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What It Means To Live by a Carbon Budget


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View Trip Van Noppen's blog posts
10 October 2013, 11:42 AM
For our economy and communities, we must live by the budget
Mountaintop removal mining is devastating communities in Appalachia. The drive to drill and mine anywhere, by whatever extreme means, is a disastrous substitute for a coherent American energy policy. (Chris Jordan-Bloch)

The following blog post by Trip Van Noppen originally ran on the Huffington Post on October 8, 2013.

The most damning and decisive report yet on humankind's contribution to climate change was delivered by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change little more than a week ago. The report, the most precise yet thanks to advances in scientific monitoring, confirms that climate change impacts are outpacing previous projections for ocean warming, the rate of glacial ice melt in the arctic, and sea level rise. But the biggest takeaway of the report is the unprecedented step it takes in setting a carbon budget.

Previously, scientists had been reluctant to put a number on the upper limit of tons of carbon pollution we could put in the atmosphere and still avoid the worst that will come with a temperature rise of more than 2°F. The IPCC now agrees that 1 trillion metric tons is the absolute maximum amount of carbon pollution that the planet can withstand without intolerable consequences.

We've already spent down over half of our carbon emissions budget in the last 250 years, and with our current spending habits, we're on course to blow through the rest in the next 25. We have enough experience already with the devastating human and economic costs of climate change to know that we have to start living within our carbon means. We cannot blow this carbon budget if we want to carry on living in a hospitable world.

The estimated fossil fuel reserves still in the ground represent more than 3 trillion tons of carbon emissions. Instead of leading the global solution on climate change and seizing the most compelling economic opportunity of our time: clean energy technology. U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle are intent on developing every available fossil fuel reserve, setting us on an even faster course to disaster.

The drive to drill and mine anywhere, by whatever extreme means, is a disastrous substitute for a coherent American energy policy. If we drill the remaining oil in the Arctic, allow fracking of oil and gas around the country, blow the tops of mountains to get at the last of our Appalachian coal, and set out to mine all of the coal in Alaska and the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, we will have no hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Based on World Bank estimates, the fossil fuel infrastructure already built will consume the remaining carbon budget, so we should not build even more projects, like tar sands pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities.

Glaciers, permafrost, and icecaps are melting rapidly. (Lee Prince / Shutterstock)

Glaciers, permafrost, and icecaps are melting rapidly. (Lee Prince / Shutterstock)

We only have to look at the Arctic to understand why a radical shift in energy policy is critical. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the global average, and it affects all of us. Scientists at this very moment are observing glaciers melting several times faster than before and sea levels rising dangerously fast, contributing to sea level rise and increased extreme weather around the world. The IPCC projects sea-level rise of 5–6 feet by 2100. This would be devastating to coastal communities around the world, including in the United States in the coming decades as storm surges reach further inland and waters rise. A recent study estimates that average annual losses from flooding in the world's biggest coastal cities—including New York City, Miami, New Orleans, Boston, and Tampa Bay—could rise to $1 trillion per year by 2050. These cities now spend about $6 billion per year combined on flood losses.

Many state and local officials, especially in New York and New Jersey, understand the true costs of climate change, as they have been forced to contend with extreme storms, droughts, and wildfires. They are right now dealing with the pressing need for action at every level of government.

The president's climate action plan is the federal start button, and its test will be the administration's willingness to finalize strong standards to limit carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. In the meantime, every state in the country has the power to force our power companies to invest in energy efficiency programs, renewable energy, and smart grid technologies that will power us more safely, and also more cheaply, into the next century.

Citizens are also realizing they can force these changes. We at Earthjustice have joined with community groups from Arctic Alaska to the mountains of Appalachia to stop the extraction of dirty and dangerous fossil fuels. Communities are taking challenges against corporate fossil fuel giants to their last line of defense, the courts, and the people are winning. In Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, communities came out on top in a lawsuit that will shut down three of the nation's worst-actor coal plants and invest in wind and solar. The town of Dryden, New York, is defending its right to keep fracking out of its borders and waters, and so far, it's winning. In Kansas, communities are now celebrating a hard-fought victory to block a dirty coal plant that would have set their state back. In Hawaiʻi, community and legal pressure has forced regulators and utilities to introduce path-breaking plans to enable a massive expansion of rooftop solar systems connected to the grid. These are the kinds of battles every community and state in the nation must be braced to fight if we are to live within our carbon budget.

Coal-fired power plants are major producers of carbon pollution. (Calin Tatu / Shutterstock)

Coal-fired power plants are major producers of carbon pollution. (Calin Tatu / Shutterstock)

While deep cuts in carbon pollution are the backbone of our long-term climate strategy, there are other atmospheric pollutants that we can reduce now for quick climate benefit in the coming decades. Black carbon, the soot emitted from diesel engines, agricultural burning and other sources, is the second most powerful climate pollutant after carbon dioxide. And in the Arctic, soot is an even more powerful climate pollutant because it warms both in the air as it absorbs sunlight and then again when it deposits on snow and ice, accelerating melting. We already have the technology to cut soot pollution—a bipartisan Senate subcommittee hearing last month supported black carbon reductions—but we need tighter standards on diesel emissions and agricultural burning.

Now is the time for the United States to lead in tackling climate change. In order to preserve our economy and our communities, we must push for bipartisan change at every level, as well as a fundamental culture change that embraces climate solutions and clean energy technologies.

I have been and Organic Farmer and Gardener for over sixty years. Stopped using any acid Chemical Fertilizer in 1953. Won awards over thousand of New England Dairy Farmers in 1958. There is an article by Dan Charles in the June National Geographic -
Our Fertilized World-- He wrote that there is 100 million tons of Synthetic Nitrogen spread on the planet every year. This burns up the carbon in the soil and releases it as CO2 the greenhouse gas. He states that seventy percent of the CO2 is from this.. Thanks to Monsanto an they are making billions off this. They also Furnished the Government with Agent Orange that killed many soldiers and cripple thousands more. Not one word about this in the Media or our Federal Government. Thirty Five Lobbyist can make a big difference in Washington. There is 78% nitrogen in the atmosphere and I get mine free from the rain and even more in thunder showers. The Organic matter at 6% or better traps it and holds it with deep till. Shallow till lets it return back to the A\atmosphere as it is a gas.
Not any money in this method. Soil is the Life Blood of the Earth and all Food comes from the Soil ---- Food and Health in this Order ---.. Greed over Humanity is my view of Monsanto..

I just learned about California's cap and trade law, effective January 1, 2013. As I understand, electricity generators have already been taxed $10/ton of carbon emissions. The goals are to get more states and countries on board, to scale up the price per ton, then to implement cap and trade--eventually on other fossil fuels as well.

Meanwhile, each of us can do the obvious and challenge ourselves with more difficult changes.
* Use energy efficient light bulbs & appliances (and vehicles)
* Use cold water instead of warm, warm water instead of hot
* Harvest rainwater or use greywater for landscape (be careful what kind of soap you use) to reduce use of fresh water, which requires energy for transport
* Buy locally made products & produce
* Combine shopping trips with neighbors
* Reduce or minimize travel distances, including vacations
* Install a solar roof and drive an all-electric car powered by your solar panels (In California, Solar City will install and maintain my solar panels. I will not pay any lump sum up front, my monthly electricity bill will be similar to what I currently pay, and I will own the panels after 20 yrs, at which time the panels will still be producing 90% of what they produce on Day 1.)

We have to start somewhere. Right?

It is essential for not only world governments to step up and make important changes for the protection of fossil fuels and against global warming but also for individuals to contribute to the conservation efforts in their own daily lives as well, even if it looks a little tacky, is a little more time consuming, or possibly a little inconvenient. Everything counts in conservation and protection.

Renewable energy is actually catching up with fossil fuels much more rapidly than many expected. In Europe, particularly Germany, at a few times all the additional energy provided by solar and wind actually forced the wholesale price of electricity to be NEGATIVE! Check out this fascinating article from the October 12 issue of The Economist at http://www.uusforsocialjustice.org/Environment/EuropeanUtilitiesVsRenewa...

We still should do all we can to minimize fossil fuel use and to encourage both the development of more clean renewable energy and do as much energy conservation (walking or biking instead of driving, and/or holding national and international meetings electronically online instead of flying members hundreds if not thousands of miles to get there) as is possible.

Unleashing the amazing industrial hemp plant could save the planet. We can grow highly nutritious food, superior clothing and other textiles, amazing building materials, four kinds of CLEAN, SUPERIOR fuel, plastics, and thousands of other products with clean, sustainable, industrial hemp. Hemp, hemp, HOORAY!!! Hemp could save the day!

Much the same could be said for algae. Algae Systems with US Navy funds expects to get bio-diesel cost-competitive with petroleum in 2016.

Much the same could be said for algae. Algae Systems with US Navy funds expects to get bio-diesel cost-competitive with petroleum in 2016.

One day our kids and grandkids are going to want to know why we didn't do more to protect them from all the danger their facing because we were too lazy to save the planet. Whats your excuse going to be? I feel like I can say I fought to save everything I could and didn't bury my head in the sand and pretend it wasn't happening. Like Ben Franklin states years ago; "We're all born ignorant, but you have to work hard to remain stupid!" there are a lot of stupid people out there or even worse ones who have sold out our childrens future to the highest bidder. I'll be able to hold my head high knowing I wasn't one of them!

All the time we hear of how we must stop carbon pollution - but no one ever says HOW. Every year for at least the last 20 years they tell us we still have time. HOW. If we halted all fossil fuel releases NOW - climate change would continue for many more years. We can't control US citizens - sure can't control China or India - and no one seems to really get what is happening. Climate change has happened so rapidly and I am pretty sure we've passed major tipping points. The big oil giants already have enough oil to fry the planet - but insist on getting more. Then you state that we must keep the economy going - HOW - the economy runs on oil. I have tried to deal with these things as well as I could, driving as little as possible when there was no public transit. Now I can't drive, and thus anyone taking me anywhere has to drive further.

Dear Wanda,

If you really want to learn about how we can cut carbon dioxide and other GHGs worldwide, then go to the Citizens Climate Lobby website and also read "How to Fix the Climate and Charge It to OPEC." I would hope that instead of just wringing your hands, you would do something substantive and join CCL, a group that is very politically active, bi-partisan and is empowering its members on a monthly basis to make a difference.

If you'd rather just complain or are a pro fossil fuel troll, then please disregard.

All the time we hear of how we must stop carbon pollution - but no one ever says HOW. Every year for at least the last 20 years they tell us we still have time. HOW. If we halted all fossil fuel releases NOW - climate change would continue for many more years. We can't control US citizens - sure can't control China or India - and no one seems to really get what is happening. Climate change has happened so rapidly and I am pretty sure we've passed major tipping points. The big oil giants already have enough oil to fry the planet - but insist on getting more. Then you state that we must keep the economy going - HOW - the economy runs on oil. I have tried to deal with these things as well as I could, driving as little as possible when there was no public transit. Now I can't drive, and thus anyone taking me anywhere has to drive further.

Wanda,

Paragraph 9, in the article, identifies ways some communities are halting further carbon (CO2) pollution from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Another source of information, to learn about how some of us are approaching this problem, is Citizen's Climate Lobby. Learn more by going to their website, http://citizensclimatelobby.org/.

Mary

It took humans approximately 100 years to first establish the technology and then the infrastructure to massively exploit liquid and gaseous fossil fuels. It is a system, which if one ignores the direct and indirect costs generated, works very well for all parties concerned. The petroleum based energy and chemical companies get rich, while the public gets the convenience of immediately available private transportation, care free heat and hot water, plus all the other products and services provided from petroleum.
Due to the natural inertia against new ideas or different ways of continuing the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed, dismantling a system which appears to work spectacularly, does not seem likely. I have no doubt that with extreme political persistance and building new technologies as quickly as finances permit, we can nibble around the edges of the problem. However, as I see it, the very best we can hope for is a slow falling back in any short term reduction of emissions as the rest of the world aspires to the west's standard of living.
I suspect that as the end of recoverable petroleum, gas and coal truly approach, we still will not have made any significant efforts to prepare for that distant day. When it finally arrives, we will be caught flat footed as the energy companies start to founder, having failed to support alternative energy due to their reluctance to help finance a new industry which, in their view, will have a negative affect on their short term bottom line.
So, although I won't be around to witness the end of oil as we know it, it certainly will be a most interesting time.

Sounds like a pep rally and we know how oneisded they are. I just choke when I hear the proclamations of doom when most of you paper scientists are found to have nothing but a quote.

Steve,

Citizen's Climate Lobby is always looking for more chapters to help promote an equitable, carbon fee and dividend fund which will help even the playing field between industries who emit CO2 from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and citizens. Check them out, http://citizensclimatelobby.org/.

I attended my first training with CCL, with Mark Reynolds, and am looking forward to learning how to lobby my congressman to pass legislation that will guide industry towards using current and developing new sources of energy that doesn't contribute to our atmosphere's level of CO2.

Mary

It is all well and good to SAY we need to cap carbon emissions, but I have yet to see anyone make any reasonable suggestions as to how most people on earth will actually survive when fossil fuel usage is stopped cold. I keep hearing, "Well, wind and solar CAN pick up the difference," but when asked how this should be done, and who is going to pay for it, no answers. There is currently no affordable means to produce the amount of energy this country alone NEEDS from wind and solar alone, and the least expensive fuels are those being condemned as being "TOO DIRTY". Right now, due to another hated word, fracking, natural gas is fairly affordable, but if it were to become the ONLY alternative to wind and solar, it would soon become not so affordable. Even more, if fracking is halted, even natural gas will soon be priced out of what the average working man can afford to heat and cool his home, get to and from work, and enjoy a bit of leisure travel. It seems awfully funny that those who complain the loudest about carbon loading have the least to lose when energy prices skyrocket.

News flash: The average man, not to mention woman, already cannot afford any of what you mention. The "average" is much lower income than you seem to think. Most of us are much closer than you believe to the "huddled masses" of storied fame. You must be upper middle class if you can still "enjoy a bit of leisure travel."

This is an excellent article that puts our national energy policies in a harsh spotlight. Check out the online Sustainability Index for further insights into the risks related to allowing fossil fuel industries to dominate our politics and national decision-making!

Yes! And it behooves us to learn how we can motivate our elected officials to make decisions with our best interests in mind.

Citizens Climate Lobby is such an organization, which educators citizens to lobby their congressmen to put a cost on CO2 emissions, from fossil fuels, and return that fee to constituents. Check them out here, http://citizensclimatelobby.org/, and start a chapter in your congressional district, if there isn't already one available to join.

Mary

Not taking immediate action is the ultimate irresponsibility to our children and their children.

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