On Dec. 12, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for every country to declare a “climate emergency” as world leaders commemorated the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate accord. The initial response was more about tweaks to existing pledges and talk of future bold action at the Glasgow climate conference in 2021. But on Dec. 15, following all-night negotiations, EU leaders approved a 55% cut in emission by 2030.
From the local to the global, there’s still no common and coherent understanding of how to successfully respond in time to the existential threats posed by climate change. But the EU decision is on the path of embracing what must be done by 2030. The missing piece is that 50% emissions reduction must be complemented by carbon dioxide removal.
A climate plan for 2021 to 2030
We’ll focus here on concrete emergency global plans for 2021-2030 to reduce yearly human carbon dioxide emissions a little less than half, from the current 37 gigatons a year to 20 gigatons a year, and to remove 3 gigatons a year of carbon from the atmosphere and ocean and sequester carbon in biomass on land and sea and in soil. This will decrease the atmospheric percentage of carbon dioxide and the amount of carbonic acid in the oceans.
The positive consequences of such a ten-year program are enormously beneficial ecologically, economically, and socially. It will jump-start not only a resolution for the climate crisis but accelerate the global transformation to an ecological civilization where economic growth means ecological improvement.
Cutting carbon emissions to 20 gigatons in a decade while also removing 30 gigatons of carbon is a program that is technologically and economically realistic. It will expand the economy, create millions of jobs, restore and expand natural habitat, create new fuel and food resources on land and sea. It’s a ten-year investment program that will provide not just climate relief, sustainable jobs, food and fuel, but a superior return on investment (ROI).
As a solar developer, with a background as Director of the Office for Sustainability at SNH, it’s completely clear that renewables can slash current fossil fuel emissions in half within ten years, and dramatically improve energy efficiency using both high and low tech methods and reduce energy consumption in both existing buildings and new construction.
Costs of solar continue to fall at an 18% average annual rate while efficiency rises. For example, in the summer of 2020, we replaced conventional single-sided 340-watt panels with 400-watt dual-facing panels that capture indirect light and increase output per watt 20% at the same cost. That's the solar world. Costs less, produces more, with zero fuel costs and modest operating costs. This is a powerful value proposition. That’s why fossil fuel and nuclear plants are shutting down, unable to compete with renewable energy.
In Massachusetts, for example, in-state renewable generation is about 23% of electric energy consumption with solar producing around 14% of MA electricity, with hydro, biomass and wind sharing the remainder, with a major development of offshore wind by 2035. Around 33% of electricity consumed, about 17 million megawatt-hours (MWh) yearly was imported, mostly generated from fossil fuels.
Replacing 17 million megawatt-hours of the electric generation with in-state solar would mean building 14,000 megawatts of total solar capacity with storage in ten years. If the average PV on roofs, over parking lots, and ground mounts were 4 acres per megawatt, this would mean a total of 56,000 acres of solar panels. There are 294 towns and 57 cities in MA. If each Town or City had an equal share of solar, this would mean 175 acres per municipality of solar on roofs or ground mounts, or about 48 megawatts solar. This would mean building 4 MW a year in each municipality.
This does not imply just the construction of large multi-megawatt solar farms. 16 acres of PV panels a year total can combine residential roofs, commercial projects and some larger megawatt-scale systems. At an average 10-year installed cost of $2.00 a watt with storage and substation upgrades, that’s the capital cost of $2 million a megawatt or $3.4 billion a year investment, $34 billion over ten years. This can be done if we commit to making it so scaling up existing and robust solar building infrastructure.
Robust renewable construction would put lots of people to work not just building and maintaining systems, but also manufacturing racking and mounting systems, inverters, connectors and hardware, monitoring and communication systems. Vocational high schools and union apprentice programs from electricians to operating engineers would be busy educating and training many thousands of new, well paid solar workers.
While carbon emissions are being slashed, agricultural, forestry and aquacultural innovations will not only sequester carbon, produce more food and jobs, they will improve wildlife habitat and biodiversity.
Sequestering carbon in biomass and soil presents numerous opportunities for forestry, agriculture, aquaculture ranging from low tech to high tech.
Planting billions and billions of trees to restore deforested or poorly managed forests will expand forest carbon sequestration. Globally, NASA scientists found that planting 500 billion trees would capture 295 gigatons of carbon to reduce atmospheric carbon by 25 percent. According to the U.S. Forest Service: "Our analysis suggests that concentrating plantings on productive areas with the fewest trees has greater potential for enhanced carbon sequestration capacity than distributing the same number of trees over larger areas." For the United States to meet the 30 gigatons challenge by 2030 by tree planting alone would mean planting about 50 billion trees in the United Stated or 5 billion years from 2021 to 2030. Reforestation should be an easy program for bi-partisan congressional climate change support.
Tree planting is not all that can be done. We can markedly increasing carbon sequestration by more robust plant roots through genetic engineering and plant breeding. Genetic improvement in the efficiency of photosynthesis, as well, can make plants produce more biomass and food. Scientist Dianne Cory of the Salk Institute is working on using CRISPR gene-editing technology. Salk estimates that improving plants can remove up to 40 percent of the excess 18 gigatons of excess annual human carbon emissions. The development of improved biochar gasifiers and syngas production such as systems being developed by engineer Roger Faulkner can help reduce carbon emissions and further improve agricultural sustainable soil productivity. And optimizing plantings and agricultural practices can lead to a very substantial increase in carbon sequestration.
And there’s much more. Cultivation of kelp in coastal regions to produce biomass and cultivation of azzola in freshwater and micro-algae in salt and fresh water cannot only produce vast amounts of biomass for food and fuel but add markedly to bioremediation of contaminated freshwater supplies. A chemical engineering study by Antoine de Ramon N‘Yeurta et.al. Negative Carbon via Ocean Afforestation on a maximal basis estimated that ocean plants alone can solve our global climate, energy, and food problems. Micro-algae forest covering 9% of the ocean could produce enough biomethane to replace all fossil fuels while removing 53 gigatons per year of carbon from the atmosphere and restoring preindustrial levels of carbon. The enormous growth of ocean biomass would also increase sustainable fish production levels sufficient to provide 440 pounds of protein per year for 10 billion people. There are related and enormously promising proposals for fast-growing ocean plants like kelp and azolla (duckweed). This would be an enormous undertaking, but it is driven by the use of the natural processes of plants in the ocean feeding on carbon dioxide and using photosynthesis to create an enormous amount of biomass. This is a far more preferable path than building millions of machines to attempt to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Let nature do it instead. The biosphere is a co-evolutionary system that functions to restore a sustainable balance in the interest of life. Human choices to employ the power of ocean biomass, as opposed to legions of machines, is another manifestation of sustainability as self-conscious human action. Carbon sequestration through biomass in all its diverse forms deserves systematic attention on the highest government levels with efforts equal to that of energy.
Globally, the Paris Climate Accord voluntary national pledges to keep average global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius are widely considered to be inadequate.
The Paris Accords are voluntary. They are focused on a 2050 date for net-zero carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Unfortunately, given the worsening climate reality, these pledges are too slow in implementation and risk being overtaken by catastrophic and irreversible geophysical changes.
Wake up call. The average Arctic and Antarctic temperature have already increased 2.3 degrees centigrade from the 1970s as ice and permafrost melts and the summer Arctic sea ice cover shrinks. Melting means the increasing release of methane, a powerful and shorter-lived green house gas, from permafrost and seabed methane hydrates. An open Arctic ocean will no longer reflect sunlight back into space and instead will heat the ocean more rapidly further increasing seabed methane release. This is combined with massive warm weather wildfires from California to Siberia to California to Australia to Malaysia pouring carbon into the atmosphere.
These so-called positive forcings increasing temperature threaten to unleash a new climate equilibrium that is decidedly unfriendly to humanity and many other species.
Summary of 2021 to 2030 climate solution: reducing and removing GHG
We have 2 tasks that can and must be undertaken simultaneously:
- First, we must reduce, as rapidly as possible, human-generated carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by a little less than half to 20 billion metric tons (gigatons) per year from current emissions of about 37 gigatons tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.
- Second, we must reduce carbon concentrations in air and water by at least 3 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year by sequestering carbon in biomass and soil through agricultural and aquacultural practices. Biomass growth and soil building have been the ways the biosphere has responded geophysically to excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and hot house planets in response to massive periods of volcanism pouring gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.
The reduction in emissions by 45% of human global carbon dioxide emissions, from 37 to 20 gigatons a year, plus year sequestration of 3 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year will at least slow the increasing global carbon emissions from 4ppm to 2ppm, perhaps more.
What’s important about 20 gigatons?
According to the UN, when carbon was still substantially below 400 ppm, it was believed that natural global processes, can maintain a relative balance of carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations with emissions around 21 gigatons a year. Carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere and dissolving into oceans encourages the growth of green plants turning carbon dioxide into biomass and releasing oxygen keeping global carbon levels relatively constant. This is the understanding of our planet as Gaia, acting as a responsive living organism.
But current data indicates that about half of carbon dioxide emissions are not recycled by natural processes and remain in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide increases by 4 parts per million (ppm) a year. If we reduce current greenhouse gas emissions by 17 gigatons per year quickly, combined with 3 gigatons of yearly carbon removal, natural processes should be more likely to handle the remaining 20 gigatons, limiting annual carbon increases to 2 ppm per year or less, buying us more time, dodging the bullet and escaping catastrophe.
Our central challenge from 2021 to 2030 is to turn the enormous power of our global economic engine toward productive and sustainable ends. If we do so, we will accelerate the growing convergence between a profitable business with ecological business and social and ecological justice. Escaping climate catastrophe simply cannot be built upon a global foundation of injustice, deepening inequality and the poverty of billions. We will rise or fall together. What will shape perhaps thousands of generations to come will reflect our individual and collective choices.
The future of free markets and the escape from devastating and self-destructive climate catastrophe is in our hands. The health, indeed survival of our global civilization is at stake. We must choose the actions wisely that we must take from 2021 to 2030.
EU Agrees to cut Emissions 55% by 2030: Olivia Rosane, 2020. EU Agrees to cut Emissions 55% by 2030 EcoWatch. Dec. 14, 2020.
Arctic Temperature has Already Increased 2.3 degrees Centigrade form 1970s: World Wildlife Fund.
National Snow and Ice Data Center: Climate change in the Arctic.
Planting Trees and Carbon Sequestration: Alan Buis, 2019. Examining the Viability of Planting Trees to Help Mitigate Climate Change.
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, November 7, 2019: Grant M. Domke, Sonja N. Oswalt, Brian F. Walters, and Randall S. Morin, 2020. Tree planting has the potential to increase carbon sequestration capacity of forests in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), October 6, 2020117(40)24649-24651; first published September 21, 2020.
Kelp and Azolla (Duck Weed): Muradov, N., Taha, M., Miranda, A.F. et al. Dual application of duckweed and azolla plants for wastewater treatment and renewable fuels and petrochemicals production. Biotechnol Biofuels7,30 (2014).
Roger Faulkner Gasifier for Carbon Char Production and Syn Gas.
MA Energy Consumption Estimates 2019.
MA Renewable energy.