We need a global cap on carbon emissions. There is no way around this if we are to avoid the disaster-case scenarios associated with runaway emissions. Hurricane Sandy – as devastating as it was – is just a little taste of what lies in store if we stick to business as usual. To give a sense of why a globally adopted policy approach to carbon emissions is necessary, let’s take stock of where things stand right now and where they will be going without one.
Until recently, climate scientists estimated that to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to stabilize the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to no more than 450 parts per million (ppm) by the year 2050. (It should be noted, though, that more recent assessments have determined that even this is way too high.) But let’s just say that 450 ppm is our goal. We currently stand at around 390 ppm. What this basically means is that, beginning in 2011, global emissions have to decrease by about 1.5% per year. Unfortunately in 2011, carbon emissions increased by about 3.2%.
(Graph adapted from Global Carbon Project)
The black dotted line represents total emissions of CO2 per year. The red arrow is where we are going. The blue arrow is where we need to go. Clearly, we are headed in the entirely wrong direction.
I bring this up in part because my work puts me in frequent contact with executives from corporations that are truly doing a lot to more or less voluntarily lessen their environmental impact. Much of the focus has been on global warming, and this is a good thing. But as the graph shows, it’s not nearly enough. We're not going to get there with voluntary and arbitrary targets. The only way we have a chance to realize the deep changes we need to slow and ultimately reverse the tide of global warming emissions is to have a binding, global agreement on how much everyone is allowed to emit. And the US government’s reluctance to do this has been perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting it done.
But there is some good news -- there may be some momentum gathering here in America that would allow us to play our part:
Even with a cap, however, we are still locked in to some rising temperatures and their effects - we’ve already dumped enough CO2 into the atmosphere to ensure some amount of global warming. So we need to take a two-pronged approach to the problem: mitigation (efforts to decrease the amount of CO2 emissions and thus limit the amount of warming) and adaptation (efforts to adjust to the inevitable effects of warming, like building sea walls in coastal cities to counter the impact of rising oceans). We’ll be taking a look at both strategies in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, say it loud and say it proud: I want a carbon tax!