The climate cliff: too much carbon, too little time

Matthew Grocoff

December 17, 2012

By: Matthew Grocoff, Green Renovation Expert

In: Green Living

They tell me I'm preaching to the choir but I seldom hear the singing. We know that energy-efficient home improvements will save us money. We know that simple energy improvements to our homes will make us more cozy, healthy and comfortable. We know that it's even possible to eliminate our energy bills completely by adding renewable energy to a very efficient net zero energy home.

net zero energy house

Yet, we still choose the granite counter tops over upgraded insulation . . . Even when we know that granite counter tops has zero financial payback. Upon resale of your home you will likely lose 43 percent on the retail value of a major kitchen remodel. For solar you can recoup as much as 120 percent when renewable energy credits are taken into account.

Nevertheless, so-called "green" remodeling is perceived as a trend -- what do we call conventional remodeling, "brown" renovation?

Now here's the reality of why it is essential that we find ways to make it easier for homeowners to invest in energy and efficiency improvements. Our fossil-fuel addiction is not only expensive and unhealthy, but also a threat to our ability to maintain the climate to which our relatively young species has adapted. Humans (and most other plants and animals) cannot survive on a planet that we are not adapted to or for which we were not designed.

Simply put, if we put too much dirty fossil-fuel pollution into the atmosphere we don't have a very pretty future on Earth.

The folks over at the renowned consulting and accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) recently released a report entitled The Low Carbon Economy Index -- Too late for two degrees? In short, they warn that we put our economies at great risk by moving too slowly to reduce carbon emissions and shift to a clean energy economy.

The pledges to reduce carbon emissions are severely inadequate. PwC estimates that the world economy now needs to reduce its carbon intensity by 5.1 percent every year to 2050 to have a fair chance of limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

global decarbonization and temperature change

Let's do the math to see how we're doing. For 800,000 years the CO2 concentration in our skies was under 290 parts per million (ppm). To ensure climate stability we must get below 350 ppm (see Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? ). In 2012, the CO2 ppm peaked at 396 ppm. We're heading the wrong way. Even if you're in a Prius you'll go over the cliff unless you turn the car around.

To continuing enjoying our stay on planet Earth we must not allow temperatures to increase by more than 2°C. According to PwC, from 2010-2011 the United States reduced it's carbon emissions by only 1.9 percent (mostly due to the economic slowdown rather than active and thoughtful energy efficiency measures). Yet, to stay below 450 ppm we must achieve a 5.2 percent annual reduction every year through 2050. The PwC report soberingly notes that "the decarbonization rate required for a 2°C world has not been achieved in a single year since World War 2."

If everyone mirrored the current U.S. course of 1.9 percent annual reduction we are rapidly heading toward a climate cliff. At that rate by 2050, when my daughter Jane will be only 42 years old, we will approach a shocking 1,200 ppm and a 6°C global average temperature increase above pre-industrial levels.

As I've said many times, net zero energy is not a challenge, it's a choice. Net zero energy is not only possible to achieve, but it is also essential. There's a Chinese proverb that says "the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." There's no better time for energy efficiency upgrades to your home than now.

But, a vocal few who profit from fossil-fuel business-as-usual say that all this climate change stuff (and the tens of thousands of researchers around the world providing data to support it) may be a mass conspiracy and a hoax. So ask yourself, What if we rapidly transition to a clean energy economy, make our homes more healthy and comfortable, gain economic prosperity, get cleaner air and water for our children, create more livable cities, and achieve energy independence?

As cartoonist Joel Pett put it, "What if [climate change] is all a big hoax . . . and we create a better world for nothing?" I guess we could live with that.

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