A few years back Joe Bennett wrote a book Where Underpants Come From where he shared quirky observations and experiences of his travels to places involved in the manufacture of his underwear. I’ve lost the book, so can’t give a precise run-down of the countries he visited. But whether we’re accurately talking about Malaysia for rubber, Egypt for cotton, and China for fabrication, the point is that every node of production involves a hefty wad of carbon – be that in harvesting materials, processing materials or shipping them.
So as I sit here today, I’m well aware that these underpants I’m wearing contain carbon over and above whatever amount is present in 80kg of middle age spread. And apart from knowing that’s probably a bad image I’ve conjured up for you, I’m also aware that “going commando” won’t save the world – that the root cause of warming doesn’t lie at the level of individuals as consumers, but at a systems or structural level.
But the ideology that sits beneath and behind the structures and systems that bundle us up as complicit actors in an unfolding ecocide – who or what’s halting it in its tracks?
There is somewhere approaching one trillion tonnes of excess carbon dioxide in the biosphere today. That one trillion tonnes translates to an atmospheric concentration of CO2 that’s somewhere around 410 parts per million.
I want to draw attention to the fact we’re talking about excess – ie, carbon that was previously sequestered in the form of coal, gas and oil, but that we’ve been merrily burning back into the biosphere as carbon dioxide by-product. That excess has been accumulating since at least the mid 19th century. That is, carbon dioxide ejected into the air in 1850 is still in the atmosphere today, or mixed into some other part the carbon cycle and merely circulating around the land, sea and air. Very little of all the carbon we’ve reintroduced to the biosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has actually been sequestered (ie – taken out of circulation). That takes thousands of years.
So I get frustrated when I hear demands for net zero carbon emissions by whatever date, because net zero does precisely nothing to reduce the trillion tonnes of excess carbon dioxide we’ve flung at the world. At very best – that is, assuming no natural feed backs and no scamming in the calculation of so-called carbon sinks – net zero will merely maintain the world’s excess carbon at present levels.
And this is some of what nigh on one trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide (or 410ppm) means for the world.
Last time there was as much carbon dioxide as today, there was no West Antarctic Ice Sheet and there was no ice in Greenland either. Between the collapse of those two bodies of ice, we’re looking at many metres of sea level rise. And the only question is –
“How fast will they collapse?”.
Well, a couple of years back the IPCC was suggesting we prepare for about one metre of sea level rise by 2100. It’s important to know that in making that prediction the IPCC more or less discounted any contribution to sea level rise from either West Antarctica or Greenland (and East Antarctica).
Recent reports that parts of Antarctica (ice shelves) are melting up to ten times faster than previously thought are adding to suggestions from within the scientific community are that we might see one metre of sea level rise well before 2100. And if you think that’s a big deal merely because of the unimaginable upheavals involved in relocating much of human civilisation away from coastal locations, then I’m afraid you’re not seeing anything like the full picture.
According to Professor Peter Ward of the University of Washington, (from 32min and 25sec in the video link) we grow about 25% of our crops on the fertile soils of river deltas. With something not much more than one metre of sea level rise, those deltas disappear under water or, because salt migrates through soil horizontally, they become salinated and unusable.
And beyond that, things get pretty bad.
Ever wondered why, when we’re told about the huge drop in insect numbers, that those numbers are reported to be dropping whether or not insecticides are in the mix, or if habitat is intact? Lewis Ziska (Plant Physiologist working at the US Department of Agriculture) conducted a study around the effects of elevated CO2 levels on the composition of plants that was published in 2016.
He discovered that nutritional value decreased in line with increasing CO2 concentrations. For that study he examined samples of goldenrod going back as far as 1842 and he concluded plants were no longer producing the nutritional density required by healthy insect populations. (His study involved bee populations). That finding was in line with a previous experiment where the growth rate of phytoplankton was accelerated with the notion being that zoo plankton would thrive in the presence of a more abundant food source. The notion was misplaced. In the event, zoo plankton struggled and died off because, by growing it faster, a nutritional deficit was produced in the phytoplankton.
Further to the above, Fulai Liu from the University of Copenhagen has headed up field trials for wheat where “they grew wheat over four generations under high CO2 using seeds from the previous generation for the next one. They found that nitrogen (this means protein too), K and Ca declined more in the 4th gen relative to the 1st gen.”
Right now, and all around the world, we’re adding to the world’s surplus atmospheric CO2, so the nutritional value of plants hasn’t bottomed out yet. And even if we eradicated all CO2 from human activity today, Fulai Liu’s field trials suggest the nutritional value of our food would continue to decrease. So at what point would the health of herbivores and humans become impacted? I don’t know. But scientists are already talking about the possibility of increased rates of malnutrition, associated ill health and death for human populations that source the bulk of protein and trace elements directly from plants.
So where are we at in the overall scheme of things, and what do we have to do? Is there anything we can do? I don’t know.
But net zero is a nonsense, and we have to stop pretending it does much of anything at all – that would be step one. Being realistic. So how do we achieve gross negative emissions? I’m not sure that we can. But eradicating all emissions from fossil fuel and bio-fuel and cement is do-able and necessary. So we should do that.
I’ll largely leave it up to you to figure out the possible impacts that no petrol, diesel, gas, aviation fuel or coal would have on agriculture and land use in general.
Certainly, in a New Zealand context, we’d be looking at the end of export dairy – no thousands upon thousands of cows squeezed onto pasture that requires huge fossil inputs, all just to produce dairy, that in turn requires additional fossil inputs in terms of processing and transportation. And although rewilding farm land wouldn’t sequester CO2, it would soak up a bit more CO2 into one stage of the carbon cycle, and so rewilding of any abandoned agricultural land would appear to be a sensible move.
But beyond that, I’m lost.
As already mentioned, natural processes of sequestration take thousands of years, and although there is plenty of talk around carbon capture and storage, the reality is far more complicated and distant than some talk would have us believe. Even in the unlikely event we discover and develop a do-able carbon capture and storage process, we’d need to be taking somewhere in the region of 10 billion tonnes out from the atmosphere every year and for year after year for … well, about 100 years.
And to put that in perspective, if we add up everything that we produce in the world today over the course of one year – all the steel and cement and the food crops and what not…well, try it for yourself. Simply google search through various sites devoted to global manufacturing outputs. You’ll struggle to produce a cumulative total of ten billion tonnes.
It might seem then, that we’ve reached a point where we have a simple choice of either going out swinging, or of going out swinging. We’ll each decide which interpretation of swinging is right for us.
Having been along to the last two school climate strikes here in Dunedin, I have to say, I’d like it if the adults in the room would stop lying to these kids. We don’t have twelve years or ten years before catastrophe or irreversible climate change hits us. (No scientific body said that we did). Nothing’s bringing insects back. Nothing’s saving the ice sheets.
If today’s children even have a future, it’s not one that will in any way, shape or form resemble the lives of their parents or grandparents. We’ve seen to that.
But could we have the decency to be honest about that, and stop hobbling their ability to cope with what lies ahead by raising them and educating them as though the challenges ahead, as well as the tools they’ll need to develop, will be similar to those of previous generations?
Further to that, if we’re not prepared to pull out all the stops in an effort to at least halt the progression of global warming, then are we prepared to acknowledge that the people we see on the street today may well belong to the last generations of humanity?
Dismiss or answer those questions to your own satisfaction as you will.
Here’s an aside. Since the beginning of the school climate strikes, a few governments have declared a “climate emergency”. As we all know, in the case of an emergency, everything else becomes peripheral and drops out of focus “because emergency”, right? Meaning that, unless I missed something, those declarations amount to yet more worthless rhetoric being stacked atop that heap of near thirty years of worthless rhetoric on global warming.
Not that it matters…
Greta Thunberg is among those who have called for a global general strike to commence on the 20th of September this year. That call comes on top of another call by earth-strike for a global general strike to kick off on the 27th of September (the anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson‘s “Silent Spring”).
So we have a choice for when we might want to get our fingers out of our ears and start swinging.
I’ll end with Greta Thurnberg from the piece above.
We have learned that if we don’t start acting for our future, nobody else will make the first move. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
For that to be true, I guess it simply requires that we, underpants and all, acknowledge that we’re better than we’ve been. So spread the word.