The atmosphere is, as climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe explained, a massive pile of bricks. The more bricks in the pile, the worse off our lives are. Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. It is a big, physical real tonnage of actual, tangible physical extra stuff that we are injecting into our habitat.
This is always the thing that matters: the raw reality of how much of the bad stuff we’ve added to the massive mixing fluid film we live inside. The less we add, the less badly we throw the entire system off its precarious balance, and the less turmoil we experience within our atmospheric home. That ratio isn’t 1:1, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
This is all deeply alien stuff to try and understand. This problem is just so, so weird. Our species has never faced a challenge like this; something so simple yet so fundamental and massive. Uncoupling our species from the substance causing this problem takes time, but the longer that takes the worse we suffer.
Everyone has a different conception of how fast we correct our pathway of self destruction. Nuke society, accelerate collapse and kill off 90% of humans: bam, you’re done in a few years. Fundamentally re-define human society around the world – maybe a decade? Swap out energy without changing much else – probably two or three decades. Where do we draw the line? How fast is fast enough, or too slow? The people with the most to lose from a fast pace have dedicated themselves to forcing a slow pace, aka ‘Predatory Delay‘.
So, do we go fast or slow? What depth of change are we willing to either accept, or try to instil acceptance of through argument or activism? Is aiming for too fast a pathway to stumbling and ending up on the slow path anyway? Or is that a nervous and unjustified anxiety?
A balance was struck in 2015: stop it all by around 2050-2060 ish. That gives us a half-decent chance that the stuff we can’t really avoid releasing warms the planet by around 1.5°C. The impacts are still horrific, but the target is achievable.
That’s a global average though. “Ideally, major emitters will reach net-zero much earlier, given that the largest economies play an outsize role in determining the trajectory of global emissions”, write the World Resources Institute on their blog.
It’s true! That is ideal. Let’s check in on Australia, one of the world’s major emitters.
Hey Australia, how’s it going?
Oh, um, not well. The federal government doesn’t really want to subscribe to a target. That would entail figuring out a plan to ramp down the burning of fossil fuels within the country, massively reduce the mining and export of fossil fuels (because doing that creates emissions within Australia too), and engaging in a transformation and upgrade of Australian society on an unimagined scale. Not really their thing.
It is, weirdly, do-able. This is meant to be a “wicked problem“, right? No, it’s just a problem with simple solutions blocked by wicked people. The country’s Energy and Emissions Reduction minister, Angus Taylor, said “We’re committed to the Paris Agreement, and the Paris Agreement requires net zero. And we’re part of that commitment, there’s no question about that. Now, we want to see that happen as soon as possible”.
The most recent projections of the Australian government’s environment department came out in December 2019. They’re a decent quantification of the government’s climate and energy policies, projecting out to the year 2030. They tell us that the government will miss its Paris 2030 targets (a 26 to 28% reduction on 2005 levels) by a massive, eye-watering margin.
Out of curiosity, I took those projections, which see a very slight decrease, and figured out roughly how long it would take at that rate of emissions reductions to hit zero emissions. My guess: around 2300.
Okay, that’s the plan. “As soon as possible” = about 280 years. Australia’s been told it can only throw another cumulative weight of bricks of around 6,400 megatonnes onto the atmospheric pile before 2050, if the country fits into its fair share of emissions around the world. Going to by the rate of change above, Australia will emit ~75,600 megatonnes before hitting zero in 2302. Just to compare Australia’s 2300 destiny to the various speeds we saw above:
Australia is meant to be behind that green line, not miles and miles ahead of it. It is also not that hard to actually get behind that green line. If Australia simply replicated the rate of emissions reductions that occurred under the Labor government consistently for three decades, it’d comfortably hit zero emissions within the timeframe. I lived in Australia during that time: literally nothing changed. The country wasn’t economically destroyed, people’s lives continued mostly as they did before.
It’s the same for the world. Fossil fuels grew fast. If we removed them from our species at the rate we’ve added them, they’d be eliminated in 55 years. Double it, and you’d do it by 2046. We lived for hundreds of thousands of years without them: they do not define us or entrap us as we’re told they do.
In the total history of our species, the easy majority of the climate problem has occurred after the year I was born. 60% of total historical emissions have been injected into the atmosphere over 0.018% of our species’ history.
Australia’s current federal government exemplifies delay, obfuscation, distraction and denialism. They could choose to accelerate the country’s transition, but they continue to pretend like humanity is defined by the thing that brings about its own self-destruction, and that we are too pathetic to figure a quick way out of this trap. That is a dark and terrible thing.
Of course, if we do set a target for net zero by 2050, or even earlier, th pathway we take matters. But that’s a post for another time…