This page contains the opening portion of Chapter 9 of RAFT 2035.
Copyright © 2020 David W. Wood. All rights reserved.
9. Carbon neutrality
Goal 9 of RAFT 2035 is that the UK will be carbon-neutral, thanks to improved green energy management.
Unless countries all around the world become carbon-neutral, there are major risks of chaotic changes in global climate arising from runaway global warming. In turn, these chaotic changes in climate will cause chaotic adverse changes in human society.
All the other goals in this roadmap are vulnerable to becoming pointless if such a climate catastrophe occurs.
Avoidance of potential climate catastrophe will require strong international cooperation, but the solutions will be accelerated by bold actions of individual countries, such as the UK.
As individual countries take action, it will alter the set of motivations applicable to other countries. That’s why it makes good sense for the UK to demonstrate leadership and to target carbon-neutrality more aggressively than the commitments made by some other countries.
Defining carbon neutrality
The phrase “carbon neutral” is shorthand for an overall neutral effect of all actions by a country that increase or decrease the likelihood of runaway global warming. These actions include all emissions of greenhouse gases from industry and from domestic use of energy, as well as processes to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
This goal explicitly rejects any reliance on “carbon offsetting”, in which money is paid in some kind of compensation for greenhouse gas emissions. The reduction of greenhouse gases must be actual, rather than just conceptual.
This goal likewise rejects any creative accounting in which various actions initiated by the UK are completely omitted from the balance sheet – actions such as international shipping, flights to overseas destinations, and the production of goods overseas for import into the UK.
We cannot lower the risk of climate catastrophe by any such “greenwashing” measures of “sweeping data under the carpet”. We need to assess the situation honestly and transparently. We also need to be ready to leave behind any ideological baggage that can prevent us from taking seriously the messages of the overwhelming majority of scientists who have studied this field.
The current trajectory
For a detailed discussion of measurement of overall “carbon footprint”, including “consumption emissions”, refer to the report published regularly by Defra, the UK’s Department for Food and Rural Affairs, “UK’s carbon footprint”. From that report:
In 2016 total greenhouse gas emissions associated with UK consumption were 3 per cent lower than in 1997 when this series [of measurements] begins.
The UK’s carbon footprint peaked in 2007 at 997 million tonnes CO2 equivalent. In 2016 it was 21 per cent lower than the 2007 peak (784 million tonnes CO2 equivalent).
A linear extrapolation of the trend from 2007 to 2016 would suggest that the UK could be carbon neutral within 36 years from 2016, namely 2052. The proposed goal evidently requires a considerable acceleration in the transformation to greener activities.
Note that this RAFT goal is fully compatible with people using large amounts of energy (and large amounts of resourcing). There’s no intrinsic need to revert to a more frugal lifestyle. The point, instead, is to ensure that the energy avoids undue emissions of greenhouse gases (and that resources are replenished in a sustainable manner).
It has been known for more than a century how extra greenhouse gases can trap more of the sun’s energy and raise average global temperatures. But the dynamic heat circulation mechanisms within the earth’s overall climate systems are fiendishly complicated. Different experts make different forecasts about future impacts, and express different levels of confidence in these predictions.
Emphatically, this degree of uncertainty is no reason to dismiss concerns. As a matter of prudence, scenarios in which drastic changes could take place within just a few decades need to be taken very seriously.
These runaway scenarios feature adverse positive feedback cycles, the destabilisation of long-established current patterns in oceans or the atmosphere, and increased destruction from extreme weather events.
RAFT emphasises the drawbacks of linear thinking, and of the importance of adopting exponential thinking. This holds not just for potential increases in technological capability, but also for potential impacts from human activities on the environment. In particular, the threat of climate change goes beyond the possibility of mere linear changes in temperature. Increased heat could spark a comparatively sudden phase change in the earth’s climate, pushing up the global average temperature by several degrees in less than a decade.