Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part I: Net-zero Emissions

17 09 2019

Kim Hill

Sep 13 · Originally published by Medium, a very important article needed to be read very widely……..

The Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has taken off around the world, with millions of people taking to the streets to demand that governments take action on climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The scale of the movement means it has the potential to have an enormous impact on the course of history, by bringing about massive changes to the structure of our societies and economic systems.

The exact nature of the demanded action is not made clear, and warrants a close examination. There is a long history of powerful government and corporate interests throwing their support behind social movements, only to redirect the course of action to suit their own ends, and Extinction Rebellion is no exception.

With the entirety of life on this planet at stake, any course of action needs to be considered extremely carefully. Actions have consequences, and at this late stage, one mis-step can be catastrophic. The feeling that these issues have been discussed long enough and it is now time for immediate action is understandable. However, without clear goals and a plan on how to achieve them, the actions taken are likely to do more harm than good.

Extinction and climate change are among the many disastrous effects of an industrial society. While the desire to take action to stop the extinction of the natural world is admirable, rebelling against the effects without directly confronting the economic and political systems that are the root cause is like treating the symptoms of an illness without investigating or diagnosing it first. It won’t work. Addressing only one aspect of the global system, without taking into account the interconnected industries and governance structures, will only lead to worse problems.

Demand 2: net-zero emissions

The rebellion’s goals are expressed in three demands, under the headings Tell the Truth, Act Now and Beyond Politics. I’m starting with the second demand because net-zero is the core goal of the rebellion, and the one that will have enormous political, economic and social impact.

What does net-zero emissions mean? In the words of Catherine Abreau, executive director of the Climate Action Network: “In short, it means the amount of emissions being put into the atmosphere is equal to the amount being captured.” The term carbon-neutral is interchangeable with net-zero.

Net-zero emissions is Not a Thing. There is no way to un-burn fossil fuels. This demand is not for the extraction and burning to stop, but for the oil and gas industry to continue, while powering some non-existent technology that makes it all okay. XR doesn’t specify how they plan to reach the goal.

Proponents of net-zero emissions advocate for the trading of carbon offsets, so industries can pay to have their emissions captured elsewhere, without reducing any on their part. This approach creates a whole new industry of selling carbon credits. Wind turbines, hydro-electric dams, biofuels, solar panels, energy efficiency projects, and carbon capture are commonly traded carbon offsets. None of these actually reduce carbon emissions in practice, and are themselves contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, so make the problem worse. Using this approach, a supposedly carbon-neutral economy leads to increased extraction and burning, and generates massive profits for corporations in the process. Head of environmental markets at Barclays Capital, Louis Redshaw, predicted in 2007 “carbon will be the world’s biggest commodity market, and it could become the world’s biggest market overall.”

The demand for net-zero emissions has been echoed by a group of more than 100 companies and lobby groups, who say in a letter to the UK government: “We see the threat that climate change poses to our businesses and to our investments, as well as the significant economic opportunities that come with being an early mover in the development of new low-carbon goods and services.” Included in this group are Shell, Nestle and Unilever. This is the same Shell that has caused thousands of oil spills and toxic leaks in Nigeria and around the world, executed protesters, owns 60 per cent of the Athabasca oil sands project in Alberta, and intends to continue extracting oil long into the future; the same Nestle that profits from contaminated water supplies by selling bottled water, while depleting the world’s aquifers; the same Unilever that is responsible for clearing rainforests for palm oil and paper, dumping tonnes of mercury in India, and making billions by marketing plastic-wrapped junk food and unnecessary consumer products to the world’s poorest people. All these companies advocate for free trade and privatization of the commons, and exploit workers and lax environmental laws in the third world. As their letter says, their motivation is to profit from the crisis, not to stop the destruction they are causing.

These are XR’s allies in the call for net-zero emissions.

The nuclear industry also sees the net-zero target as a cause for celebration, and even fracking is considered compatible with the goal.

Net-zero emissions in practice

Let’s look at some of the proposed approaches to achieve net-zero in more detail.

Renewable energy doesn’t reduce the amount of energy being generated by fossil fuels, and doesn’t do anything to reduce atmospheric carbon. Wind turbines and solar panels are made of metals, which are mined using fossil fuels. Any attempt to transition to 100% renewables would require more of some rare earth metals than exist on the planet, and rare earth mining is mostly done illegally in ecologically sensitive areas in China. There are plans to mine the deep sea to extract the minerals needed for solar panels, wind turbines and electric car batteries. Mining causes massive destruction and pollution of forests and rivers, leading to increased rates of extinction and climate change. And huge profits for mining and energy companies, who can claim government subsidies for powering the new climate economy. The amount of fossil fuels needed to power the mines, manufacturing, infrastructure and maintenance of renewables makes the goal of transitioning to clean energy completely meaningless. Wind and solar ‘farms’ are installed on land taken from actual farms, as well as deserts and forests. And the energy generated is not used to protect endangered species, but to power the industries that are driving us all extinct. Not a solution. Not even close. In the net-zero logic of offset trading, renewables are presented as not an alternative to fossil fuel extraction, but instead a way to buy a pass to burn even more oil. That’s a double shot of epic fail for renewables.

Improving efficiency of industrial processes leads to an increase in the amount of energy consumed, not a decrease, as more can be produced with the available energy, and more energy is made available for other uses. The industries that are converting the living world into disposable crap need to be stopped, not given money to destroy the planet more efficiently.

Reforestation would be a great way to start repairing the damage done to the world, but instead is being used to expand the timber industry, which uses terms like ‘forest carbon markets’ and ‘net-zero deforestation’ to legitimize destroying old-growth forests, evicting their inhabitants, and replacing them with plantations. Those seeking to profit from reforestation are promoting genetically engineered, pesticide-dependent monocrop plantations, to be planted by drones, and are anticipating an increase in demand for wood products in the new ‘bioeconomy’. Twelve million hectares of tropical rainforest were cleared in 2018, the equivalent of 30 football fields a minute. Land clearing at this rate has been going on for decades, with no sign of stopping. No carbon offsets or emissions trading can have any effect while forest destruction continues. And making an effort to repair past damage does not make it okay to continue causing harm long into the future. A necessary condition of regenerating the land is that all destructive activity needs to stop.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is promoted as a way to extract carbon dioxide from industrial emissions, and bury it deep underground. Large amounts of energy and fresh water are required to do this, and pollutants are released into the atmosphere in the process. The purpose of currently-operational carbon capture installations is not to store the carbon dioxide, but to use it in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), which involves injecting CO2 into near-depleted oil fields, to extract more fossil fuels than would otherwise be accessible. And with carbon trading, the business of extracting oil becomes more profitable, as it can sell offset credits. Again, the proposed solution leads to more fossil fuel use, not less. Stored carbon dioxide is highly likely to leak out into the atmosphere, causing earthquakes and asphyxiating any nearby living beings. This headline says all you need to know: “Best Carbon Capture Facility In World Emits 25 Times More CO2 Than Sequestered”. Carbon capture for underground storage is neither technically nor commercially viable, as it is risky and there is no financial incentive to store the carbon dioxide, so requires government investment and subsidies. And the subsidies lead to coal and gas becoming more financially viable, thus expanding the industry.

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a psychopathic scheme to clear forests, and take over agricultural land to grow genetically modified fuel crops, burn the trees and crops as an energy source, and then bury the carbon dioxide underground (where it’s used to expand oil and gas production). It would require an amount of land almost the size of Australia, or up to 80% of current global cropland, masses of chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels), and lead to soil degradation (leading to more emissions), food shortages, water shortages, land theft, massive increase in the rate of extinction, and I can’t keep researching these effects it’s making me feel ill. Proponents of BECCS (i.e. fossil fuel companies) acknowledge that meeting the targets will require “three times the world’s total cereal production, twice the annual world use of water for agriculture, and twenty times the annual use of nutrients.” Of course this will mostly take place on land stolen from the poor, in Africa, South America and Asia. And the energy generated used to make more fighter jets, Hollywood movies, pointless gadgets and urban sprawl. Burning of forests for fuel is already happening in the US and UK, all in the name of clean energy. Attaching carbon capture to bioenergy means that 30% more trees or crops need to be burned to power the CCS facility, to sequester the emissions caused by burning them. And again, it’s an offset, so sold as a justification to keep the fossil fuel industry in business. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (in the three most likely of its four scenarios) recommends implementing BECCS on a large scale to keep warming below 2°C. Anyone who thinks this is a good idea can go burn in hell, where they can be put to good use as an energy source.

This is what a decarbonised economy looks like in practice. An enormous increase in fossil fuel extraction, land clearing, mining (up to nine times as much as current levels), pollution, resource wars, exploitation, and extinction. All the money XR is demanding that governments invest in decarbonisation is going straight to the oil, gas, coal and mining companies, to expand their industries and add to their profits. The Centre for International Environmental Law, in the report Fuel to the Fire, states “Overall, the US government has been funding CCS research since 1997, with over $5billion being appropriated since 2010.” Fossil fuel companies have been advocating net-zero for some years, as it is seen as a way to save a failing coal industry, and increase demand for oil and gas, because solar, wind, biofuels and carbon capture technologies are all dependent on fossil fuels for their operation.

Anyone claiming that a carbon-neutral economy is possible is not telling the truth. All of these strategies emit more greenhouse gases than they capture. The second demand directly contradicts the first.

These approaches are used to hide the problem, and dump the consequences on someone else: the poor, nonhuman life, the third world, and future generations, all in the service of profits in the present. The goal here is not to maintain a stable climate, or to protect endangered species, but to make money out of pretending to care.

Green growth, net-zero emissions and the Green New Deal (which explicitly states in its report that the purpose is to stimulate the economy, which includes plans to extract “remaining fossil fuel with carbon capture”) are fantasy stories sold to us by energy companies, a shiny advertisement sucking us in with their claims to make life better. In reality the product is useless, and draws us collectively into a debt that we’re already paying for by being killed off at a rate of 200 species a day. With exponential economic growth (a.k.a. exponential climate action) the rate of extinction will also grow exponentially. And the money to pay for it all comes directly from working people, in the form of pension funds, carbon taxes, and climate emergency levies.

The transition to net-zero

There are plans for thousands of carbon capture facilities to be built in the coming years, all requiring roads, pipelines, powerlines, shipping, land clearing, water extraction, pollution, noise, and the undermining of local economies for corporate profits, all for the purpose of extracting more oil. And all with the full support of the rebellion.

To get a sense of the scale of this economic transformation, a billion seconds is almost 32 years. If you were to line up a billion cars and run over them (or run them over) at a rate of one car per second, you’d be running for 32 years non-stop. That’s enough cars to stretch 100 times around the equator. You’d probably need to turn entire continents into a mine site to extract all the minerals required to make them. And even that wouldn’t be enough, as some of the rare earth metals required for batteries don’t exist in sufficient quantities. If all these cars are powered by renewables, you do the math on how much mining would be needed to make all the wind turbines and solar panels. Maybe several more continents. And then a few more covered in panels, turbines, powerlines, substations. And a few more to extract all the oil needed to power the mining and road building. Which all leaves no space for any life. And all for what? So we can spend our lives stuck in traffic? It’s ridiculous and apocalyptic, yet this is what the net-zero lobbyists, with the US and UK governments, and the European Union, have already begun implementing.

Shell’s thought leadership and government advisory schemes appear to be going great, with the US senate passing a number of bills in recent months to increase subsidies for oil companies using carbon capture, and a few more, to subsidise wind, solar, nuclear, coal, gas, research and development, and even more carbon capture, are scheduled to pass in the coming months.

The UK government, with guidance from the creepy-sounding nonprofit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, is implementing a transition to net-zero, involving carbon capture, nuclear, bioenergy, hydrogen, ammonia, wind, solar, oil, gas, electric cars, smart grids, offset trading, manufacturing and the obligatory economic growth. And offering ‘climate finance’ to third world countries, to impose this industrial horror on the entire planet. All led by their advisors from the fossil fuel and finance industries, with input from the CCS, oil, gas, bioenergy, renewables, chemical, manufacturing, hydrogen, nuclear, airline, automotive, mining, and agriculture industries.

The European Union, advised by the corporate-funded European Climate Foundation, are implementing a similar plan, aiming to remain competitive with the rest of the industrialised world. The EU intends to commit 25% of its budget to implementing so-called climate mitigation strategies. Other industrialised countries also have plans to transition to a decarbonised economy.

Net-zero emissions is also the goal of the councils that have declared a climate emergency, which now number close to 1000, covering more than 200 million citizens.

This is the plan the rebellion is uniting behind to demand from the world’s governments.



43 responses

17 09 2019
Chris Harries

Very timely. The huge climate ‘strike’ that on on Friday is an unusual strike in that there doesn’t appear to be a list of demands that the strikers are asking to be met. The purpose seems to be to just ask governments to start panicking. I think it’s a missed opportunity not to be specific about demands. But I guess that would be fraught because everyone has a different opinion as to what needs to be done.

17 09 2019

What needs to be done is a strike EVERY DAY….. FOREVER.

17 09 2019
Keith Altmann

I attended a local presentation by XR a week ago and there will be a more forensic discussion with them this week. As I see it they do not have a list of realisable goals and that is undoubtedly a very challenging task. Given Scomo had few policies that may not be an initial problem. But the challenges require a system change that international bodies seem unable to grapple with as the powerful are wanting to retain power. That does not suggest a possible transition model. XR avoids the reality of an unsustainable economic system that is sucking survival options away from future life.

Keith Altmann

17 09 2019
Brandon Young

This is a very interesting article.

It does well to debunk a set of presumptions that it says are behind the Extinction Rebellion movement, as well as rightly pointing out the real dangers of political movements that do not have explicit goals and absolute transparency and accountability in all power structures and processes.

In short, it exposes the ignorance and narrow-mindedness that makes people gullible to the Extinction Rebellion message. People have an urge and a right to protest, some might say a duty to protest for effective climate action, but they need to be very careful about which vehicles they might climb aboard in order to do so, and about which systems of power are ultimately pushing the agenda or likely to emerge from any resultant political chaos.

But then it goes on to try to debunk zero net emissions, which is profoundly naïve. Zero Net Emissions is the actual target of the Paris Agreement. To suggest that it is an impossible goal is as ludicrous as the climate change deniers believing in a global conspiracy by scientists and socialists.

But, for the sake of being positive, I will simply presume that the author is inadvertently ignorant to the actual power we humans have to solve climate change via Negative Net Emissions. I will lay out a full argument in a blog post if I can find the time and enthusiasm, but for now I will simply argue that we humans have the ability to exploit the great power markets have to drive innovation and competition, combined with the great power nature has to sequester vast amounts of greenhouse gases and to cool the planet.

We can exploit the very same market forces that have driven human civilisation to peak industrialisation, and the very same natural forces that have made the land areas of this planet habitable for the last few hundred million years.

There are two relevant articles on my blog. One called Boosting Nature’s Cooling System that shows how nature drives down greenhouse gas concentrations, and how we humans have all the leverage we need over the major processes involved to shape the outcome to suit our climate goals.

The second Article called Global Carbon Sinking Fund is an outline of a pricing scheme that would set the market dynamics so that the overall outcome is that greenhouse gas concentrations are driven ever more precisely along the required trajectory.

This pricing scheme is really quite a straightforward example of systems engineering. It is not complicated, with no moving parts, and so has no opportunity for gaming by corporations or governments alike. It could be implemented on the back of a simple extension of the Paris Agreement.

Such a global scheme becoming a reality can only eventuate after a sequence of phases of: 1) debate about the model of change; 2) improvements in the documentation of the model; 3) improvements in the marketability of the argument for the model; and 4) the building of political will. This cycle will need to repeat through many iterations before the end product will seem politically plausible to most people, so in the beginning only those willing and able to understand the model and visualise its tremendous power will be able to contribute to steps 2 to 4, but any challenges or discussions on step 1 would have enormous value and be greatly appreciated.

Zero Net Emissions is just a waypoint, and the easy way to reach it quickly is to combine the almost infinite power of markets and nature, using the leverage we have to direct that power towards the outcome we need.

Beyond that waypoint will be a trajectory well into negative net emissions, and we will already be thinking about using our powerful new control system to deliver any economic outcome we might choose, such as the depletion rates of finite resources that are critical for the current level of industrialisation to continue.

The effects of the pricing signals would eliminate all of the negative consequences the article argues for reforestation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy taking up a larger share of the energy mix. I imagine that most people would be able to figure out how and why for themselves.

18 09 2019
Chris Harries

Net Zero emissions, Carbon Neutral and Zero Carbon Pollution are simplified aspirational terms that governments and corporations use to say they are doing something. Where those entities have not forsaken the growth ethic these are dishonest terms, for an industrial society that relies on manufacture of commodities such as concrete bitumen and manufactured goods cars, computers, ships and planes – and the running of them – can’t attain carbon neutrality. Not now and not in a hundred years. Our civilisation runs on the life blood of oil and even what we call renewables are heavily dependent on the use of fossil fuels.

We could debate whether or not it’s morally defensible to use those terms in the interest of providing hope and empowerment and if it’s its ok to kid the population that these aspirational goals are literally attainable. I would prefer a much more honest terminology, maybe ‘Reduced Emissions Technology’, because no technology provides a free lunch.

The other problem with aspirational goals built just around carbon is that our civilisation is threatened by a host of other limits and stresses other than climate. We need to stop feeding light green solutions because they tend to get us unto an ever-worsening bind.

18 09 2019
Brandon Young

The industrial system emits greenhouse gases. Natural processes sequester greenhouse gases. If nature sinks more than the industrial system emits, then atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases fall and the planet cools. This is negative net emissions.

Currently global emissions by the industrial system are about 130 billion tonnes per year while sequestration by nature amounts to about 120 billion tonnes. This is the carbon deficit, and we can easily tip the balance in the other direction.

You have expressed what looks like the Before view, meaning what people generally presume before they have really considered the power we have to get markets and nature to work together to reduce emissions and increase the sinking of greenhouse gases.

I’d be very interested to see the After view, meaning what people make of the proposed solution, and what questions, doubts or challenges they might have after reading and seriously contemplating the arguments.

19 09 2019

I don’t think you are correct there….. nature doesn’t sequester Carbon, it cycles it.

18 09 2019

greta thunberg is being groomed as a sort of virgin mary saviour of the world. the criminals behind her, including her mother who is a big shot in the corrupt world wildlife fund, intend to exploit Nature to the max. their goal – profit and the growth of ‘green capitalism’. young greta may be unaware of this now, but in time she will realise how she is being used. http://www.theartofannihilation.com/category/articles-2019/

18 09 2019
david higham

Some reality for those who think regenerative agriculture is a silver bullet.

18 09 2019
18 09 2019
Brandon Young

Thanks for allowing my first comment Mike. It is quite frustrating to wait to see whether my response to the comment by Chris Harries (who has clearly not read or thought about the argument in my comment) will ever be allowed to be seen by your other readers. I know you are busy, and seeing the development of constructive comment forums may not be your ultimate priority for your blog, but the lack of real time moderation really is an enormous obstacle in the way of constructive debate of the articles you replicate here.

I am thinking of creating a section of my blog for debate about the articles on yours. It would be moderated in real time and allowed to continue until all challenges have been resolved. It would only include discussions about your posts that I think are important to sustain and that fit within my broad agenda, which is to fix the fucking system. Every day that debate about the best possible solutions is delayed, is another wasted day of online activity for everyone hoping to see the system fixed.

I don’t mind if you never get around to allowing this comment to be shown on your site. I just wanted to give you a heads up that I am willing to put my critique of the arguments you post into the public domain, and that I am willing to explain and defend my critique to anyone who is genuinely willing and able to debate it logically.

You link some great and very interesting articles, and I probably appreciate the value of doing so as much as anyone, but for discussions to be effectively nobbled by slow and selective moderation processes is profoundly counterproductive to the goal of fixing the system.

You can email me directly if you choose. Cheers.

19 09 2019

You have no idea how frustrating it is at this end……..

19 09 2019
Chris Harries

Brandon, why do you say that I haven’t read your post? I’m not lazy.

I simply don’t agree that you can mine and burn bulk fossil fuels, put all that carbon into a circulating system, and then restore stability as if it’s still in the ground. Nor do I think they can put it all back deep in the ground. We can sequester a relatively small amount in soils to ameliorate the situation, that’s all.

But more so, I don’t like the simplistic, convenient jargon so often used by government and corporate entities, that boast carbon neutrality, or even the aim to get there. Huge industrial cities that rely on economic growth, paved roads and consumer living and such.

In a radically scaled down society that boast is more real, but with 8.5 billion people on board even that goal has become a far fetched on. It seems a rather bad crash has to happen first. We’ll get to zero emissions eventually, but mostly not by design.

19 09 2019
Chris Harries

Must add that regenerative agriculture offers arguably the best way to absorb some of the released carbon and help return humans to more sane lifestyles. Some very good examples (watch John D. Liu TED talk) showing where former trashed landscapes have been made fertile and productive again.

19 09 2019
Brandon Young

Fair enough, I can see the basis for your objection is you don’t believe the numbers stack up. It is true that it is difficult to demonstrate the total capacity for increases in soil carbon through a switch to regenerative agriculture and constructive land use changes, because there is tremendous variability in local conditions, ecologies, landscapes, rainfall patterns, and so on.

But there is an enormous volume of evidence of farms increasing their agricultural productivity and profitability by making the switch to regenerative practices and building up their volumes of rich healthy soils, sequestering vast amounts of carbon in the process. If you are not satisfied with the examples on my blog just google something like “regenerative agriculture” with a region or crop type and you will find a myriad of case studies with ample evidence from organisations dedicated to educating farmers and helping them make the switch.

The more important point is that under the pricing scheme I am advocating it doesn’t matter how much of the heavy lifting nature does, in terms of sequestering carbon. To achieve net zero emissions we have a current global carbon deficit of 10 billion tonnes per year. If the pricing signals mean an extra 5 billion tonnes are sequestered into partially restored natural carbon sinks like mangrove systems, rainforests and wetlands, and an extra 3 billion tonnes are sequestered by more farms using regenerative practices, then the other 2 billion tonnes of the carbon deficit will be made up with emissions reductions from the industrial system. The numbers could be completely different, or even completely opposite, and the result will still be net emissions following whatever trajectory the world chooses to set.

To achieve negative net emissions, and start to bring down greenhouse gas concentrations, we might set the target at 20 billion tonnes of carbon draw down per year. The scheme does not need any more complexity, because the pricing signals would simply rise to whatever level was adequate to make net emissions follow the required trajectory. This mix of how much extra carbon was sequestered by nature, and how much of the net emissions budget was achieved through reductions in industrial emissions, would change over time.

The bottom line is that the numbers do not need to be accurate or even roughly predictable, and we do not need to know in advance how exactly markets will achieve the outcomes. We don’t need to pick winners, or debate strategies, or dream up new technological solutions. We just set the market incentives and let the system do its thing.

If the market reaction is too slow the pricing signals would automatically rise, increasing the rewards for countries and businesses that get it right while increasing the pain for the countries and businesses that continue to get it wrong. As the market reaction begins to track the required trajectory, the pricing signals would automatically fall, decreasing the pressure to innovate and reducing the rewards for those who are last to catch up. This is what gives the market actors the incentive to act as quickly as possible.

Of course, when the market response is meeting the required trajectory, we will have new opportunities to consider setting more ambitious targets, once again speeding up the race for innovation and increasing the speed of the transition to a negative emissions economy.

19 09 2019
Chris Harries

Thanks Brandon. Let’s agree on what we do agree: that regenerative agriculture offers one of the best ways forward and offers huge scope to sequester carbon. The Tasmanian government has been (somewhat disingenuously) boasting that Tasmania is now ‘carbon neutral’ as a result of a decline in forest logging. It’s true that forest and soil carbon offer huge scope, much more so that renewable energy technologies can offer.

Where we may not agree is the gross maths. When we add up the megatonnage of carbon released from the burning of coal, oil and gas, this accumulated over 200 hundred years, no amount of tree growing and agricultural practices can soak up that added carbon. https://theconversation.com/exaggerating-how-much-co-can-be-absorbed-by-tree-planting-risks-deterring-crucial-climate-action-120170

We have to work with where we are at. Where we are at is clearly on a precipice.

Where I come from is that most of the feel-good rhetoric surrounding carbon neutrality relies on delusion. That’s not to say an individual enterprise can’t attain that goal. Yet, like buying carbon offsets for flying, what we do has to be recognise that we can’t do it as a way of enabling business-as-usual to be sustained.

19 09 2019
Brandon Young

The best estimate I have seen is that a 5% increase in green plant growth is easily enough on its own to remove the excess heat from the Earth-atmosphere system, stopping climate change dead in its tracks. This is a large number on a global scale, no doubt, but with a global pricing scheme backed by an extended Paris Agreement, the markets will determine how quickly we approach that figure and how much reduction in industrial emissions is necessary to cover the shortfall.

I will hunt around for the most compelling numbers and arguments, but this might be a good starting point:

Click to access 2017%20-%20Restoring%20water%20cycles.pdf

19 09 2019
Chris Harries

Pre-modernity the Earth was covered in trees and the world’s soils were carbon packed. This was the natural inventory of carbon in the carbon cycle. The industrial world has since released nearly 2,000 additional gigatons of fossil fuelled carbon dioxide between 1850 and now. All that extra carbon almost dwarfs what was already there.

So let’s try to go back and cover the world in trees and crops again. That is, the feasible parts of the world that aren’t cities and totally ruined landscapes. What happens with all that extra carbon, plus all that we are still pouring into the atmosphere from fossil fuels by several million tonnes per year? Can we revert to pre-modernity and thus stop climate change in its tracks? No. But, yes, we can make a dent.

To some extent the world’s oceans have done a deal of absorbing but this has created other problems, with acidification and such. One of the mooted geo-engineering techniques is to fertilize the world’s oceans with iron to increase their capacity to absorb carbon. But the oceans have their limits. Another geo-engineering promise is to madly manufacture biochar by the billions of tonnes and insert that into soils.

Yes, we can do things like that but I’m afraid nothing is easy and everything we do has consequences. And all the while we are digging up coal and burning more oil and gas and adding all this at a much faster rate than we can reverse, even with the best of intent and ingenuity. I’m all for trying, and doing what’s sensible, and with urgency but we can’t create a carbon neutral industrial civilisation.

19 09 2019
Brandon Young

In a sense the history doesn’t matter, because we have everything we need to solve the problem. We don’t need to reverse industrialisation. We just need to dramatically reduce the excessively destructive aspects of the industrial system, while ramping up the capture of carbon into soils and natural carbon sinks.

We don’t need to create new forests or to change whole ecosystems, but just restore some of the damage we have done to existing systems. The 5% increase in green plant growth is just a fraction of what we have already burned in one way or another.

The real focus needs to be on how much excess heat is removed from the Earth-atmosphere, and this is primarily driven by the hydrological processes that act as a powerful integrated network over the global scale. The climate self-regulation is primarily achieved through the soil-carbon-water sponge. The process is described in detail in other resources already discussed, but in short the higher the volume of rich healthy soils, the more carbon sequestered, the higher the volume of green plant growth, the more that those plants transpire water, the more that water gets turned into vapour drawing in enormous amounts of heat from the air, and the more the heat fluxes carry that heat up into the higher atmosphere with a given fraction of it being emitted into space.

It is water that does the work and is responsible for the heat dynamics of the planet, it is soil that is a driving force of the cycles involved, and it is the volume of soil that we humans have the power to control on the global scale.

We don’t need new forms of geo-engineering, we just need to understand the geo-engineering that nature created and granted us, and to implement some fairly simple public policy that makes sure the industrial system doesn’t do more damage than nature can automatically heal.

You wrote: “but we can’t create a carbon neutral industrial civilisation.”

Yes we can, as long as we don’t ignore nature’s tremendous power to self-regulate the climate, and our ability to impose some constraints on what the industrial system can and cannot do.

30 09 2019

We don’t need to create new forests or to change whole ecosystems, but just restore some of the damage we have done to existing systems. The 5% increase in green plant growth is just a fraction of what we have already burned in one way or another.

The problem with increasing green growth by any percentage is the need to stop clear felling and burning enormous areas to start with.
Asia and South America are two areas doing the most damage at this time, but all current western counties are still clearing land, including Australia.

30 09 2019
Brandon Young

You wrote: “The problem with increasing green growth by any percentage is the need to stop clear felling and burning enormous areas to start with”

Absolutely, and the way to solve that problem is with market incentives that make it far more profitable to protect natural carbon sinks than it is to destroy them in order to generate even more destructive agriculture.

30 09 2019
Brandon Young

Here is a CNN piece describing the rampant insanity behind the dramatically accelerated destruction of the Amazon:


There is an extremely neoliberal government making beef export deals with the EU and actually pushing the destruction of the so called lungs of the planet. We desperately need global action to make it more profitable for Brazil to preserve its precious carbon sink, rather than seeing it turned into savannah which will actually be a new source of carbon emissions.

1 10 2019

I’m not saying burning the Amazon is a good thing, it clearly isn’t, but it’s neither the planet’s lungs nor necessarily the best way to store Carbon……..




3 10 2019
Brandon Young

Here is another link with a brief article and short video on deforestation:


20 09 2019

Pre industrialisation, all that Carbon was sequestered…….. it’s called fossil fuels. I know it’s hard to visualise, but I remember years ago seeing a graphic explaining how we burn through one cubic mile of oil, not including coal or gas, PER YEAR….. and you want to turn all that Carbon back into biomass and soil? Where would you even put a couple of hundred cubic miles of carbon?

20 09 2019
Brandon Young

Soil doesn’t take up space; in fact it creates space as it dissolves rocks into nutrients. It is the gaps that soil creates between rock particles that hold water and thus make life on land possible in the first place.

A snippet from my post might help to start the story:

Life on land changed the planet

Around 420 million years ago, there was only dead land and a baking planet. The oceans were teeming with complex life, but the land masses of Earth were nothing but rock. The complex life in the ocean depended on nutrients leached from the rocky land, and this dependence on land based processes was the limiting factor on ocean life after the Cambrian Explosion. At that time the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were about 7,000 to 8,000 ppm.

Nature’s cooling system gradually emerged as life reached onto land. As this cooling system evolved and expanded, great volumes of carbon were drawn down from the atmosphere and captured into ecosystems on land, which became so teeming with life that the draw down of greenhouse gases had reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to around 100 ppm.

That period of such an enormous draw down of carbon into forests and soils was the source of our fossil fuels, and of course the rapid burning through those fossil fuel resources is the reason we are once again heading for dying land and a baking planet.

Learning about the process of the evolution of nature’s cooling and carbon capture system is not only critical to repairing the Earth’s cooling system as far as necessary, but is also fascinating to see how all of the pieces come together.

New forms of life began to dissolve rock

First, fungi and lichens reached onto land and used enzymes to dissolve rocks into nutrients. This gave them a competitive advantage over ocean dwelling organisms in the race to exploit the nutrients contained within the rocks. Fungi are biochemical beings with a lot in common with us humans. Like us, they cannot fix their own energy, or synthesise their own sugars; only plants and algae can do that, along with some bacteria.

So fungi and algae got together symbiotically to form lichen. Lichens are found all over the planet today, and they dissolve rocks, buildings, concrete, wood, even cars. As they came onto the land and began to biodegrade rock, they created gaps in the rock structures and left organic detritus, particularly the cast off cell walls of the fungal-algal lichen cells in those gaps.

The organic detritus in between the rock particles can hold water, and this is profoundly important. Mineral deposits combined with organic matter can hold even more water.


20 09 2019
Chris Harries

Ok, now I get you Brandon. We’re talking billions of years. I thought you were talking about human timescale. 🙂

20 09 2019
Brandon Young

Even if that is meant as a joke it is still a dangerous misrepresentation, Regenerative agriculture can dramatically improve soil health in just one season.

We don’t have to build soils from scratch, because they naturally build themselves, as long as we don’t get in their way with all of the “more-on” agricultural practices.

20 09 2019
Chris Harries

I know that, Brandon. As already said I’m totally supportive of regenerative agriculture and it’s scope to draw down atmospheric carbon. Just disagree with the premise that it can magically undo what’s been done to the planet’s systems within a generation or two. The maths just don’t stack up.

But we should focus on what’s good to do. And we are in agreement on that.

20 09 2019
Brandon Young

Yes, I know you are reluctant to look seriously at the latest science and the numbers it contains. You previously wrote: “Where we may not agree is the gross maths.”

Well, let’s have a look at what the IPCC found in this years report on the climate change impacts of agriculture and land use changes

These are the findings that have Large impacts on climate change mitigation and adaptation, most of which come with other social, economic, and environmental co-benefits, which means better outcomes that we get for free:

Response options based on land management:
* Increased food productivity
* Agro-forestry
* Improved cropland management
* Improved livestock management
* Agricultural diversification
* Integrated water management
* Forest management
* Reduced deforestation and forest degradation
* Increased soil organic carbon content
* Reduced soil erosion
* Fire management
* Reduced landslides and natural hazards

Response options based on value chain management
* Reduced post-harvest losses
* Dietary change
* Reduced food waste (consumer or retailer)
* Improved food processing and retailing
* Improved energy use in food systems

All of these things significantly increase the amount of greenhouse gases that nature takes out of the atmosphere and sequesters into soils, and all of these things would be dramatically accelerated under suitable market dynamics, which would drive changes in both business behaviour and public policy. The required market dynamics can be established by putting a fairly low penalty price on emissions, and using the enormous revenues to pay out a reward price for all means of carbon sinking.

You can see these summarised in Panel A on page 28 of the report here, but I would recommend reading the whole of section B, which includes some of the estimated quantities:

Click to access Edited-SPM_Approved_Microsite_FINAL.pdf

The estimates do vary greatly, but the more data and research that accumulate, and there is a great rush on in the science right now for obvious reasons, the higher the estimates generally become. If you want to consider the low estimates more likely to be the case, then fair enough, nature might only be able to cover say 50% of the carbon deficit. But if the higher estimates are actually more accurate, then nature has the potential to achieve well more than 100% of what is required, even without emissions reductions in the short term.

20 09 2019
Chris Harries

But I agree with all those IPCC star points, Brandon. You are just re-affirming what we agree on.

What I’m emphatically disagreeing is your premise that we can create a carbon neutral industrial civilisation, like we have.

For argument’s sake, even if we hypothetically just agreed on that sticking point, many scholars have pointed out the limited virtue in focussing just on carbon, as if we have only one problem to do with limits and tipping points. Our civilisation isn’t just a tiny bit unsustainable, it’s off the dial.

Any grand scientific solution to the human predicament that does not focus on embedded growth and consumer cultural mores is bound to fail – i.e. as a grand solution. But, as I keep repeatedly confirming, regenerative agricultural practices are to be highly commended.

20 09 2019
Brandon Young

If you agree with the IPCC numbers on the carbon deficit and the power nature has to eliminate that deficit, then the stumbling block must be the power of the market dynamics to dramatically change outcomes.

I will have a think about the best way to demonstrate exactly how the pricing signals would completely change the game, and tip the balance much more in favour of constructive economic activities and nature solving climate change, and much more against destructive activities and the industrial system destroying and depleting the natural systems of the planet.

It might help if you can reconsider the view that what needs to happen is somehow magical. It is really only acknowledgement of the science and the simple reality that markets are overwhelmingly driven by the profit motive. Since we have the power to change market incentives via pricing signals, markets are effectively already harnessed, and we just need to pull the reins and drive the system wherever we want it to go.

20 09 2019
Chris Harries

You would need to show me a peer reviewed paper that says market based carbon capture can compensate for fossil fuelled carbon that’s been added to the carbon cycle. I’ve never ever seen any such thing and I think for very good reason.

There’s every good reason to support the advantages of sequestering what carbon is possible to minimise harm. The problem with the promise of any magic ‘solution’ is that it immediately takes away the need and impulse to mitigate emissions. Nearly every person and nearly every nation earnestly wants to hear that we can keep going without too much discomfort.

20 09 2019
Brandon Young

You wrote: “The problem with the promise of any magic ‘solution’ is that it immediately takes away the need and impulse to mitigate emissions.”

It is not a magic solution. It is a simple control system that automatically corrects a fundamental failure in the economic and political system, which is the failure to account for the negative consequences of economic activities. In this instance, we are only using the control system to fix the volume of net emissions according to the desired trajectory, which is only a one dimensional measure of what is constructive or destructive, but it is certainly the place to start and the time to do it.

The solution is effectively guaranteed to solve climate change, because the pricing signals will rise and rise until the net volume of carbon sinking and emissions follow whatever target trajectory we set.

The only reasonable obstacles in the way of success once adopted would be non-compliance by some nations, which could be effectively eliminated by the terms of the global agreement, or the global economic and political system crossing some tipping point into catastrophic collapse before we get a chance to run the solution for a few years, as a result of the ongoing failure to fix the greatest flaws in that system, or the natural world itself being pushed beyond tipping points into a catastrophic collapse of its own.

These are all reasons to embrace the opportunity to solve climate change and boost the economic system right now, rather than drifting along allowing the industrial system to continue its plunder without constraint, further degrading nature’s power to cool the climate.

Still, you are a long way from being persuaded, which is fine. I think I understand the basis of the concerns you have expressed so far, which from my perspective are simple misconceptions of what I am proposing, but that is my problem to solve. It helps a lot to get constructive criticism, and advancing the debate is actually helped by someone playing devil’s advocate, even if that is not your intent.

What I am proposing is actually very simple systems engineering, but because the concept is new, there are enormous barriers to its acceptance. Again, that is my problem to solve, unless someone with marketing skills or the ability to better explain system dynamics than I can pops out of nowhere and offers to lend a hand.

21 09 2019

You cannot be serious………. we do not do ANYTHING at that scale. We don’t mine iron ore, produce fossil fuels, minerals, food, COMBINED, which is the scale putting the genie back in the bottle requires.

Totally delusional…….

21 09 2019
Brandon Young

Nature operates on the global scale. Markets operate on the global scale. The Paris Agreement operates on the global scale, although it needs to be extended in several critical ways.

We have leverage over nature via soils, leverage over markets via pricing signals, and the opportunity to develop a proposal which could be the basis of a new global agreement. We have all the pieces we need, except for well documented and persuasively marketed argument to support the proposal, which is the very aim of debating it.

Yes, we don’t usually act rationally on the global scale, because of all of the competing systems of power and the propaganda that comes with it. But we need to get over that, and fast.

The proposal would be delusional if it was actually implausible, but visionary if it actually has the power to solve climate change at no overall cost, and as rapidly as we choose, as I assert. I am happy for anyone to try to prove me prove wrong with logical argument.

21 09 2019
Chris Harries

The ball’s in your court, Brandon. Please do go out and save the world. But – with the greatest of respect – I think you could do just as well to peg back your ambition just a tad, ‘cos it’s a tall order that you’ve set yourself.

21 09 2019
Brandon Young

Thanks for your comments. You might be right about a tall order. The dynamic nature of the control system is what makes it so simple and powerful, but given that is probably what makes the solution difficult to comprehend for those without an existing understanding of how complex systems work, and how they are easily controlled with engineered system solutions, it might be worth considering a two phase proposal, the first phase having only a fixed fee-rebate structure like existing models. Cheers.

22 09 2019

Markets operate on a human scale, and the Paris agreement isn’t operating at all….. Oh and nature has leverage over US, not the other way around. WTSHTF, nature will take no prisoners.

22 09 2019
Brandon Young

The industrial system currently has dominion over the whole planet, and most of the humans are now merely drones, easily manipulated into docile and ignorant servitude by means of consumer-fascism.

Anyone with 10 minutes to spare might like this music video which covers pretty much all the dynamics of consumer-fascism, as well as our fate if we don’t collectively wake up and impose some constraints on the multi-headed beast that owns and operates the industrial system::

Tool – Right in Two

20 09 2019

Rapid degrowth, required, is guaranteed if, all members of Extinction Rebellion, Schools Strike and like minded groups promise never to take on new loans. No matter what.
They will be attacked for sure and called economic vandals by the environmental vandals that are killing us.

While talking to a South Australian Green MLC, he told me at a climate rally that, he favored renewable energy because, he wanted his cold beer and the footy on his TV at weekends.

That was my moment. Only complete economic collapse would save the human race so, I stopped trying to prevent it and prepare as best I can.

When the villagers are running from the bear, one doesn’t have to be the fastest runner. Just faster than the slowest. Many villagers today can hardly move, metaphorically.


21 09 2019

GREAT to see you back…… and I could not agree more!

24 09 2019
John Cossham

“This demand is not for the extraction and burning to stop, but for the oil and gas industry to continue, while powering some non-existent technology that makes it all okay.”
This is factually incorrect. XR is advocating the cessation of extraction and use of fossil fuels. With my XR hat on, I can clearly say that we are trying to STOP the fossil fuel industry, and as an individual (although I know many fellow Rebels agree) I am deeply worried that the IPCC is planning its ‘pathways’ to include negative emissions technologies, which in many cases are still at concept stage.

If you look at CAT’s ZCB report then you’ll see that there are still a very limited number of technologies and industries which are ‘permitted’ to burn fossil carbon, and yes the plan includes some negative emissions activities to ‘balance’ this – suggestions include reforestation, using wood for building, making biochar to enhance soils whilst utilising the energy produced, and BECCS using short rotation coppice, an easily managed energy crop. However the most important element is the overall *reduction* of energy needed with very radical changes in how we run our society.

(I have only read the first bit of this essay and hope to come back to it when I’m more awake – it’s 4am here!)

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