What Would Net Zero Emissions by 2025 Look Like?

16 11 2019

Another guest post by Dave Pollard…. and it’s a doozy.


graph by Our World in Data

The latest IPCC report says that in order to prevent catastrophic climate change global net CO2 emissions will have to reach net zero by 2050, from their current levels of 33-38B tons rising by nearly 2%/year. The IPCC’s past reports have been almost laughably conservative and optimistic, which is just one of the reasons Extinction Rebellion have set a net-zero deadline of 2025, just 6 years from now.

It should be noted that total greenhouse gases will continue to rise for at least another 15-20 years after net zero CO2 is achieved, due to the ongoing run-on effects of other greenhouse gases, notably methane, that have been unleashed ‘naturally’ as a result of the damage we have already done to the atmosphere. And it is at best a long shot that even if we were to achieve net zero CO2 by 2025, it isn’t already too late to prevent climate collapse. Our knowledge of the science remains abysmal and every new report paints a bleaker picture. Expect a fierce anti-science, anti-reality backlash as more and more climate scientists concur that runaway, civilization-ending climate change is inevitable no matter what we do, or don’t do.

So what would be required to reduce the course of the hockey-stick trajectory shown in the chart above and achieve net zero CO2 in just 6 years, for a population that will at current rates be 7% (at least 1/2 billion people) greater than it is now?

I think the reason that, while parliaments and political parties and scientists will readily accept XR’s first demand of proclaiming a climate emergency “and communicating the urgency for change”, for most the second demand of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss to zero by 2025 is simply absurd. Western economies have merely shifted production to Asia; their accelerating consumption of CO2-produced goods continues unabated. Our global economy depends utterly on cheap hydrocarbon energy. It’s completely preposterous to think a short-term shift is even vaguely possible. Renewables won’t help us; as the chart below shows, new solar energy isn’t even keeping up with the annual increases in demand, let alone cutting into the still-accelerating need for hydrocarbon energy:

graph by Pedro Prieto, cited by Bill Rees

So let’s be preposterous. What would have to happen, at a minimum, to achieve this valiant goal? Based on what I’ve read and on my understanding of complex systems, here’s just a few of the things that I think would have to happen:

  1. An immediate, complete and permanent grounding of all air traffic. That means no executive jets, no flying for diplomatic or business meetings or emergency family reasons — or military adventures. Achieving meaningful carbon reductions is simply impossible as long as planes are flying.
  2. Immediate rationing of liquid/gas hydrocarbons for essential and community purposes only. To get all the hydrocarbon-fuelled cars and trucks off the road in six years no more travel in personal hydrocarbon-burning vehicles could be permitted. And we’d have to work hard to convert all public buses, trains and ships to non-CO2 producing vehicles in that time. If you look at supply/demand curves for gasoline, we’d be looking at carbon taxes in the area of 1000% to ‘incent’ such conversions. My guess is that most shipping and much ‘privatized’ public transit would not be able to stay in business with these constraints. So say goodbye to most imported goods.
  3. All hydrocarbons in the ground would have to stay there, all over the world, effective immediately. We’d have to make do with existing reserves for a few years until everything had been converted to renewable resources.
  4. Industrial manufacturing based on fossil fuel use would have to convert in equal steps over the six year timeframe, and any plants failing to do so would have to be shuttered.
  5. Construction of new buildings and facilities would have to stop entirely. Existing buildings would have to phase out use of fossil fuels over the six years through rationing and cut-offs for non-compliance, and they would have to be remodelled to meet stringent net-zero energy standards and to accommodate all new building needs.
  6. Trillions of trees would have to be planted, and all forestry and forest clearing stopped entirely. Likewise, production of other new high-energy-use building materials (especially concrete) would have to cease. We’d have to quickly learn to re-use the wood and other building materials we have now.
  7. All this centralized, ‘unprofitable’ activity (and enforcement of the restrictions) would need to be funded through taxes. As during the great depression, the rich could expect tax rates north of 90% on income. And a very large wealth tax would be needed to quickly redistribute wealth so that the poor didn’t overwhelmingly suffer from the new restrictions.
  8. The consequences of the above would be an immediate and total collapse of stock and real estate markets and the flow of capital. The 90% of the world’s wealth that is purely financial and not real (stocks, bonds, pensions etc) would quickly become substantially worthless in a ‘negative-growth’ economy, adding a complete economic collapse to the crises the governments trying to administer the transition to net-zero were trying to manage. In such an economic collapse, many governments would simply fail, leaving communities in their jurisdictions to fend for themselves, and making it likely that much of the world would abandon the constraints of net-zero transition because they wouldn’t have the power or resources to even begin to enforce them.

Of course, none of this will happen. Even if governments had the power and wisdom to understand what was really required to make the net-zero transition, it would be political suicide for them to implement it. It won’t happen by 2025. It won’t happen by 2050. It won’t and wouldn’t happen by 2100 even if we had that long, which we do not.

The message of all this is that we cannot save our globalized civilization from the imminent end of stable climate, affordable energy, and the industrial economy — all of which are interdependent. No one (and no group) has the power to shift these massive global systems to a radically new trajectory, without which (and perhaps even with which) our world and its human civilization are soon going to look very different.

No one knows how and how quickly this will all play out, and the scenarios under which collapse will occur vary from humane, collaborative and relatively free from suffering, to the very dystopian. There is therefore no point dwelling on them, or even trying to plan for them. As always, we will continue to do our best, each of us, with the situation that presents itself each day, and our love for our planet and its wondrous diversity will play into that. Our best will not be enough, but we will do it anyway.


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9 responses

16 11 2019
Angella

Thank you for posting this article, it explained the situation in a way that I could understand clearly. Even on a personal level the first six requirements would be hard, not impossible, but very difficult to imediately start.

16 11 2019
MARK BEVIS

Over on the Consciousness of Sheep, Tim Watkins quoted someone called Martenson who apparently did the maths to reach zero carbon by 2050. From a year ago we would have had to build a 300 acre wind farm every day for 12,000 days. Or 2 nuclear reactors every 3 days, worldwide. At the same time we would have to decommission fossil fuel equivalent of 1 nuclear reactor every 3 days. The sheer logistical effort, the numbers involved, are mind blowing. How many tons of concrete? (that we are already running out of). How much extra fossil fuel will we have to burn to build all that infrastructure?
It’s just fantasy. The Green New Deal, zero carbon, are all fantasies that are mathematically impossible.

As some doctor said in a book review I saw recently, the only way to be carbon nuetral is to be dead. Even then someone would have to bury the corpse I guess.

Only the people mentioning the O-word and the D-word are people that are taking this seriously as far as I’m concerned. Neither of which are allowed in MSM, or even in much of the environmental movements. Even XR seem to be avoiding the O-word in public.

Both will be dealt with – our only consideration is whether we take on board these issues in a measured, organised fashion that causes the least amount of harm to the most amount of people, or do we carry on business as usual and let Mother Nature administer her solutions in brutal, chaotic, random and relentless orgies of destruction. For the forseable future, only the latter seems on the agenda. What is laughable is that the neo-liberal elites think they can someone survive “the event” as they call it, and come out of the other side richer and able to extract even more fossil fuels and minerals from both ice-free poles.

16 11 2019
MargfromTassie

WASF !

17 11 2019
Lloyd Morcom

I agree. I’m turning into a grumpy old bastard, which I don’t want to be, but I just can’t stand the drivel from foaming-at-the-mouth greenwashers any more. Any business or product with Eco- in the name, self-satisfied hipsters driving Teslas, the relentless morphing of the ‘Alternative’ movement into a techno-worshipping wankfest! Ugh!

‘As always, we will continue to do our best, each of us, with the situation that presents itself each day, and our love for our planet and its wondrous diversity will play into that. Our best will not be enough, but we will do it anyway.’

In the end, that is all we have but we’ve just forgotten it. Temporarily.

17 11 2019
Diana Tod

Thanks Mike. This, of all brilliant articles you’ve posted here, is the one that’s convinced me that we’re going down and taking most other species with us as it seems the tipping points are already shunting us over the edge.

I’ve speculated for a long time what all-embracing action would be needed to achieve zero emissions and felt it would be something of the magnitude outlined. Of course, as Dave says, we won’t do it, but seeing it spelt out, together with the rapidity with which the climate is changing now and the terrible fires all over the world, with old growth and rainforests drying, dying and burning, is the clincher. Without trees we go down.

So until now I’d curiously still clung to a glimmer of hope for some sort of de-industrialised future of small pockets of communities sprinkled here and there, but without trees…….

Expecting two grandchildren to arrive in the NY.

22 11 2019
mikestasse

What would your father think?

17 11 2019
Brandon Young

I posted the following comment on the source site.

Zero net emissions by 2025 is an unrealistic target, because it would generate shockwaves across the global economy, almost guaranteeing a global financial crisis, and so would never be agreed by nations at the global level.

A much more realistic starting objective would be a trajectory for net global emissions based on the Paris Agreement, with zero net emissions being reached somewhere around 2050. This trajectory can easily be delivered by a relatively simple market guidance mechanism.

The benefits of a market guidance mechanism are profound. Firstly, it is self-funding, meaning public money is not needed at all. Secondly, it combines the extensive power of markets to drive competition and innovation while rapidly finding efficiencies, with the power of nature to sink carbon in enormous volumes and with tremendous efficiency. Thirdly, a market guidance mechanism is guaranteed to deliver the desired outcome, in this case the exact trajectory for net emissions to follow.

The ideal scheme would be implemented at the global level, based on an extension of the Paris Agreement that includes not just how the volume of net emissions will track over time, but how the necessary net emissions reductions will be achieved.

The scheme would have a simple global price on all emissions, from all sources, in all countries, with no exceptions, loopholes or complexity. The revenues would all flow into a single global fund, to be fully distributed for total sinking of greenhouse gases.

A global agency would administer the scheme, with absolutely transparent and accountable processes. It would issue regular invoices to all nations, perhaps yearly, or quarterly, with a total fee for the total volume of national emissions, and a rebate for the total volume of sinking.

Obviously, national governments would be trying to minimise the emissions intensity of all their industrial sectors in order to minimise costs to their budgets, while doing everything possible to protect and regenerate natural carbon sinks in order to secure a share of the enormous revenue streams. The carbon sinking capacity of agricultural soils is enormous, although not infinite, so there would be plenty of incentive to make the switch to regenerative agricultural practices as quickly as possible, in order to take advantage of a very high rebate price for sinking in the beginning, when volumes of sinking are low globally, The goal of reducing net emissions would finally be aligned with government objectives to maximise national income.

The simplicity of the scheme is critical. It is what makes it so powerful, so efficient, and totally immune to political interference or being gamed by corporations and nation states.

At the national level, governments would be required to use exactly the same approach, a single pool collecting fees from economic activities that emit greenhouse gases, with the revenues fully distributed to activities that sink greenhouse gases. The agency administering the scheme at the national level would issue invoices with fees and rebates to the businesses and other organisations involved.

These pricing signals would ensure that the costs of all greenhouse gas emissions are embodied in the prices of all business inputs, and that the emissions sinking value of all natural carbon sinks like forests and soils was not just acknowledged, but automatically rewarded with direct revenues.

The pricing signals would be dynamic, rising and falling according to the overall market response. If net emissions were tracking above the target trajectory, the pricing signals would automatically rise to increase the effects of the incentives and disincentives. And when net emissions were already falling ahead of the required trajectory, the pricing signals would automatically be reduced. If the reality proved that achieving net emissions reductions was actually much easier than expected because of the power of the market guidance mechanism, there would be scope for negotiating a more ambitious trajectory for net emissions to follow, and so to speed up the transition to a low emissions economy.

Obviously under the new market dynamics, the businesses that can innovate most rapidly to reduce the emissions intensity of their goods and services will become far more profitable, at the expense of those businesses that are slow to exploit the new market incentives and disincentives. The race would be on between nations to become net carbon sinks, and between businesses to have as low an emissions footprint as technologically possible.

To emphasise one particular profound benefit of this scheme, by using the very same mechanism to reward reductions in industrial emissions and increases in natural carbon sinking processes, means that for every extra tonne of carbon that nature sinks there is one tonne of carbon that the industrial system does not need to cut from its own emissions in order to hit the target net volume. The more heavy lifting nature does, the less the industrial system needs to do.

This scheme guarantees the trajectory that global net emissions will follow. Its profound efficiency means that markets will readily and continuously determine the optimal mix of changes in economic activities that will reduce industrial emissions and increase carbon sinking into soils and other carbon sinks. There is so much low hanging fruit, in terms of businesses optimising the emissions footprint of every input and every process in order to maximise profitability, and new public policy that rapidly turns deforestation around and uses reforestation to gain a share of the lucrative revenues for carbon sinking, as well as public policy that suddenly accelerates the shift from old destructive industrial agricultural methods to regenerative practices which build soil volumes and sequester vast amounts of carbon.

Given all of this built-in potential for rapid and massive changes in net emissions under the right market dynamics, where the objectives of businesses and governments are finally aligned with the goal of solving climate change, it is very likely that the net emissions targets will be met so easily, and with such positive economic outcomes rather than net overall costs, that the world might agree to set a more ambitious trajectory for net emissions to follow, thus speeding up the transition to a negative emissions world economy. The timeline for zero net emissions might be brought forward to say 2035, then 2030, as the power of the model is absolutely proven.

The political obstacles to global adoption of this scheme might be enormous, but they can be overcome with a process of collaborative development of the proposal and marketing of the scheme. To presume that there is nothing that we can do about climate change would be fatalistic, so in order to be constructive we must not dismiss the power of a market guidance mechanism to solve climate change before giving it serious thought and vigorous debate.

17 11 2019
John Doyle

The list is not internally consistent. There could be no taxes, point 7 as point 8 would mean it couldn’t be done. But you are right to say it won’t be done. As things unfold we will do whatever we can to cope. The natural world will be very different the longer we continue with BAU. Not so much climate change. It’s too slow, just overexploitation of resources will reach a critical point sooner, much sooner.

20 11 2019
Mark

This seems a bit dark, but it also roughly follows the pattern of collapse seen in previous civilisations. Some fast – Carthage, some slow – Rome.

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