By KRIS PASTORIZA of Easton
127 countries have committed to becoming net-zero by 2050 – or some convenient date far enough in the future to obscure that we all are doing almost nothing now to reduce our energy use or CO2 production.
Only Bhutan and Suriname have achieved net-zero.
“Protected areas are at the core of Bhutan’s national carbon neutral strategy. Bhutan’s constitution now demands that a minimum of 60 per cent of the country’s total land area remains under forest cover for all time. Currently 81 per cent of Bhutan is under forest cover, and more than half the country is protected as national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries – all connected by a network of biological corridors.” (1)
“Suriname has claimed a net-negative carbon economy since at least 2014. This is in large part because dense forests cover over 93% of the country. Most of the rainforest is still in pristine condition, however it is being threatened by gold mining and logging companies.” (2)
Suriname’s population density is 4 people per Km2, Bhutan has 20 people per Km2 and the U.S. has 36 people per Km2. In Bhutan the per capita yearly production of CO2 in 2019 was 2.24 tons, in Suriname, 4.48 tons, in the U.S., 16 tons.
In the U.S, the federal government “owns” 30% of U. S. lands, but only 18% of this land is protected as wilderness with only 3% protected as wilderness in the lower 48 states. 30% wilderness is recommended as the minimum for ecological sustainability: (3)
To halt and reverse our destruction of the earth, The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, “The world’s most influential conservation congress” passed resolutions on 9/10/21 calling for “80 percent of the Amazon and 30 percent of Earth’s surface – land and sea – to be designated “protected areas”. Recommendations by The International Union for the Conservation of Nature have in the past served as the backbone for UN treaties and conventions.” (4)
Ecologist Edward O. Wilson, in his 2016 book Half Earth stated that “only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.”
While forests are not the only carbon sinks, Bhutan and Suriname point to the necessity of low per capita energy consumption, severely limited logging and grazing, and the difficulty first world countries with little wilderness, dense populations and high-energy consumption have in reaching net-zero.
Without extreme, radical reductions in population and consumption, combined with protection of our forests, rangelands and other natural carbon sinks like peatlands and soils, net-zero appears impossible to achieve. Few of us who have them are willing to live without what we consider our entitlements: fossil-fueled cheap food, unlimited fossil fuel use and travel, whatever we can afford to buy, as many children as we want, as much electricity, oil and water as we can afford, cheap disposal of trash and cheap goods, large houses, and medical care.
In an effort to glimpse the magnitude of the challenges we face in achieving net-zero CO2 production, let’s assume that individuals were living at net-zero in the U.S. in the year 1800. At that time, it is estimated that per capita CO2 production in the U.S. was .04 metric tons per year. By 2019, per capita CO2 production had increased to 16 metric tons per year. Thus, U.S. per capita production of CO2 would have to be reduced to 1/400 of 2019 levels for the current U.S. CO2 production to equal that of 1800.
The U.S. population increased from an estimated 4,304,480 non-indigenous people, 600,000 indigenous people, 893,041 enslaved afro-americans and 108,395 free people of color in 1800 (6m. total population) to 331,500,000 people in 2021. (5, 5a, 5b) To compensate for this increase in population, the U.S. per capita production of CO2 would have to be reduced to 1/55th of 2019 levels.
With our per capita CO2 production 400 times larger, and our population 55 times larger than they were in 1800, the average person in the U.S. would have to produce 1/22,000th of the C02 they produced in 2019, for the U.S. to reach net-zero.
We would then have to reduce our CO2 production again as retribution for our energy consumption over the past 100+ years, which has been grossly in excess of that consumed by the majority of the rest of the world.
World citizens would have to produce 1/932th of their present per capita CO2 production to reach net-zero.
The other greenhouse gasses: nitrous oxide, methane, and halocarbons have not been included in these calculations.
We also must assume that the carbon sequestration capacity of the world has decreased since the 1800s because of deforestation, loss of old-growth forests, degradation of soils, the Amazon becoming a net emitter, the permafrost and glaciers melting, and the capacity of the ocean to absorb carbon having been greatly reduced.
The majority of the forests that were sequestering carbon in 1800 have been lost or damaged: “It is estimated that Earth’s current total vegetation biomass is half of potential biomass stocks prior to human perturbation, mainly through forest loss…” and there is very little old growth forest left. “The Forest Service says that less than 7 percent of U.S. forests are over 100 years old.” If left un-cut, “Northeast secondary forests have the potential to increase biological carbon sequestration between 2.3 and 4.2-fold.” (6, 6a)
Rangelands in the west have been severely degraded by government subsidized grazing for invasive species (cows and sheep) and the slaughter of native species, especially apex predators. These policies have caused extensive degradation of these ecosystems and decreased their capacity to sequester CO2 (6b)
Carbon stored in soils has decreased: (7)
The ocean may be close to its capacity for absorbing carbon and this absorption has acidified it, with damaging results to coral reefs. (8)
Given the CO2 already emitted, and feedback loops, we also have to ask if net-zero is enough and whether a negative CO2 balance is necessary to prevent runaway heating.
Plans for “green” energy, electrifying everything and ‘building back better” will create large amounts of CO2, and even if we electrify everything, those things will wear out and most people (primarily first-world people and the rich) will demand replacements: cars, tractors and other agricultural machinery, stoves, washers, dryers, water pumps, hospitals, medical equipment, roads, airplanes, houses, computers, the grid, batteries, phones.
These plans are driven by the corporations that control our political institutions. Amoral, and with a sole dedication to profit, they are devoid of any reason to plan far enough ahead to prevent the demise of organized life as we know it.
Fossil fuel corporations produced accurate predictions of the course of global warming 30 years ago. Their response was to spend millions convincing the public that the data was unclear and did not warrant action. They did not spend those 30 years developing viable mechanical carbon capture technology that would get us to negative emissions. These corporations are now lobbying for millions in government welfare to subsidize their work on this technology, which will not get us to net-zero by 2050 or avert the immediate need for radical reductions in consumption and radical increases in land protection. When cultural collapse reaches a more critical state, they will be ready to profit from disaster capitalism.
Thus the current plan is to “overshoot” (not meet our goals) and then to make up for it later with mechanical carbon capture that will remove enough CO2 from power plants and the atmosphere to create negative CO2 emissions. Whether this is possible, and what will happen in the meantime to most of humanity and the planet (famine, refugees, floods, pandemics, violence, feedback cycles, fascism, cults, cultural and environmental collapse, species extinction, runaway warming) is not of concern to those in power. (9)
“Without negative emissions, emissions would have to basically drop off a cliff, starting today.” (2018)
“According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the emissions reduction pathway with the best chance of keeping warming at or below 1.5 C makes limited to no use of engineered carbon capture technologies. This pathway involves a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels along with limited carbon removal by natural sources such as reforestation and enhanced soil carbon uptake. The IPCC points to “uncertainty in the future deployment of CCS” and cautions against reliance on the technology, given “concerns about storage safety and cost” and the “non-negligible risk of carbon dioxide leakage from geological storage and the carbon dioxide transport infrastructure.“
(11) (CCS=carbon capture and storage)
A person in the U.S. who has no car, doesn’t fly, lives off the electric grid without a washer, dryer, hot water heater, or television, has a small refrigerator used only in summer, cooks with frugal use of propane, is vegan, lives in an 800 ft2 well-insulated house heated by wood, and consumes the small amount of goods consistent with an income of less than $20,000. a year would produce approximately 3 tons of CO2 a year. This is clearly nowhere near the .00073 tons that is our yearly per capita CO2 allotment. Given the complete failure of governments to enact the restrictions on our consumption that are necessary in order to avoid catastrophic warming, it is no surprise that we are now headed toward 2.7 degrees warming. (12)
It is clear that our culture, politicians and corporations cannot be counted on to acknowledge and respond rationally to the pre-apocalyptic situation in which we find ourselves.
5. “Generally, Native Americans were omitted from official census data prior to 1860, and only taxpaying Native Americans were included in the censuses between 1870 and 1890. Black Americans were generally always counted, including slaves; the “three-fifths compromise” (where only 60 percent of a state’s slave population was recorded) applied to governmental and taxational aspects relating to slaveholding states, and its influence on census data is unclear, but minimal.”
5a. Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).
5b. The genocide of Native Americans, which reduced their population by an estimated 90% by 1800, has been hypothesized as one of the causes of the Little Ice Age, through increased carbon sequestration of abandoned cleared areas reverting to forest. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277379118307261?via%253Dihub