture. Expect a fierce anti-science, anti-reality backlash as more and more climate scientists concur that runaway, civilization-ending climate change is inevitable no matter what we do, or don’t do.
So what would be required to reduce the course of the hockey-stick trajectory shown in the chart above and achieve net zero CO2 in just 6 years, for a population that will at current rates be 7% (at least 1/2 billion people) greater than it is now?
I think the reason that, while parliaments and political parties and scientists will readily accept XR’s first demand of proclaiming a climate emergency “and communicating the urgency for change”, for most the second demand of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss to zero by 2025 is simply absurd. Western economies have merely shifted production to Asia; their accelerating consumption of CO2-produced goods continues unabated. Our global economy depends utterly on cheap hydrocarbon energy. It’s completely preposterous to think a short-term shift is even vaguely possible. Renewables won’t help us; as the chart below shows, new solar energy isn’t even keeping up with the annual increases in demand, let alone cutting into the still-accelerating need for hydrocarbon energy:
graph by Pedro Prieto, cited by Bill Rees
So let’s be preposterous. What would have to happen, at a minimum, to achieve this valiant goal? Based on what I’ve read and on my understanding of complex systems, here’s just a few of the things that I think would have to happen:
- An immediate, complete and permanent grounding of all air traffic. That means no executive jets, no flying for diplomatic or business meetings or emergency family reasons — or military adventures. Achieving meaningful carbon reductions is simply impossible as long as planes are flying.
- Immediate rationing of liquid/gas hydrocarbons for essential and community purposes only. To get all the hydrocarbon-fuelled cars and trucks off the road in six years no more travel in personal hydrocarbon-burning vehicles could be permitted. And we’d have to work hard to convert all public buses, trains and ships to non-CO2 producing vehicles in that time. If you look at supply/demand curves for gasoline, we’d be looking at carbon taxes in the area of 1000% to ‘incent’ such conversions. My guess is that most shipping and much ‘privatized’ public transit would not be able to stay in business with these constraints. So say goodbye to most imported goods.
- All hydrocarbons in the ground would have to stay there, all over the world, effective immediately. We’d have to make do with existing reserves for a few years until everything had been converted to renewable resources.
- Industrial manufacturing based on fossil fuel use would have to convert in equal steps over the six year timeframe, and any plants failing to do so would have to be shuttered.
- Construction of new buildings and facilities would have to stop entirely. Existing buildings would have to phase out use of fossil fuels over the six years through rationing and cut-offs for non-compliance, and they would have to be remodelled to meet stringent net-zero energy standards and to accommodate all new building needs.
- Trillions of trees would have to be planted, and all forestry and forest clearing stopped entirely. Likewise, production of other new high-energy-use building materials (especially concrete) would have to cease. We’d have to quickly learn to re-use the wood and other building materials we have now.
- All this centralized, ‘unprofitable’ activity (and enforcement of the restrictions) would need to be funded through taxes. As during the great depression, the rich could expect tax rates north of 90% on income. And a very large wealth tax would be needed to quickly redistribute wealth so that the poor didn’t overwhelmingly suffer from the new restrictions.
- The consequences of the above would be an immediate and total collapse of stock and real estate markets and the flow of capital. The 90% of the world’s wealth that is purely financial and not real (stocks, bonds, pensions etc) would quickly become substantially worthless in a ‘negative-growth’ economy, adding a complete economic collapse to the crises the governments trying to administer the transition to net-zero were trying to manage. In such an economic collapse, many governments would simply fail, leaving communities in their jurisdictions to fend for themselves, and making it likely that much of the world would abandon the constraints of net-zero transition because they wouldn’t have the power or resources to even begin to enforce them.
Of course, none of this will happen. Even if governments had the power and wisdom to understand what was really required to make the net-zero transition, it would be political suicide for them to implement it. It won’t happen by 2025. It won’t happen by 2050. It won’t and wouldn’t happen by 2100 even if we had that long, which we do not.
The message of all this is that we cannot save our globalized civilization from the imminent end of stable climate, affordable energy, and the industrial economy — all of which are interdependent. No one (and no group) has the power to shift these massive global systems to a radically new trajectory, without which (and perhaps even with which) our world and its human civilization are soon going to look very different.
No one knows how and how quickly this will all play out, and the scenarios under which collapse will occur vary from humane, collaborative and relatively free from suffering, to the very dystopian. There is therefore no point dwelling on them, or even trying to plan for them. As always, we will continue to do our best, each of us, with the situation that presents itself each day, and our love for our planet and its wondrous diversity will play into that. Our best will not be enough, but we will do it anyway.
Really, all we need to do is Item #8, right? And that’s going to happen even if we proceed with Business As Usual™, right? So what’s the problem, then? :-)
Jan — not sure we could do 8 without doing at least some of 1-7. To end capitalism, it would require either eco-/social activism on a scale that has never been seen before (enough that the enforcers of capitalism — police, corporations, politicians, military, lawyers — would give up trying to enforce it), or else a walking-away attitude change on the part of billions who currently worship it like a religion (refusing to buy from or work for any capitalist enterprise). Nice to dream about, but IMO pretty unlikely. I think it’s more likely we’ll have to wait for it to fall apart.
All “alternative energy” transport are still extensions of oil/gas/coal.
All “alternative energy” systems provide/run on electricity, and the liquid fuels crisis bearing down on us, does not allow for the continuation of most of the electrical grid or electricity production. Conflating electricity into the “energy” mix this way is insane and not helpful, just marketing weasel words. Here in New Zealand we (peak oil researchers) worked out that without the importing of very specialized grease and oil, the 80% of electricity via hydro here starts to fall off a cliff, once the turbines don’t get their grease and oil fixes.
The massive cultural inertia keeping this whole dominant culture heading in one specific direction, is pretty much guaranteeing that collapse is built in and probably a lot closer than even the majority of us here think is probable…or not? We’re now in guessing mode. It sure is an “exciting time” to be alive, eh?!
The Nicole Foss meme of we’re the drunks after the bar is closed, now on our knees with straws, sucking the spilled beer out of the carpet, comes to mind.
Yes, to say nothing of the methane released by hydroelectric power reservoirs.
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It will be very nasty in fact, as for the timeline we (westerners) have anywhere up to 3 years to the collapse to reach us that will start at the financial realm. I know these as I have some friends who are experts and in positions to know, I myself pay close attention but it’s not my day-job and have no formal education on that,only a hobby. Climate change will be our least problem soon. By the time it really
hits hard roughly 6 out of every 7 people will be gone.
You could add one thing:
1a) close the internet, it is as big as flying and growing faster. And it vill lead to point 8.
“3 All hydrocarbons in the ground would have to stay there, all over the world, effective immediately. We’d have to make do with existing reserves for a few years until everything had been converted to renewable resources.”
this is a total joke, since no hydrocarbons means no “renewable” resource converting devices like wind generators and solar pv modules.
Zero net emissions by 2025 is an unrealistic target, because it would generate shockwaves across the global economy, almost guaranteeing a global financial crisis, and so would never be agreed by nations at the global level.
A much more realistic starting objective would be a trajectory for net global emissions based on the Paris Agreement, with zero net emissions being reached somewhere around 2050. This trajectory can easily be delivered by a relatively simple market guidance mechanism.
The benefits of a market guidance mechanism are profound. Firstly, it is self-funding, meaning public money is not needed at all. Secondly, it combines the extensive power of markets to drive competition and innovation while rapidly finding efficiencies, with the power of nature to sink carbon in enormous volumes and with tremendous efficiency. Thirdly, a market guidance mechanism is guaranteed to deliver the desired outcome, in this case the exact trajectory for net emissions to follow.
The ideal scheme would be implemented at the global level, based on an extension of the Paris Agreement that includes not just how the volume of net emissions will track over time, but how the necessary net emissions reductions will be achieved.
The scheme would have a simple global price on all emissions, from all sources, in all countries, with no exceptions, loopholes or complexity. The revenues would all flow into a single global fund, to be fully distributed for total sinking of greenhouse gases.
A global agency would administer the scheme, with absolutely transparent and accountable processes. It would issue regular invoices to all nations, perhaps yearly, or quarterly, with a total fee for the total volume of national emissions, and a rebate for the total volume of sinking.
Obviously, national governments would be trying to minimise the emissions intensity of all their industrial sectors in order to minimise costs to their budgets, while doing everything possible to protect and regenerate natural carbon sinks in order to secure a share of the enormous revenue streams. The carbon sinking capacity of agricultural soils is enormous, although not infinite, so there would be plenty of incentive to make the switch to regenerative agricultural practices as quickly as possible, in order to take advantage of a very high rebate price for sinking in the beginning, when volumes of sinking are low globally, The goal of reducing net emissions would finally be aligned with government objectives to maximise national income.
The simplicity of the scheme is critical. It is what makes it so powerful, so efficient, and totally immune to political interference or being gamed by corporations and nation states.
At the national level, governments would be required to use exactly the same approach, a single pool collecting fees from economic activities that emit greenhouse gases, with the revenues fully distributed to activities that sink greenhouse gases. The agency administering the scheme at the national level would issue invoices with fees and rebates to the businesses and other organisations involved.
These pricing signals would ensure that the costs of all greenhouse gas emissions are embodied in the prices of all business inputs, and that the emissions sinking value of all natural carbon sinks like forests and soils was not just acknowledged, but automatically rewarded with direct revenues.
The pricing signals would be dynamic, rising and falling according to the overall market response. If net emissions were tracking above the target trajectory, the pricing signals would automatically rise to increase the effects of the incentives and disincentives. And when net emissions were already falling ahead of the required trajectory, the pricing signals would automatically be reduced. If the reality proved that achieving net emissions reductions was actually much easier than expected because of the power of the market guidance mechanism, there would be scope for negotiating a more ambitious trajectory for net emissions to follow, and so to speed up the transition to a low emissions economy.
Obviously under the new market dynamics, the businesses that can innovate most rapidly to reduce the emissions intensity of their goods and services will become far more profitable, at the expense of those businesses that are slow to exploit the new market incentives and disincentives. The race would be on between nations to become net carbon sinks, and between businesses to have as low an emissions footprint as technologically possible.
To emphasise one particular profound benefit of this scheme, by using the very same mechanism to reward reductions in industrial emissions and increases in natural carbon sinking processes, means that for every extra tonne of carbon that nature sinks there is one tonne of carbon that the industrial system does not need to cut from its own emissions in order to hit the target net volume. The more heavy lifting nature does, the less the industrial system needs to do.
This scheme guarantees the trajectory that global net emissions will follow. Its profound efficiency means that markets will readily and continuously determine the optimal mix of changes in economic activities that will reduce industrial emissions and increase carbon sinking into soils and other carbon sinks. There is so much low hanging fruit, in terms of businesses optimising the emissions footprint of every input and every process in order to maximise profitability, and new public policy that rapidly turns deforestation around and uses reforestation to gain a share of the lucrative revenues for carbon sinking, as well as public policy that suddenly accelerates the shift from old destructive industrial agricultural methods to regenerative practices which build soil volumes and sequester vast amounts of carbon.
Given all of this built-in potential for rapid and massive changes in net emissions under the right market dynamics, where the objectives of businesses and governments are finally aligned with the goal of solving climate change, it is very likely that the net emissions targets will be met so easily, and with such positive economic outcomes rather than net overall costs, that the world might agree to set a more ambitious trajectory for net emissions to follow, thus speeding up the transition to a negative emissions world economy. The timeline for zero net emissions might be brought forward to say 2035, then 2030, as the power of the model is absolutely proven.
The political obstacles to global adoption of this scheme might be enormous, but they can be overcome with a process of collaborative development of the proposal and marketing of the scheme. To presume that there is nothing that we can do about climate change would be fatalistic, so in order to be constructive we must not dismiss the power of a market guidance mechanism to solve climate change before giving it serious thought and vigorous debate.
Thanks for the comments everyone. I agree that the 2025 target is impossible, and as I said I think the 2050 target is also impossible. Global mechanisms sound good in theory, but there is no precedent for such mechanisms ever being implemented, and I doubt whether they would be implemented or enforced. And it’s also true that renewables themselves use non-renewable energy in their production, and that one of the largest energy consumers now is the internet. But just as we are dependent on international shipping to provide many essential goods, we are now dependent on the internet to provide many essential services. It’s a catch-22 and cannot end well.
The closest precedent to the scheme I have advocated is the Montreal Protocol, which was also about control over chemicals being emitted in the atmosphere, in that case the chemicals which damaged the ozone layer.
Well, this is a happy conversation! I think the group is forgetting that technology is developing exponentially, not in a linear fashion. This matters on a whole range of fronts from renewable “oils and greases” (for your various turbines, e.g., hydro and wind); to battery technology (for storing energy in the grid and in EVs, and in future heavy vehicles as well); to carbon capture technology that will make steel and cement production “clean,” and enable us to use some fossil fuels for e-generation, at least for a transition. It also helps that Swanson’s Law has not yet been repealed – so solar will get cheaper and cheaper, and eat up more and more of the market; and energy efficiency has really kicked in in most countries, so energy demand growth is much lower than before – in many places, flat to declining.
In any case, technology is our best hope.
As for 2050 not being realistic, I think the Roadmap 2050 (which I contributed to a decade ago) is a good start, and shows that we can decarbonize the Euro-grid entirely by 2050. If Europe can do this, other countries can, too.
If they want to.
“In any case, technology is our best hope.”
That hope will only be justified if the market incentives for innovation are dramatically increased, while the disincentives to continue with business-as-usual are also dramatically increased.
In the absence of appropriate market conditions, technology becomes a false promise, a dangerous excuse for doing nothing but waiting for someone else to develop some new concept that can completely break through business-as-usual.
Technology will only be truly unleashed when the objectives of all the major participants in the system are in perfect alignment, including those in finance, economics and politics, as well as those who advocate for sustainability. That perfect alignment depends entirely on a global agreement to control greenhouse gas concentrations which also provides enormous rewards for reducing emissions intensity and maximising nature’s capacity to sink carbon.
Without such a global framework, markets will only develop technologies which serve the interests of various systems of power within the status quo, not technologies that serve the broader interests of humanity and the planet.
My brother-in-law’s old saying: “It’s going to get worse before it gets nasty.”
I would like to thank all the breeders that bring more Clever Apes onto this rock increasing their carbon footprint of each parents by 50% for each monkey they produce.
Continuing to screw each other is the best way to screw a planet’s habitat?
First 35 seconds
“The truth is not always pleasant.”
“As always, we will continue to do our best, each of us, ”
I’ve seen this stated before as almost a philosophy, or an optimism bias. But I think it lets us off the hook. Few of us are doing anywhere close to our best – most greenies still drive, fly and buy.
I think that’s a real source of optimism – that we could still do better.
Oh, and Dave, you forgot to mention food production! That might be a good place to channel our remaining hydrocarbons.
Sure enough Crescent Varrone, battery energy density really has grown exponentially! Things do, until they can’t, so I have no idea what the physical and practical limits of this are, but this is the first promising chart I’ve seen in a while!
Atransformation of human consciousness and culture is the key.This will happen by 2038,but will it be soon enough?
This topic surely brought out the commentariat. I’ve mostly stopped wringing my hands about collapse, so when I see old arguments and purported solutions resurfacing, shrugging it all off is a pretty obvious response. Several things in the comments above make me laugh in a dark sort of way: Renewables to the rescue! The market to the rescue! Technology to the rescue! I share Dave’s pessimism that nothing can rescue us now. The let’s-be-preposterous thought experiment is interesting but ultimately invites desperation. Our best now option is palliation.
I do have one question in relation to #1 above. What about global dimming as the result of the aerosol effect (as I understand it, particulate matter — pollution — in the atmosphere filtering out a percentage of the sun’s radiative heat and acting as an umbrella)? Once most the particulates fall out of the sky (at least those from planes) in a few days, won’t things heat up rather abruptly? Models and predictions may not be entirely accurate of course.
In 1964 I watched a program on the global population & the estimate of where it was heading. At that point I decided that I would not help to destroy this rock & it’s other life by bringing offspring into this world because of my overinflated ego.
I’m unique,special & so are my “taker” brats.
“One should not need to be a scientist to know that human population growth and the accompanying increase in human consumption are the root cause of the sixth mass extinction we’re currently seeing. All you need to know is that every living being has evolved to have a set of habitat requirements.”
“make me laugh in a dark sort of way: … The market to the rescue!”
There is no constructive value in expressing a psychological reaction. Have you got a logical one? Say one primary reason why your gut reaction is simplistic disbelief?
David Bir above says “A transformation of human consciousness and culture is the key”. I strongly believe that is well underway, and strongly follows the post-WW2 exponential growth curve shown for energy consumption in the article.
I offer a gentle reminder that this article, as dystopian as it is, addresses only one of the myriad of human-caused problems afflicting the earth. The extinctions that have extirpated 97% of all mammalian and piscine wildlife on the planet are due to human activity – habitat destruction on land and our direct predation in the oceans. Global fresh water depletion and soil fertility decline are also direct consequences of the human swarm.
As the writer William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” The same can be said of climate change and the rest of the onrushing ecological catastrophe. One of the most striking maps I’ve seen recently showed the progression of climate change as it crept through localized areas of the globe, pushing one region after another over +2C. The rest of the calamity will creep in on similar cats’ feet, allowing much of the (voting) world to bury its head in denial until the wolf knocks on their own door.
The predicament is far too large, and is worsening far too rapidly, for technology, policy, lifestyle or spiritual changes to be offer more than minor ameliorations. We can’t know what natural effects will reduce the human population to its fully sustainable level of 10 to 100 million hunter-foragers, but we can be confident that such a reduction will happen. Of course we may also be driven to extinction like so many other species. The choice is not ours to make.
In the meantime however, there is always the option to do whatever you think is right, whatever that may be for you (knowing that 7 billion other people will do something else.) At least then we can each move into the uncertain future with our heads high and our hearts open, knowing that we have done what we could.
What seems to be missing in the conversation. Collapse can happen quickly and for many reasons, including energy price increases. Surveillance is being quickly implemented through 5G technologies to control and repress the coming riots, rebellions, coups, we are already seeing in many countries. Americans will mostly rollover and whine because they will fall prey to fake news, believing it cannot happen here, or are too embedded in their own crappy lifestyle. Preparation must ramp up and offensive actions considered for anyone who sees a sooner than expected collapse that could possible save some of humanity.
OK, here’s the plan:
1. Environmental advocates learn about the international Degrowth movement and spread the Degrowth message.
2. The government of one country “wakes up” and take Degrowth on board. They will need to do it suddenly by declaring a state of emergency. That will send shock waves around the world. The genie will be out of the bottle. The myth of indefinite growth will be shattered. It will be a rough ride; stock markets will crash (unfortunate but unavoidable). Useless jobs will be lost, others created. Some industries such as fashion, tourism, etc would rapidly decline.
3. Our current economic system is a house of cards built on debt and over-consumption. Unfortunately stopping this madness will result in many ordinary people losing wealth, but a financial crash is coming anyway. If the myth of indefinite growth isn’t shattered then that crash will be wasted and the destructive cycle of boom and bust will continue.
4. If one country doesn’t wake up then human existence will soon be over.
5. Research shows that we only need 3.5% of the population to be actively on board to achieve change.
6. After the transition, Degrowth will be a better life for all.
I am guessing few people here look at the arctic sea ice volume charts.
I am also guessing that even fewer people here have an idea of the impact that an ice free arctic has on our ability to grow crops.
In my day to day life I live like we still have 20 years of the world as we know it left. But I know it’s beyond optimistic.
Brandon Young sez: “There is no constructive value in expressing a psychological reaction. Have you got a logical one? Say one primary reason why your gut reaction is simplistic disbelief?”
Funny how a couple simple sentences raise a host of issues that could fill a book. For instance, why raise reason over psychology as the appropriate response to the specter of climate change and industrial collapse? Sure, I have gut reactions like anyone else, but they’re supported by more than a decade of having dealt with this complex topic. They’re informed gut reactions. The “simplistic disbelief” to which you object is that markets represent a possible solution to our collective problems. Here’s my thinking in a nutshell, but it could instead fill a book (I’m not gonna write it).
I used to think of collapse as primarily a geophysical issue, as in carrying capacity plotted against overconsumption, overpopulation, and despoliation of the environment. That array of issues still figures prominently, as the ongoing sixth mass extinction attests, which is likely to catch up with us homo sapiens sapiens, who as heterotrophs rely on other species for our survival. The parallel issue informing collapse — at least as a human-driven phenomenon of greatest interest to, you guessed it, humans — is our collective moral and ethical failure to recognize, acknowledge, and address anthropomorphic climate change as the extinction-level event it truly is. This was what I learned from William Ophul’s book Immoderate Greatness, which I reviewed at my blog.
My assessment is that the mood of the global public and its readiness to act has lagged far behind (four decades, perhaps) what is needed. Politicians lag even farther behind (followers, not leaders) in their refusal to acknowledge scientific consensus and plan responsibly for the future, even if that only means ameliorating the worst outcomes. Instead, because electability and profitability (both greed of different types) are short-term incentives that animate their thinking more than anything else, they ignore and obfuscate and delay, all to our collective demise.
How do you think a market model for collapse can possibly overcome geophysical, moral, and ethic limitations? My gut reaction is that economists and market fundamentalists see the proverbial nail and wanna maul it with all due force regardless of effectiveness. Doesn’t really address the problem.
“How do you think a market model for collapse can possibly overcome geophysical, moral, and ethic limitations?”
I presume you mean a market model that can avert collapse. The system needs to operate within the constraints imposed by the natural world – that is the ultimate purpose of the scheme I advocate.
Moral and ethical considerations are subjective, so have no place in the scheme and can be ignored, because the solution is empirical, meaning it works perfectly without any need for subjective or theoretical inputs.
Under the scheme, businesses would not need to apply morality; they would just work out what is most profitable under the new market dynamics. Governments would not need to apply morality, because they just continue what they normally do in order to stay in power, including exploiting their budget positions which could either improve or worsen under the new global pricing dynamics. When businesses and governments get it right, and do things that inadvertently solve climate change while they pursue pure self interest, they will be rewarded. And when they get it wrong, they will pay their fees which directly subsidise their rivals. As I said, the race would be on, and none of the competitors would need to be motivated by morality.
Once the scheme has been agreed and implemented, no one on the planet would need to even think about their own behaviour, and yet the market guidance system would automatically deliver the exact trajectory for global net emissions that it has been armed with. It is a set-and-forget solution, at least until the next global agreement that can be reached as a result of the effectiveness of the scheme, perhaps one to set an even more aggressive trajectory for net emissions to follow, or a new global agreement on the trajectory of some other aspect of sustainability, such as the depletion rates of finite resources and natural systems.
“My gut reaction is that economists and market fundamentalists see the proverbial nail and wanna maul it with all due force regardless of effectiveness.?
We need to stop paying any attention to economists and other system propagandists, and start listening to those who operate in the real world, especially in real science and real systems engineering.
I knew I shouldn’t have fed the bear. What usually comes out the other end is a steaming pile, which is what we got. Apologies to other careful readers of this post and comments section.
“Our best will not be enough, but we will do it anyway.”
The Clever Ape has never done it’s best.
Transcript from a “The Matrix” video I posted earlier.
Agent Smith: I’d like to share a revelation during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.”
We have sexually abused ourselves.