What if...we reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025?

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What if...we reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025?

Hazel Healy writes about making very serious changes.


Illustration: Andy Carter

In October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave a strong warning. We must do something very quickly to limit global warming in the next 12 years. Or we will really damage the ecosystems that look after human life on Earth.

The IPCC says we should reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to ‘net zero’ by 2050. This would give us a chance to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. But this would be too hot for the coral reefs, which would disappear by 90 per cent at that temperature. And this would not stop the extreme wildfires, heat waves, and hurricanes, which we have already. But in December 2018, there was news that carbon emissions will rise a lot and quickly in 2019.

Perhaps this rise in carbon emissions will make our world leaders think: why not try to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2025? No-one knows if it’s possible but it’s interesting to imagine how this situation might be.

If there are about 42 billion tonnes (or ‘gigatonnes/Gts’) of CO2 in the world in 2018, we will have to cut out 6Gt every year to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2025. 6Gt every year is about the same as all the carbon emissions in the US in 2009. There are only two ways to do this: increase clean energy with renewable power, and reduce a lot the energy we use.

With zero-carbon, the fossil fuel energy, which causes about 80 per cent of global emissions, would stop fast. Fossil fuel energy means coal, oil, and gas (including fracking). And all heating and transport would have to stop using carbon-based fuels and use clean electricity.

There would be no time to build new nuclear reactors, and so the world would do something completely new in human history. It would build new solar, tidal, wind, and hydro generation and change electricity grids. And it would mean making a big effort to reduce and change the use of energy in homes and businesses. Zero Carbon Britain suggests we build 130,000 100-metre tall wind turbines to power the UK in an area over twice the size of Wales. And Zero Carbon Australia suggests building 12 solar plants over 2,760km2 in an area the size of Kangaroo Island.

At the moment renewable energy supplies 10 per cent of global energy. By 2025, renewable energy will not come close to what we need now. So, for our zero-carbon situation we need the 20 per cent of people in the world who account for 70 per cent of emissions to cut energy use the quickest and the most. People in the US citizens use about 16.4 tonnes CO2 per person. If they cut their CO2 emissions, it would bring us closer to zero carbon a lot quicker than the people of Niger, who produce under 0.1 tonne.

In the rich world, zero carbon would bring very big social change. We would use energy only for survival and the most important activities. We would go to bed early and get up with the sun. There would be very big changes in the way we grow, process, and distribute food – more turnips and fewer mangoes in the UK. Globally, there would be much less private car use, almost no flying, haulage, or shipping. This would be an end to material globalization as we know it. But stopping energy use wouldn’t last forever. There would be a few difficult years. Kevin Anderson is an energy and climate scientist. He says that by 2040 renewable energy may generate up to 50 per cent of today’s energy use. Reforestation and habitat restoration will take carbon out of the atmosphere. Researcher Kate Haworth from Oxford University says that economies powered by sunlight will improve health for everyone.

But how can we make big changes like this? A fast zero-carbon plan like this would need everyone to take part. Perhaps we need to say that there will be impacts that will come much sooner than we thought, for example, the collapse of pollinating insects, serious typhoons, and salt-water flooding.

A global system would then allow each country to find their own way to zero emissions with a number of policies: carbon taxes, tradeable citizen rations, perhaps a basic universal income For all of this Andrew Simms from the Rapid Transition Alliance suggests ‘a social contract built on fairness and equal access’.

If we imagine bringing the IPCC’s suggested target forward from 31 years to just 7 years, it helps us to see how much change we need. This all sounds extreme bit it is better than moving to a 3-4 degree Celsius planet. As Anderson says, ‘I just want the same world, with a stable climate. What’s so extreme about that?’

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2018/12/17/what-if-we-reduced-carbon-emissions-zero-2025

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)