Is Zero Carbons Possible?

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The world’s leading climate scientists have linked climate change to the release of carbon dioxide, or CO2, and other so-called greenhouse gases, including ozone, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor. These gases are named for the greenhouse effect, which refers to how they help support life on earth by trapping the warmth from the sun within the earth’s atmosphere.

The levels of greenhouse gases have increased dramatically since the industrial age due to human activity. Like a heavy blanket, greenhouse gases are trapping heat and destabilizing climate throughout the world. The out-of-control greenhouse effect has led to an increase in temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events like storms, droughts and heat waves. Besides threatening one million plant and animal species and one-sixth of all fish and marine life with extinction, global warming poses a major threat to the world economy.

The environmental goal of zero carbons refers to balancing total carbon dioxide emissions with carbon dioxide removal. Due to climate change, many corporations and government bodies have expressed a desire to get to zero carbons. Some have even set dates for their carbon goals. It should be noted that the term “zero carbon” has different meanings for different organizations and nations. Those that want to get to zero carbon by eliminating carbon dioxide emissions want to be “carbon free,” while those that want to remove as much CO2 as they release are aiming to be “carbon neutral.”

For countries, carbon neutrality is often reached through the use of carbon offsets, which are reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in one area to make up for emissions in another area. A study by Stanford University researchers found that the offset process can be effective in reducing overall emissions.

The sheer enormity of climate change makes it a hard issue to contemplate. Even though a global solution could take decades to implement, many world leaders have been slow to recognize the problem or commit to significant change. Even so, climate experts continue to look to government leaders to implement policies that enforce reductions in energy consumption and encourage the replacement of fossil fuels with energy from renewable sources such as sun and wind.

In 2016, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change sponsored the landmark Paris Agreement, which was subsequently signed by 188 state parties, including the United States. Each signer committed to taking specific steps to mitigate global warming so that the global average temperature remains “well below” 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

Despite the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. In addition to the U.S., six countries with major economies have failed to keep up with their commitment, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, South Africa and the Republic of South Korea. In 2017, President Trump officially withdrew the United States from the agreement. At the same time, the Trump administration is rolling back existing laws that cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite disappointing results from the Paris Agreement, there are positive signs of change. There has been a decline the use of coal for fuel throughout the United States and Europe, with U.S. coal consumption down by half since 2005. Coal replacements include natural gas, solar and wind power. Still, about 40 percent of CO2 emissions come from coal used in other parts of the world, most notably China, while 34 percent come from oil and 20 percent from natural gas.

It’s hard to see how individuals can help fight climate change, especially when countries are failing to stay on track toward zero carbons. It seems like a job for politicians and government officials. Individuals can let elected officials know that climate action is needed and wanted. We can also be more aware of our energy consumption, especially our use of fossil fuels. Small efforts such as changing to energy-efficient light bulbs and programmable thermostats, buying Energy Star appliances and doing laundry with cold or warm water instead of hot can make a big difference when a lot of people make the commitment.

One country in the world has managed to meet and surpass the goal of zero carbons. Bhutan, a small Buddhist nation of about 800,000 people nestled in the Himalayas, is the first country to achieve carbon negativity. This is due in large part to Bhutan’s abandonment many years ago of Gross National Product as a measure of progress. Instead, the country places more value on its measure of Gross National Happiness. Life in Bhutan is simpler than in many parts of the world, with an emphasis on religious celebrations and appreciation of the surrounding countryside. More countries may be looking toward Bhutan in future years for ideas on reducing their carbon footprint. ■

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