Measuring the carbon footprint in land area does not imply that carbon sequestration is is the sole solution to the carbon dilemma. It just shows how much biocapacity is needed to take care of our untreated carbon waste and avoid a carbon build-up in the atmosphere. Measuring it in this way enables us to address the climate change challenge in a holistic way that does not simply shift the burden from one natural system to another. In fact, the climate problem emerges because the planet does not have enough biocapacity to neutralize all the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel andprovide for all other demands.
This framework also shows climate change in a greater context—one which unites all of the ecological threats we face today. Climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity, and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: Humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide. By focusing on the single issue, we can address all of its symptoms, rather than solving one problem at the cost of another. Also, it makes the self-interest to act far more obvious.
The climate pact approved in Paris in December 2015 represented a huge historic step in re-imagining a fossil-free future for our planet. It is nothing short of amazing that nearly 200 countries around the world—including oil-exporting nations—agreed to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius and, to the surprise of many, went even further by agreeing to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
These bold moves suggest an end to fossil fuel use well before 2050. That is within 31 years— within many of our lifetimes. The math is simple: we know from IPCC’s 2014 report that a concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of 450 ppm CO2equivalent gives us a 66% chance to comply with the Paris Agreement’s 2-degree Celsius (2°C) goal. In contrast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States Department of Commerce (or NOAA) reports that in 2022 we were already at 523 ppm CO2equivalent. This confirms the need to rapidly end emitting carbon from fossil fuel, while also scaling up sequestration.
In contrast, the pledges submitted by each nation are projected to result in a temperature rise of between 3 and 7 degrees Celsius, exceeding the 2-degree limit or “global handrail” acknowledged by the agreement. The final agreement requires countries to return every five years with new emission reduction targets. Whether this essential requirement will be sufficient to catalyze more action remains to be seen.
The agreement itself implies that committing to the 2-degree limit will involve far more than just a transition to clean energy; managing land to support many competing needs also will be part of the solution. If we truly move out of fossil fuel fast and furiously, demand for substitutes—for instance forests as a fuel source—could place tremendous new pressures on our planet if not managed well. At the same time, the agreement references reducing emissions through “sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.” The agreement also says it “aims to strengthen the global response to climate change…in a manner that does not threaten food production.”
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