The trillion tree delusion, climate pledge confusion & the Overstory
The newsletter for people woke on carbon and climate.
(image: MIT Technology Review)
Welcome to the latest issue of Carbon Creed - a curated newsletter for people “woke” on carbon and climate.
Planting one trillion trees will not stop climate change.
But we want to think it will. Yes, plants absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere, transforming it into leaves, wood and roots. This everyday miracle has spurred hopes that plants – particularly fast growing tropical trees – can act as a natural brake on climate change, capturing much of the CO₂ emitted by fossil fuel burning. Across the world, governments, companies and conservation charities have pledged to conserve or plant massive numbers of trees.
But the fact is that there aren’t enough trees to offset society’s carbon emissions – and there never will be. Bonnie Waring recently conducted a review of the available scientific literature to assess how much carbon forests could feasibly absorb. If we absolutely maximised the amount of vegetation all land on Earth could hold, we’d sequester enough carbon to offset about ten years of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates. After that, there could be no further increase in carbon capture.
Listen folks, we must stop deluding ourselves into thinking we can just plant our way out of the climate crisis. That’s not happening. We have to do the work of reducing carbon emissions - period. There are no short cuts.
I hope this prologue gave you a few things to think about. We’ll keep you posted on the latest carbon policy and market insights as they happen.
I would like to mention an excellent interview featuring one of our regular readers, Paulina Marinkovic, an expert on mindfulness, meditation and sustainability. I think you’ll enjoy her thoughts!
If you have an opinion on any topic covered in this newsletter, please feel free to send me an email at email@example.com.
Thank you for your viewpoint and the value of your time.
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NOW, LET’S GO DEEP!
Climate quotes and sayings that will inspire you
“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi
Credo: To stop climate change, decarbonize your life.
“The axe forgets what the tree remembers.” ~ African Proverb
Credo: Remember the Lorax.
“One individual cannot possibly make a difference, alone. It is individual efforts, collectively, that makes a noticeable difference—all the difference in the world!”
~ Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, primatologist
Credo: The key to halting global climate change is all of humanity working together - we have strength in numbers.
(image: Natural Happiness)
by Richard Powers
People see better what looks like them,” observes the field biologist Patricia Westerford, one of the nine main characters of Richard Powers’s 12th novel, The Overstory. And trees, Patricia discovers, look like people. They are social creatures, caring for one another, communicating, learning, trading goods and services; despite lacking a brain, trees are “aware.” After borers attack a sugar maple, it emits insecticides that warn its neighbors, which respond by intensifying their own defenses. When the roots of two Douglas firs meet underground, they fuse, joining vascular systems; if one tree gets ill, the other cares for it. The chopping down of a tree causes those surrounding it to weaken, as if in mourning. But Powers’s findings go beyond Dr. Pat’s. In his tree-mad novel, which contains as many species as any North American forest—17 are named on the first page alone—trees speak, sing, experience pain, dream, remember the past, and predict the future. The past and the future, it turns out, are mirror images of each other. Neither contains people.
Without giving away the plot, by the end of the novel all but one of the nine have become committed activists. Though they follow starkly different paths, all nine characters earnestly embrace the same platform: Forests must be preserved, or nature will have its revenge. The argument is divided democratically among the book’s voices, but it is unerringly consistent. Each of the following reflections belongs to a different character:
“Some of these trees were around before Jesus was born. We’ve already taken ninety-seven percent of the old ones. Couldn’t we find a way to keep the last three percent?”
“We don’t make reality. We just evade it. So far. By looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay.”
“It’s so simple,” she says. “So obvious. Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it.”
The towering, teetering pyramid of large living things is toppling down already, in slow motion, under the huge, swift kick that has dislodged the planetary system. The great cycles of air and water are breaking. The Tree of Life will fall again, collapse into a stump of invertebrates, tough ground cover, and bacteria, unless man …
Reefs blanch and wetlands dry. Things are going lost that have not yet been found. Kinds of life vanish a thousand times faster than the baseline extinction rate. Forest larger than most countries turns to farmland. Look at the life around you; now delete half of what you see.
Most Americans do not understand the perils of climate change—or of deforestation, clear-cutting, habitat loss. But those who perpetuate the disinformation campaigns, likely do. It is easier, politically, to claim scientific murkiness than to tell the truth: They value their self-interest over the condition of the world their grandchildren will grow up in. Whether this self-interest is venal or foolish is irrelevant. It’s human nature. And that raises a more difficult question: not whether we should take action, but how to come to terms with the fact that our species has proved itself (mostly) incapable of doing so.
Creed Comments: This book is squarely in the Prophet genre - putting conservation front and center. The consensus among Power’s 9 characters - “Humankind is deeply ill…the species won’t last long.” It’s a darkly optimistic outlook. Optimistic for the planet, pessimistic for the fate of humanity. I tend to be bullish on humanity and the planet, but only if we get our collective act together in the near term (by 2030). I suggest you read the Overstory, it will help you see the climate crisis through an eye-opening, new lens.
(image: World Wildlife Fund)
The Climate Pledge Confusion
“There is no accounting for climate change.”
This statement is not figurative, in the way "There's no accounting for taste" is figurative. There's literally no common accounting for what nations in the Paris Agreement are doing to fight climate change. And it's causing headaches for anyone trying to figure out what's actually going on as world leaders gathered for the White House climate summit last week.
The confusion begins with a 2011 diplomatic breakthrough. Developed and developing nations had been locked in a stalemate for two decades over who would do what to fight global warming. Developing nations, which gained access to modern energy decades or even centuries after the West, argued that the climate problem was the rich nations' creation and therefore theirs to solve. Through four presidents, from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, the U.S. held a bipartisan position that every country had to do something.
Dozens of nations accused the U.S. of blocking progress and holding up the whole world. Until the whole world finally came along.
The 2011 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks were held in Durban, South Africa. It was there that nations finally busted through the two-decade divide over who's responsible for doing what. That development would lead diplomats to call for “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs, each country’s poker-ante into a new era of international debates. With each nation articulating its own goals, the world would make progress, the thinking goes, by the collective imposing peer pressure on everyone to do better — rather than the old treaty model of a centralized edict mandating everyone’s work.
And yet this historic diplomatic breakthrough is the direct cause of the accounting confusion on display last week, when leaders of 40 nations appeared at President Joe Biden's climate summit, each one declaring different goals, often expressed in different metrics, with different strategies, levels of domestic support, actual pollution rates, and—perhaps most confusing of all—the myriad baselines by which nations are measuring their proposed emissions cuts. Most nations toggle between 1990 and 2005 as their preferred baseline year.
There were commitments that by 2030:
China intends to reduce the 2005 emissions intensity of its energy use by 60%, and India by 33%.
The U.K. and the EU want to cut emissions 68% and 55% below 1990 levels.
The U.S. wants to cut emissions 50% below its 2005 level.
Japan, which strengthened its target last week, wants to cut emissions 46% below its 2013 level.
South Korea wants to cut emissions 24.4% below its 2017 level.
Who's ahead in the race to cut emissions? It's very difficult to tell when nations use different baselines.
In the week leading up to the White House climate summit, several analysts tried to reconcile all these ad hoc numbers to try and determine how nations stand against each other. Peer pressure —the force at the heart of the Paris Agreement—won’t work if nobody can tell how anybody else is doing.
These numbers matter in global climate diplomacy and beyond. A nation’s goals might warm or cool bilateral relationships and ease or complicate finance and trade. That helps explain the lengths some nations have been going to put on their best arithmetic.
The baseline year chosen doesn’t actually affect the amount of work a nation needs to undertake to reduce its emissions, wrote Victoria Cuming of BloombergNEF last week, “but it may be selected based on political reasons to appear more ambitious.”
If there’s any consolation in the make-your-own-accounting world, it’s that everybody wishing to slash climate risk knows the right thing to do: Whatever the stated national goal and whether or a nation has policies in place to achieve it, emissions must go down and end as a clean economy takes its place.
Creed Comments: It amazes me that the Paris climate accord lacks a common global baseline year for carbon emissions. This is fundamental flaw and should be a priority for the COP26 2021 meetings in Glasgow this fall.
The Keeling Curve a daily record of global atmospheric CO2 concentration.
Congressional Policy Tracker a summary of current federal energy legislation.
Click Clean your favorite apps and tech company clean power rankings.
Advancing Inclusion Through Clean Energy Jobs a report by the Brookings Institute.
Understanding ESG a series of ESG-focused thought leadership webinars for business and investors, presented by Baker McKenzie.
Temperature Check, a weekly podcast about climate, race, and culture hosted by Andrew Simon.
I want to give a shout out to one of our regular readers,
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