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    Human Society Must Reduce Carbon Emissions to "Near Zero" by 2060 or Face Catastrophic Climate Change

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor


    If we are to prevent global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, then humankind must do much more to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions than previously believed. Which is something of a cosmic bummer, since humankind wasn’t doing anything remotely close to seriously reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the first place.

    This is all the result of a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, which acts as something of a corrective to a groundbreaking 2005 study that laid out a roadmap showing how we could, using existing technology, enact a series of “wedges” that would reduce global emissions 80% by 2050.

    Those wedges—there were 15 of them—included drastically reducing consumption through efficiency, doubling the number of nuclear power plants in existence, reversing tropical deforestation, deploying solar and wind power en masse, and mothballing coal plants at a rapid rate. It was the kind of crazy-optimistic-but-sort-of-feasible plan that you could just barely envision human beings carrying out, seeing as how we’ve done other surprising and impressive stuff like transform entire industrial economies to build machines at rates never believed possible to support various war efforts and such in the past.

    But now, this new paper argues, we’re going to need to go even further than that. A simple radical, breakneck transition away from a fossil fueled world to clean energy economy won’t cut it, Martin Hoffert, emeritus professor of physics at NYU argues in the new paper. Nope, we need a technological intervention of the barely-imaginable variety to save us now, his team has found. Emissions have got to drop to zero, and the very least we could accomplish that with is with 19 so-called wedges. But we may need as many as 31.

    From the paper:

    solving the climate problem requires that emissions peak and decline in the next few decades, and ultimately fall to near zero. Phasing out emissions over 50 years could be achieved by deploying on the order of 19 'wedges', each of which ramps up linearly over a period of 50 years to ultimately avoid 1 GtC y −1 of CO2emissions.

    Let’s put that another way.

    “If you look at it objectively, you’re looking into the abyss,” Hoffert told MIT, as, I can only imagine, he stared through a reflection of his own grim visage from a window in his apartment, watching the wind pull the last withered leaf from a barren tree.

    See, he says that only incredible technological breakthroughs can save us from out-of-control and self-perpetuating global warming. Yes, we need all the other stuff—concerted, international cooperation and carbon-reducing policies, major investment in the clean energy tech we’ve got, and major efficiency upgrades—and as-of-yet undeveloped new technologies, like giant solar panels that float in space and beam down power through microwaves.

    Which, good luck. As the other big climate report out this week—a breakdown of why Congress failed to pass cap-and-trade two years ago—demonstrates, we Americans are incapable of adopting even extremely moderate measures to address global warming. We can’t, in other words, agree to get just one or two of those wedges on the table. How are we going to get to 19?