This page contains the current draft of the full text of Chapter 9 of RAFT 2035. All content is subject to change.
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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 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).
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.
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.
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):
- 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.
- 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.
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
- Chapter 5, “Towards abundant energy”, of the 2019 book by David Wood, Sustainable Superabundance
- The edX MOOC from the University of Queensland, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial
- The 2019 book by David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
- The 2019 book by Rachel Maddow, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth
- The 2018 book by Varun Sivaram, Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet
- The 2017 book by Peter Brannen, The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses
- The 2014 book by Ramez Naam, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet
- The 2014 book by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
- The 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming