Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Upward Spirals

Teaching about climate change – whether its the science behind the target of 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere or watching as people play the "350-challenge" (using the Pangaea simulator developed by our team from SI, Ventana Systems and MIT to discover what level of emissions reductions will be needed to bring C02 levels down to safety within the century) – means watching the expressions that cross people's faces as they begin to take in exactly where 'business as usual' is carrying us and how much emissions must be reduced to bring the climate system back to something near balance.

I saw it on the faces of Dartmouth students where I was a guest teacher recently. I heard it in the words of new staff members at SI who had their first chance to explore Pangaea the other day.

Reduce emissions by 6 or 7 percent per year around the world? Starting as soon as possible?

If that's what its going to take to stabilize the climate you must be kidding, the faces say.

And then the words begin. Look out the window - where I used to live in New Jersey, in the dorm where nobody seems to care, over in China with one new coal fired power plant following the next.

This feels impossible, the faces say. Please, tell me that it's not.

In these moments, the impulse to making everything all right, to explain how a combination of technology and hard work and co-operation can turn the trends, is close to overwhelming, especially when the faces looking out at me are young ones, the faces of people who will live the longest with the consequences of a changing climate.

What do you say in these moments? I asked my colleague Drew the other day. As he shares Pangaea with groups around the country and around the world he sees the kinds of faces I'm talking about on a regular basis.

His response: I show them pictures of my house. I show them graphs of our energy use. I show them what happened when we insulated, and when we installed the solar water heater. It's my own personal vision of 80% reductions by 2050.

I think Drew's answer is a brilliant one. Whether we think about our challenge as 80% by 2050 or 6% per year, the only place to start is where we are, using what we have at hand.

The real hope and possibility lies in the cascade of change those first steps can ignite - the economies of scale, the waves of innovation, the new ways of thinking and relating that can be unleashed when your neighbor (or your competitor, or a neighboring nation) takes a risk and tries things another way.

The other day I stumbled across some notes SI's founder and my teacher, Dana Meadows, left behind. Even as rough notes, meant for a later expansion that she never had the time to complete, they convey something very important about where our small first steps can lead:

"Greater energy efficiency makes better the greenhouse problem, urban air pollution, and acid rain. At the same time it reduces military and defense expenditures for the Persian Gulf. Enormous amounts of capital are released both from defense and from further construction of energy generators.

In the Third World that capital can be invested in human services, health and education, which brings down the birth rate. In the industrialized world it can be invested in research and development of renewable energy sources -- which further bring down pollution –- and in materials recycling- which saves still more energy and pollution by reducing the demand for primary materials. The mindset of materials cycling takes hold, creating new designs, new markets, and new jobs in materials handling and re-preparation. The careful re-use of wood and paper allow the restoration of forests, which conserve water flows, build soils, and provide habitats for wild species. The improved water regimes improves agriculture, as does the recycling of organic wastes into soil-amending compost.

As agriculture becomes both higher yielding and less dependent on imported chemicals the balance of trade of the Third World improves, debts become payable, incomes rise, further reducing birthrates, further raising income. As capital stops flowing out of those countries for debt repayment, it can invested in education and in new productive activities, energy efficient, material efficient, and with proper pollution controls. As physical constraints and economic problems ease, more and more people could have the freedom to explore who we could be and what we could do if we didn't have to grow."

Imagine that. The tiny steps of my tiny household, or Drew's, or yours, linked to global spirals of solutions. It's not just our problems that are interconnected, but also our potential to solve them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Beyond Business As Usual

In late September, the Global Carbon Project released new statistics on the 'carbon budget' including updated figures for the rate of increase in global carbon dioxide emissions from human sources during the period from 2000-2007. They report that while carbon dioxide emissions worldwide grew at an average rate of 0.9% per year in the 1990's the average rate of growth this decade has been an incredible 3.5% percent per year.

Is this a difference that makes a difference?

It might not sound like a lot at first glance. But, for anything that grows exponentially - from a bank account to the human impact on the planet – a small change in the rate of growth translates into a big difference in the growing entity. Here's a comparison in the form of two outputs from Pangaea - the global climate change simulation tool our team has been using and sharing. The red line shows future emissions in our "business as usual" scenario, at an average rate of growth for global emissions of about 1.5% per year. And the blue line show emissions growing at 3.5% per year, the rate we've just learned more closely fits our current situation.

The baseline run of Pangaea projects future growth rates in emissions based upon estimates provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These projected rates of growth vary depending upon the region of the world contributing the emissions. They range from 1% to 2% per year for the three regions that Pangaea simulates.

Since global emissions already exceed the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere that baseline run is not optimistic. It shows a world one-hundred years from now with CO2 levels of almost 900 parts per million - far above the level where several dangerous runaway warming loops could potentially be triggered.

The recent data from the Global Carbon Project mean that what we've been calling 'business as usual' - the scenario when the world doesn't respond to climate change by reducing emissions - is actually conservative. Growth in emissions is happening even faster than expected. The figure below shows the impact on CO2 levels in the atmosphere, if that growth rate holds steady throughout the simulation.

So, is this a difference that makes a difference?

Knowing that a 900 ppm world must be avoided at all costs, does it really mater that business as usual might be taking us there quicker than many had expected?

Isn't the old 'business as usual' trajectory so sobering that it already provides the motivation for individuals and nations to act strongly and decisively?

No one wants a 900 ppm world, so the likely results of what we've been calling 'business as usual' should be enough to motivate the kind of hard work and cooperation need to get emissions onto a downward trajectory. The IPCC scenario has been around, and is familiar, and credible.

On the other hand, an important goal of Pangaea is to allow all of us to ask what if questions.

And the runs I've shown here do ask an important 'what if' question: what if 3.5% per year is the new business as usual? Even if a 900ppm world is bad enough, this faster growth rate means that the degree of emissions reductions need to stabilize the climate might be even bigger than we think. We are racing a faster train than we thought.

It seems to me that all of us, ordinary people, parents, and decision makers, need to look this new reality straight in the face.

For now, I'll keep showing people 'business as usual'.

But I'm also going to start asking people if they'd like to try a 'beyond business as usual' too.