9. Carbon neutrality

This page contains the current draft of the full text of Chapter 9 of RAFT 2035. All content is subject to change.

To offer comments and suggestions on the following material, please use this shared Google document.


9. Carbon neutrality

Goal 9 of RAFT 2035 is that the UK will be carbon-neutral, thanks to improved green energy management.

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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 more 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).

Exponential change

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. To be more precise, 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.

Similar sudden climate changes have taken place in the geological past, resulting in mass extinctions of large numbers of animal and plant species. These past changes had causes outside of any conscious choices by any of the animals involved. But this time, it will be different, due to the accumulated impact that human waste of all sorts is having on the planet. This time, the outcome is under conscious human control – provided we pay sufficient collective attention.

Smaller calamities could prove disastrous in their own way, via what are known as “threat multiplier” mechanisms. The US Department of Defence warns of climate change acting as a set of “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence”.

Social unrest that can (just about) be contained at the present time, may become completely unmanageable in the context of greater damage being inflicted regularly by extreme weather on agriculture, transport, and other key aspects of daily life.
It is said that every society is only four square meals away from revolution and anarchy. That’s not a theory we should be in any hurry to test.

Solutions and obstacles

The good news is that a number of technologies to comprehensively reduce the threat of damaging climate change are being developed and applied. The price of energy from wind, wave, and solar has been dropping steadily, decade after decade. New designs can improve capacity as well as drive down costs even further. As costs continue to fall, additional tipping points will be reached, enabling faster changes in adoption. After all, more than enough energy reaches the earth from the sun in just a few hours, to meet the needs of the entire human population for a whole year. In principle, all that’s needed is to accelerate improvements in the harvesting, storage, and transmission of energy from renewable sources.

The bad news, however, is that the pace of implementing improvements is currently far too slow. It’s not just that the generation of electricity needs to swap over from carbon-based to clean mechanisms. We also need widespread reforms of other economic activities that are collectively responsible for more than fifty percent of greenhouse gas emissions – activities such as farming, transport, and the manufacture of steel and cement. Another complication is a potential shortage of the raw materials needed in increasing quantities in the construction of ever larger numbers of solar panels, wind turbines, and other generators of clean energy.

Accordingly, political action to accelerate the transition is needed as a matter of the utmost priority.

This political action includes significant subsidies for next generation green technologies – including next generation systems for energy storage and energy transmission, as well as mechanisms such as “artificial photosynthesis” to create fuels from sunlight. It also includes the steady reduction of subsidies (direct or indirect) for activities that increase greenhouse gas pollution – subsidies from which the oil and gas industry greatly benefits at present (although it works hard to keep these connections hidden). In order to further increase the incentives favouring cleaner modes of operation, this political action also includes the imposition of taxes on activities that pollute – progressive taxes that scale up over time, with the revenues being distributed to the consumers most impacted by all these changes.

Causes of opposition

Political actions in support of carbon neutrality are facing trenchant opposition from the companies and organisations who perceive themselves as benefiting from the status quo. Oil corporations are among the most powerful on the planet, and they are backed by vigorous actions of the governments in countries where the oil industry is dominant. Such opposition cannot be overcome by friendly rational persuasion alone. Other sorts of forces will need to be applied in parallel – including economic forces of subsidies and taxes, civil court cases suing for compensation for damage caused, legislative forces, and, perhaps most important, a transformed public mindset.

On that last matter, it has been estimated that the world faces an additional 30 trillion dollars in climate-related damages, depending on whether the globe remains on its present trajectory for 2 degrees Centigrade temperature rise (or worse), or whether actions are taken to keep temperature rises to the 1.5 degree goal agreed in Paris in 2015. Awareness of that level of additional cost deserves to change the public mindset. This awareness should also accelerate disinvestment in the oil corporations and other industries that will be increasingly held liable to cover the huge costs of this damage.

Action to tackle climate change also faces trenchant opposition from people who are ideologically opposed to any mechanisms for international collaboration, or to any intervention by the state to constrain the excesses of powerful corporations. These critics fear that such interventions or collaborations will inevitably be hugely heavy-handed, and will destroy innovation. However, a fuller review of history shows that such a fear is misplaced. On the contrary, if large corporations gain too much power, the needs of humanity as a whole would take a dismal second place.

This is a case where avoiding intervention would be deeply irresponsible. Positive, lean intervention is both possible and desirable.

Open minds

In order to obtain and maintain carbon neutrality, it will be important to keep an open mind about solutions worth exploring, and to be ready to transcend prior doctrinaire ideological positions.

Subject to careful review, vital roles could be played by innovations in nuclear fission and/or nuclear fusion, by negative emissions technologies (carbon capture and storage), and by geoengineering initiatives.

If judged appropriate to proceed, these solutions will need political and financial support in order to progress sufficiently quickly.

Interim targets

To accelerate progress with Goal 9, two targets for 2025 are proposed (both targets overlap with the corresponding interim targets for Goal 4, that is, the abolition of homelessness and no involuntary hunger):

  1. Agreement on a replacement for the GDP index as the guiding light for evaluating the success of the economy. The focus in this case is ensuring that the replacement for the GDP fully incorporates factors known as “externalities”, that is the impacts of economic activities which are presently excluded from valuations. Externalities can be positive as well as negative. Chief among negative externalities are adverse impacts on the environment.
  2. Establish a reliable, respected source of information about the true environmental benefits and risks of different types of human actions. Existing highly contentious arguments about climate change scenarios should have the raw emotion and panic removed from them, so we can all see more clearly what are the real risks and real opportunities. In view of the passion that is manifest on all sides of the debate on climate change, and the deep suspicions about subterfuge, bad faith, and hidden motivations, this target will be challenging to achieve – which makes it all the more necessary.

Moving forwards

Climate change is only one of a number of very serious risks threatening the ability of the earth to continue to provide a positive environment for human activity. The next chapter looks more generally at the prospects of breaching “planetary boundaries”.

For more information

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RAFT 2035 – a new initiative for a new decade

The need for a better politics is more pressing than ever.

Since its formation, Transpolitica has run a number of different projects aimed at building momentum behind a technoprogressive vision for a better politics. For a new decade, it’s time to take a different approach, to build on previous initiatives.

The planned new vehicle has the name “RAFT 2035”.

RAFT is an acronym:

  • Roadmap (‘R’) – not just a lofty aspiration, but specific steps and interim targets
  • towards Abundance (‘A’) for all – beyond a world of scarcity and conflict
  • enabling Flourishing (‘F’) as never before – with life containing not just possessions, but enriched experiences, creativity, and meaning
  • via Transcendence (‘T’) – since we won’t be able to make progress by staying as we are.

RAFT is also a metaphor. Here’s a copy of the explanation:

When turbulent waters are bearing down fast, it’s very helpful to have a sturdy raft at hand.

The fifteen years from 2020 to 2035 could be the most turbulent of human history. Revolutions are gathering pace in four overlapping fields of technology: nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognotech, or NBIC for short. In combination, these NBIC revolutions offer enormous new possibilities – enormous opportunities and enormous risks:…

Rapid technological change tends to provoke a turbulent social reaction. Old certainties fade. New winners arrive on the scene, flaunting their power, and upturning previous networks of relationships. Within the general public, a sense of alienation and disruption mingles with a sense of profound possibility. Fear and hope jostle each other. Whilst some social metrics indicate major progress, others indicate major setbacks. The claim “You’ve never had it so good” coexists with the counterclaim “It’s going to be worse than ever”. To add to the bewilderment, there seems to be lots of evidence confirming both views.

The greater the pace of change, the more intense the dislocation. Due to the increased scale, speed, and global nature of the ongoing NBIC revolutions, the disruptions that followed in the wake of previous industrial revolutions – seismic though they were – are likely to be dwarfed in comparison to what lies ahead.

Turbulent times require a space for shelter and reflection, clear navigational vision despite the mists of uncertainty, and a powerful engine for us to pursue our own direction, rather than just being carried along by forces outside our control. In short, turbulent times require a powerful “raft” – a roadmap to a future in which the extraordinary powers latent in NBIC technologies are used to raise humanity to new levels of flourishing, rather than driving us over some dreadful precipice.

The words just quoted come from the opening page of a short book that is envisioned to be published in January 2020. The chapters of this book are reworked versions of the scripts used in the recent “Technoprogressive roadmap” series of videos.

Over the next couple of weeks, all the chapters of this proposed book will be made available for review and comment:

  • As pages on the Transpolitica website, starting here
  • As shared Google documents, starting here, where comments and suggestions are welcome.

RAFT Cover 21

All being well, RAFT 2035 will also become a conference, held sometime around the middle of 2020.

You may note that, in that way that RAFT 2035 is presented to the world,

  • The word “transhumanist” has moved into the background – since that word tends to provoke many hostile reactions
  • The word “technoprogressive” also takes a backseat – since, again, that word has negative connotations in at least some circles.

If you like the basic idea of what’s being proposed, here’s how you can help:

  • Read some of the content that is already available, and provide comments
    • If you notice something that seems mistaken, or difficult to understand
    • If you think there is a gap that should be addressed
    • If you think there’s a better way to express something.

Thanks in anticipation!

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