This week so many gather in Paris, seeking agreement around how much fundamental atmospheric alteration we’re willing to accept, and what is our best path forward as a global community. Central to this discussion are goals and targets. One central goal that has emerged is limiting the increase in global temperatures to 2 Degrees Celsius. I laud the scientists and policymaker involved for the big-picture thinking and articulating the real outcomes that we need to see in climate action.
However, my issue with the focus on 2 degrees as a metric is that it’s not actionable in the interim. It’s not a target an individual nation or business can set. It’s not like the U.S. or China can decide to reduce global temperature by 0.5 degrees. All you can do is go forth with your activities and 80 years later hope to see in climate monitoring that, yep, temperature only increased 1.8 degrees.
Better as a focus is 80%-90% reduction in human GHG emissions from a 1990 baseline by 2050. Better yet, eliminate 90% of fossil fuel burning from 1990 levels by 2050, as fossil fuel development\distribution\consumption is a clear human activity that’s clearly measured, and we know that it’s a major contributor. Other types of land use emissions (GHG from forests, sequestration of carbon by soils, etc.) are major contributors, too, and they are more challenging to measure because they happen on such a widely distributed scale (as, thankfully, plants and soil are virtually everywhere). Fossil burning still happens at point sources, even if there are a great deal of point sources, and the fossil fuel process is still centralized in oil drilling, coal mines, pipeline networks and power plant distribution grids, which provide clear places in which to divest, disallow, improve efficiency and otherwise disincentivize. And once we nail the commitment to 90% fossil fuel reduction, and commit resources to that path, we should be happy to have the conversations around what sort of agricultural practices are going to be most effective, and what other land use management techniques are helpful.
Perhaps more inspiring as a goal than 90% reduction is Net Zero Emissions by 2050. It would allow for burning of fossil fuels locally, if there’s a solid investment in renewables to offset fossil use. If we were (or when we are) exceptionally successful on that path, the grid would become cleaner and cleaner, and we’d need that much less on-site renewables to offset grid electricity.
I don’t wish to distract from the overall goal(s) at all. BUT we do need big-picture goals to be translated to more local levels to enable real action over the next decades. That process has begun, but we have much more to do, and with the commitment of leaders across the globe, that action will play out over the decades to come.