Following on the heels of the “Net Zero by 2050” roadmap (NZE) from the International Energy Agency (IEA), is the latest IPCC Climate Report, which signals a “code red” for humankind in terms of widespread extreme weather events. It also unequivocally establishes a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions, as a result of burning fossil fuels and deforestation, and the planetary warming that is driving climate change.
Such a relationship accords that a carbon budget can be used to quantify necessary mitigation requirements for restricting warming to within specific limits; most significantly, it may be deduced that in order to stabilise human-induced global temperature increase at any level, net anthropogenic CO2 emissions must be brought to zero. Curbing methane emissions, too, is a critical factor in limiting the global temperature increase.
Both reports agree that if immediate action is not undertaken to drastically reduce carbon emissions, the warming, systemic behemoth of the Earth’s ecosphere will break its leash at a temperature rise of 1.5°C, with projected climatic adversities unfolding across the globe. Nowhere will be safe. While all scenarios considered by the IPCC suggest a 1.5°C increase by 2040, it is in the latter decades of the present century that the full ramifications of a heat-driven changing climate will be discharged, which, at the extreme range of high greenhouse emissions, where the global temperature rises by 3.3-5.7°C, has been described as a “hell on earth”.
One critical action, both reports make clear, is for no new coal fired power stations to be built beyond 2021, while NZE specifically emphasises no more drilling for new oil and gas fields. Furthermore, the IPCC stresses, the OECD countries must phase out existing coal by 2030, and all others do likewise by 2040. In their ending of new fossil fuel exploration and production, all nations are urged to shift fossil-fuel subsidies into renewable energy, and by 2030, a quadrupling of solar and wind capacity should have happened, with a trebling of renewable energy investments, in order to keep on track for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Since a degree of warming of 1.2 °C above pre-industrial levels has already taken place, an urging of further climatic effects can be expected as the Earth warms up to the full 1.5°C, even if it were to stop there. Hence, the deployment of adaptation strategies like working with nature to address societal goals is a critical factor, to build resilience against the inevitable changes already factored into the climate system, as the UK government’s Chief Scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, has summarised:
“We must also recognise that the climate has already changed, and will continue to do so as we near 1.5 C. The seas are rising, and floods and wildfires are more frequent. Again, science and engineering can help us to adapt, boosting the resilience of the most vulnerable and strengthening global food security. Existing tools can anticipate adverse events, while adjusting the design of cities, transport systems and agriculture can minimise their worst effects.”
Fair enough, but although CO2 has been identified by the IPCC as the main driver (>50%) of climate change, to focus entirely on eliminating carbon emissions misses the systemic nature of a changing climate, and by merely recasting the source of our energy supply (gargantuan task though this surely is) degradation of the natural environment and depletion of resources will not be abated. The fundamental driver is a massive overconsumption of resources, as has been more bluntly expressed that the human animal is in ecological overshoot. Hence, without a complete redesign and downsizing of the human enterprise, to bring it back within the carrying capacity of the Earth, the system cannot be “fixed”.
According to the Global Footprint Network, humans crossed the global overshoot threshold of “one planet” in 1970, and now, we are using up the equivalent of “1.75 planets”. However, the situation is even worse than is formally expressed by this metric. For example, no biocapacity is set aside for non-human creatures, even in the face of irrefutable biodiversity loss and species extinctions, and neither is the depletion of non-renewable resources (e.g. fossil fuels and minerals) explicitly accounted for.
Other impacts, such as depletion of fossil aquifers, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, wildfires, floods, chemical and waste pollution, ocean acidification, pollinator decline, plastics in the oceans (and everywhere else), are not reckoned either, as has been noted: “Environmental Footprint estimates are actually conservative for several reasons. In particular, while the method can estimate the area of ecosystems “appropriated” by humans (the human EF) and compare this with available productive land and water area (biocapacity), it cannot account for erosion, other forms of depletion or lost productivity through pollution.”
One further wildcard that could profoundly affect the course of the Earth’s climate is the loss of stability and weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), and the Gulf Stream.
From another perspective, climate change has been described as a “Wicked Problem”, that is to say, one characterised by complexity, and lacking a simple solution, unlike a “tamer” challenge such as solving a mathematical equation or winning a game of chess. In this context, “wicked” does not mean “evil”, but signifies a resistance to resolution. The lack of balance that is signalled by the many apparent “problems” (the changing climate), including those just mentioned, occur because the system overall, is in a state of distortion. Hence, only the application of a systemic approach might improve the outcome; as, for example, in permaculture, where the overall functioning of a given system is optimised, through mutually harmonising the arrangement of its constituent elements, working together in a dynamic equilibrium.
In order to begin optimising the elements of humans within the limits of the biosphere, we might approach the latter with an emphasis on protecting nature and allowing it to achieve its full potential, in which case various problematic issues begin to fall into line. Such thinking is at the root of proforestation, forest and land regeneration, regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, and other nature based solutions.
Clear culpability for overshoot has been placed at the door of our neoliberal economic system, which requires perpetual “growth” to feed it, positing that the only way out of this is through re-localisation into smaller communities, none of which exceed the regenerative limits (carrying capacity) of their local region: “The most adaptive form of this new civilization might be a network of cooperation-based eco-regional economies supporting many fewer people thriving more equitably within the regenerative capacity of their local ecosystems.”
It is further proposed that a global population of “one to two billion... could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.” Nevertheless, how such a population contraction by 6 billion or more might happen exactly is a moot and open question. As viewed through any lens, such a future landscape does look vastly different from the present, with all pretence razed that we can carry on (over)consuming more or less as we do now, having "only" net-zeroed our carbon emissions by putting renewable energy in place of fossil fuels. Quite correctly, the need for a complete, corporeal reconstruction of society is identified, not just a makeover.
Certainly, if we do nothing, or only half-heartedly, we all cook together in the same planetary pot. So, we have to reduce emissions. Depletion of finite resources and degradation of the natural environment are associated issues. Since the richest 10% produce 52% of emissions (which can also be taken as a kind of proxy for resource use, in general), this is where the greatest reductions must be made.
Energy efficiency is an essential counterpart to low-carbon energy generation: for example, better thermal insulation and draught-proofing of buildings, while working from home or locally, avoids commuting and reduces demand for transportation fuels. Heavy carbon taxes could be introduced, but not across the board, so to avoid the poorest people being hit unfairly by rising energy costs; rather, to target “luxury” activities, such as unnecessary flights and travel in general, excessive car ownership (number and size), and purchase of (mostly imported) non-essential consumer “stuff” - frippery that no one really needs, and may not truly want.
A reconfiguration of towns and cities is necessary to assist non-carbon intensive travel (walking and cycling), based around community hubs where accommodation, work and leisure activates are integrated into the same area, along with low energy local food growing and soil improvement. Natural regeneration/rewilding can be introduced within and around community spaces, so that low maintenance pollinator corridors and habitat are created in cities, towns and villages, thus converting them into a network of insect reserves. By installing remakeries and repair cafes, the overall consumption of resources and the production of waste can be ameliorated, along with associated emissions of greenhouse and landfill gases, and plastic pollution too.
There are good reasons to believe that there will be less overall energy available to us in the future than we currently “enjoy”, which is a further critical reason for undertaking a designed energy descent. We may take an optimistic view of re-localisation as the best single strategy for significantly curbing demand for oil and energy in general, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, building community resilience, improving health and wellbeing, increasing energy security, and reducing supply chain vulnerability; although, it is most likely naive to think that such a transition would be a simple and painless process.
Nonetheless, despite the remarkable technological advances and “progress” of our “civilization”, humans may remain too immature to cooperate to the extent necessary to pull off the great “energy” transition, and will continue to squabble and bicker on into the flames of Hell!
There is no "getting back to normal”; now is the dawn of a new age, either by design or default. We have to thoroughly transform how we live, or it will be transformed for us. Indeed, it may well prove “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for humanity to shift its prevailing paradigm and embark on a planned, voluntary descent from a state of overshoot to a steady-state harmonic relationship with the ecosphere—in just a decade or two.”
The alternative, however, is the fulfillment of Paul Kingsnorth’s warning averment, that, quite simply, industrial civilization “will run on, until it runs out.”