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The Perils of Ignoring Bad News: The Science-Policy Divide

Written by Jacob Salcone, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Student in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources

In Deep Survival, through a series of gripping accounts of those who succeed or fail in life-or-death situations, author Laurence Gonzales concludes that the key to survival lies in admitting the possibility of not surviving.  Survivors acknowledge the reality of the perils they face. They do not waste time thinking about the situation they expected or wished they were in. Survivors address the reality of the situation at hand, no matter how dire.  In the 11th hour, denial is the kiss of death.

The majority of climate models used by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that the Paris Accord commitments will not keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, the somewhat arbitrary threshold for catastrophic climate change effects. This is true even if the U.S. were to keep its pre-Trump commitments. World leaders continue to congratulate each other on their post-2020 “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), but climate scientists tell us these commitments are not enough. In order to stay below the 2°C goal, we must use carbon markets to incentivize more radical changes to energy production, industry, agriculture, and transportation AND remove hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 already in the atmosphere. 

But the climate change dialogue remains focused mainly upon voluntary marginal reductions to emissions, and debate around who ought to volunteer to bear the burden.  Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the product of business-as-usual economic activity. Generating energy, growing things, moving things, making things – the easiest (i.e. cheapest) ways of doing things tend to emit greenhouse gases.  This pollution comes at a cost to the global public, particularly future generations. Regulating emissions, through voluntary agreements and accords, is the most popular step towards avoiding the most catastrophic changes to the ecosystems and ecosystem services upon which our societies and economies are built. But these voluntary emissions reduction goals are just one leg of a three-legged stool.  If we keep all the 2020 voluntary agreements, the global climate is likely to warm 2.6 – 3.1° C by 2100, pushing our planet into the territory of ecological tipping-points and snowballing deleterious impacts upon the productivity of our oceans and agricultural systems.

Status-quo GHG emitting activities are cheap because dumping carbon in the atmosphere is free.  Full stop.  The atmosphere is currently un-regulated, like a giant landfill where you can dump as much GHG as you want.  Start charging for entrance to that dump, and behavior will change.  People respond quickly to prices.  Businesses respond even faster.  A price, any price, will decrease emissions and speed investment in renewals. The higher the price, the stronger the effect. Tradeable carbon credits reward creative and efficient firms and farmers, and incentivize conservation projects that can sell credits in exchange for proof of carbon storage. Price carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide and achieving the voluntary commitments of the Paris Accord becomes easy. 

The biggest obstacle to GHG prices and markets is that pesky old tenet, national sovereignty. Each country worries that if they agree to pay for their carbon disposal, but other countries do not, the “good” countries will suffer a massive competitive disadvantage.  Big players - China, the US and the EU - will have to take that risk, and bully the smaller players to get on board.  If most everyone joins, the playing field will be level and market prices will not distort capitalist competition. Letting the poorest countries abstain, for a while, will diminish the burden upon the poor and yes, give these chronically disadvantaged countries a competitive advantage in some GHG intensive agriculture and industry.  That’s a good thing.

Putting a price on carbon would give the emissions reductions a strong push, but we still have a two-legged stool.  The writing on the wall from the team of scientists who analyzed the expected impact of the Paris Accord is that reduced emissions alone will not keep warming below 2°C. The “emissions gap”, the gap between GHG levels that are likely with the existing commitments and what is necessary to keep global temperatures from passing the foreboding 2°C goal, will need to be filled by sequestration. We need to reduce emissions AND simultaneously remove billions of tons of GHGs from the atmosphere. Fortunately, this is possible, at least theoretically. Reforestation, improved agricultural practices, and sophisticated carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies can reverse the GHG emissions imbalance that began with the industrial revolution.

Electricity generation and agriculture together make up nearly half of all GHG emissions. In addition to potential emissions reductions from these sectors, both sectors offer opportunities for significant carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is the process of pulling CO2 out of the air, converting it into carbon and oxygen, and storing the carbon in a stable “sink”, usually underground.

Climate smart agriculture practices can flip agriculture from a net emitter of GHGs to a net absorber of carbon. The Natural Resource and Ecology Laboratory (NREL) at Colorado State is a leader in monitoring agricultural GHG emissions and finding ways to flip ag from an emitter to an absorber.

For example, alternating the wetting and drying of rice paddies can reduce their methane emissions by 30 – 70%. Adding seaweed to livestock feed can drastically reduce cattle methane emissions, which account for almost 40% of agricultural GHG emissions.  Agricultural soils, depleted of natural carbon stores in many intensively farmed areas, offer the potential to store carbon on a massive scale by using carbon-rich amendments such as biochar combined with less plowing, and in doing so improve the health and productivity of the soil. Deforestation, often for agriculture expansion, causes about 10% of global CO2 emissions; reforestation could flip that statistic and contribute substantially to global carbon sequestration instead of emissions.

The energy sector can also contribute to carbon capture and storage using negative-emissions technologies. Futuristic power plants could burn biofuels, which pull carbon out of the air as they grow. Technology already exists to capture CO2 from smokestacks and inject it deep in the earth, effectively reversing the process of fossil fuel energy generation. These technologies are currently prohibitively expensive, but a carbon price will help bring the future closer, faster. Instead of paying to dump carbon, these plants could sell their positive credits to the dirty fossil fuel plants.

Signatories to the Paris Accord are eager to pat themselves on the back, despite warnings that they have not done enough. Like agriculture and energy, it seems politicians offer both the cure and the disease. At the recent Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society in Oaxaca Mexico, resource economist Erik Gomez-Baggenthun called on colleagues to stop arguing over how and why to calculate the economic value of ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, and look instead at why economic valuation of nature’s benefits has not made substantive changes to the way we use resources. Traditional measures of economic growth, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Income (GNI), remain the central barometers of “successful” policies, despite years of acknowledgement that these measures completely neglect sustainability and long-term human well-being.  Instead, policies and politicians need held to natural capital and ecosystem service metrics. Economic valuation of ecosystem services is not “putting a price on nature”, it is revealing the true value of nature, value that has been taken for granted. Nature is the economy, stupid.

The amount of GHG already in the atmosphere has us imperiled. “Business-as-usual” belies our perilous state. The reality is that our ship has capsized, and we are adrift in Great White infested waters. Two scientists begin to argue about how soon a shark might strike or whether they will sooner drown from fatigue. A politician backstrokes coolly towards the center of the bobbing masses, saying there is insufficient evidence for dramatic actions that could threaten economic growth. A survivor, pray there be one amongst us, wastes no hot air, and moves to quickly inflate a raft.

Figure 1: Nature 2016

Figure 2: How much is a mangrove worth$95,000 per hectare

Figure 3: USA EPAIPCC 2014

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