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Pathways to Deep Decarbonization

Even the best and brightest among us who see gathering climate havoc are reluctant to recognize, much less confront, the lion in the room. The lion – civilization’s core problem – is that too many people have been, and are, consuming too much. Political conversation ignores that reality and imagines how the world can prevent catastrophic erosion of existing people-friendly natural systems and still not offend the sacred principles of unending economic growth and unlimited population increases.

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) presented its interim report on the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) on July 8, 2014. The report explores technologies that might produce a 2050 world where Earth’s atmosphere would be no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, on average, than it was in the late 19th century. The UN climate summit meeting in 2009 defined 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, as the upper limit before runaway global heating, and massive disruptions of natural systems, would likely occur.

SDSN teams from each of 15 countries computed what needed to be done to keep global warming within that 3.6 degree limit. Continued economic and population growth were assumed, as is almost always true among our policymakers. With those axioms, the SDSN report focused on how to reduce annual CO2 emissions resulting from burning fossil fuels to no more than 1.6 tons for each person living in the 2050 world. Each of the 15 country teams worked to bring their own country’s emissions within that 1.6 ton limit. The 1.6 tons, not surprisingly, is less than 10% of America’s current per capita CO2 emissions. In our view, any decarbonization path ending with each American, on average, producing no more than 1.6 tons of CO2 per year, and which treats population and consumption increases as sacrosanct, is like waiting for the fairy god mother. It’s just rationalizing our present life styles behind unrealistic assumptions about the speedy development and implementation of hypothesized painless, energy-saving, greenhouse-gas-saving technologies.

We humans discount the future very heavily. Larry King put it this way to an environmental advocate – “Nobody cares what happens in 50 years.” Eons of evolution have programmed each of us to live in, or close to, the present, and to give only limited attention to bad things that a distant future will bring. Our politics reflects who we are, and there is very little hope of political action that would implement SDSN’s recommendations. While we applaud the SDSN’s careful, optimistic work, we can probably assume that our beloved species, and its nations, will continue – as much as Nature will allow – to ignore any bad-news, foreseeable climate change damages. Take-away: live your life as happily as you can in the present, while giving some thought as to how you will adapt to an emerging new world defined by human-modified natural systems.


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