Green New Deal: Net Zero?

The Green New Deal is ambitious. Net-zero emissions by 2030 is an enormous goal for a country that emits over 6.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide (equivalents) each year. Although this is down from our peak of over 7.4 Gt CO2 in 2007, this is only part of the 37 Gt CO2 emitted worldwide annually.

Note that we don’t have to get to zero emissions. This is impossible as carbon exists in nature as part of a cycle: atmospheric carbon is absorbed by plants, turned into biomass and either buried or decomposed to release the carbon back into the atmosphere. Without counting volcanic emissions, the world without humans is largely net-zero in carbon emissions, that is, the carbon taken out of the atmosphere is largely put back in an equal measure (except for the “missing carbon,” of course). What this resolution calls for is “net-zero” emissions, meaning for every ton of CO2 released in the transportation network (28 percent), electricity generation (28 percent), industry (22 percent), commercial and residences (11 percent), and agriculture (9 percent), we have to find something that absorbs that much carbon from the atmosphere. Obviously the easiest way to reach net zero is reduce our emissions, as carbon-capture is not scalable in this time frame. Currently, our carbon sinks include reforestation and conservation of grasslands and forested areas, which amounts to 0.7 Gt CO2 in 2017, that is, we’re ten times over our net-zero budget.

The biggest driver of CO2 emissions is the combustion of fossil fuels, accounting for 76 percent of total emissions in the US each year. Of course, our society depends on fossil fuels. We discussed energy at length in a series of blog posts last year. We discussed how just switching to electricity can’t solve all emissions problems. We went through the various source of energy (nuclear reactions, combustion and consumption of biomass, and harnessing temperature differentials) as well as proposed solutions. First, we argue that we must recognize that the collection and use of finite fossil and nuclear fuels is deleterious for the world, people, animals, and ecosystems and must be discontinued — period. Second, we should mimic natural systems for our energy needs: solar for heating and distributed energy use. And we must live within our energy budget, that is, no more than the sun provides to us each year. Finally, the simpler the solution, the better.

The Green New Deal is a resolution, not a law. It points the boat towards a goal but doesn’t give exact details of how to get there. Net-zero emissions is a great goal, but like everything, the devil is in the details. The IPCC special report hopes that we’ll get to net zero by 2050 by using carbon-capture technology (section C.3), something that is not yet scalable (we covered this last October on the blog). One of the biggest questions left unanswered by the GND (among many; read Elisabeth Robson’s recent article [also on Medium] for a summary and well-reasoned critique), is how can we possibly build and retrofit all this infrastructure with current fossil-fuel dependent equipment and practices and still approach net-zero?

Without significant societal changes, we will not see net-zero emissions. A document circulated with this resolution calls on society for just that, hearkening back to the Second World War and New Deal. Media accounts claim that this outlaws air travel, when in fact it calls for “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary,” as well as other, more specific projects, which we’ll cover in our next post.

This is part of a series on the proposed Green New Deal. Click here for an archive of all related posts.

Disclaimer: The Low Technology Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research and educational organization and as such is banned from directly endorsing any legislation or politician. We can, however, “consider public policy issues in an educational manner,” which is the goal of this series. Relevant IRS information here.

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