Rationing Carbon: A Solution to Climate Change?

Heat: How To Stop The Planet From Burning
Heat: How To Stop The Planet From Burning

George Monbiot‘s book Heat covers the limits of our climate-changing actions and the actions that need to be taken immediately in order to avert catastrophe.  Here’s the skinny: there is a limit to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere before we set into motion devastating, irreversible consequences. If we reach this limit we will go past the “tipping point,” the global point of no return.

Malte Meinshausen, a climatologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research quoted in a ScienceNews article, says “If you want to limit the risk of exceeding 2 degrees C global warming to one in four, or 25 percent, then total CO2 emissions over the first half of the 21st century have be kept below 1,000 billion tons.” We’ve already emitted half of that, but that does leave a decent amount left to fill the gap (though we don’t need to fill the gap).

We’ve talked about this limit before: a concentration limit for atmospheric CO2. We want it back to 350ppm from the current level of 389ppm. There are other guesses to this number: some say 400ppm or 450ppm, while others insist we’ve passes it (remember 350ppm). If we continue on our current path without serious emission cuts we’ll hit this upper limit in just a few decades.

Carbon Rationing System

A rationing system is so obvious I can’t believe I haven’t heard of it before reading Monbiot‘s book (and my reading list gets longer, not shorter, so I might be behind the times on this one). Of course, the UK is a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to climate change issues than those of us in the second-largest coal using country in the world. That doesn’t mean their system is working, the UK’s cap-and-trade system has its pitfalls, just as much as the US proposed system does as well.

Here is how a carbon rationing system works:

  1. Take the total amount of carbon we can emit before disaster and divide it by the worlds population. This gives you the amount each world citizen is allowed to emit between now and our goal date of 2050.
  2. Based on population, distribute carbon credits to every country. This will mean large, initial cuts to the developed world (the US, UK, EU, et cetera), but will actually leave breathing room (no pun intended) for the developing countries – as per capita they are much lower.

While the cuts to the developed nations will be tough, they are not that expensive (Update Sept. 9, 2009: See also here). In fact, the costs of inaction will be greater – not to mention the millions of deaths likely to be incurred (won’t somebody please think of the children!?). It is frugality at its best here, in every aspect of our lives, yet it will mean a better life for everyone – yes, even you making the biggest cuts! This is a fair, economically viable solution to climate change (see contraction and convergence). Rampant consumerism will have to go the way of the Dodo and be replaced with community, healthy living, simplicity, and happiness. Sounds horrifying, huh?

Take Matters Into Your Own Hands

We’ve heard it all before, but it is up to each of us to make a difference and every action we take can have a big impact. Your personal carbon quota can be filled quickly if you’re not careful. Cycling is a great way to make a serious impact in your personal carbon footprint (take it from a doctor if you don’t believe me). You might also think about joining a Carbon Rationing Action Group (CRAG) or starting one in your area!

As the Copenhagen Climate Conference approaches it is hard not to hear more and more news about climate change. This is a pinnacle point in human history – one that could very well decide the fate of life on Earth – and we need to be involved in making it a successful point in history.

This is why it is important to get involved. Beyond Talk is a movement for non-violent civil disobedience in the name of progressive, decisive climate change agreements (mentioned in my previous post). We want to be at or below 350ppm of atmospheric CO2 and yet we are already at 389ppm and climbing. As the Beyond Talk website says:

“In order to bring global CO2 back to the safe zone, we need a global agreement now. But we can’t wait for politicians to do the right thing. We need to turn the political heat way up.

The good news is that civil disobedience works. A coal-fired power plant recently had its permit withdrawn as a result of a community blockade of the Desert Rock site, in Dine (Navajo) territory, and there have been powerful actions throughout Appalachia, on Mount Rushmore, against the Tar Sands in Canada, and elsewhere.”

Personal Emission Cuts

Inspired by the 10:10 campaign, I have decided to outline a “carbon diet” for my family. The idea is built upon the 10:10 campaign – 10% carbon reduction by 2010. I challenge the people at Copenhagen to make a carbon reduction time-line as specific and decisive as this one! Note that these should all based on 1990 levels and are additive – so each year I make a specific cut to my 1990 level.

Emission Cut Year
10% by 2010
Another 15% by 2015
Another 20% by 2020
Another 30% by 2030
Another 10% by 2040
Another 5% by 2050
Total: 90% by 2050

You might notice that the cuts taper off after 2030. This is because the biggest cuts must be taken now in order to make sure we reduce the total concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The final two cuts will definitely be some of the hardest (by today’s standards), but those are 30 and 40 years from now. I would hope by then we would have found easier ways to make cuts – even if we don’t they can still be done, must be done.

This is my personal goal, and I invite you to make a similar one.

As George Monbiot recently said:

10:10 is the best shot we have left. It might not be enough, it might not work; but at least it’s relevant. I take the pledge. Will you?

(On a sidenote: My next post will be back on the topic of the Steady State Economy again, for those of you who are tiring of my climate change posts.)

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