4 – Path to zero – climate change most complex puzzle ever created

By A Pack of Cats

Our future is at stake, quickly slipping through our fingers. Those in power have been trying to lull everyone to sleep with fairytales and false claims about how greenhouse emissions are going to start declining really soon — but they keep rising. They keep telling us not to talk about climate data because “it might depress people.” …or it might stir us to action!

  We are on pace to hit 5 degrees of planetary warming by 2100 — which would cause massive species extinction, human displacement and famine if not worse. Over the last 12 months, Earth saw the greatest output of CO2 emissions ever. We already locked in 1°C of warming back in 2012. We have got to create a zero emissions society fast if we want to avoid more warming, but this is going to require massive social pressure on those who profit from the status quo to rapidly replace technologies humans have used for the last century.

  Fossil-fuel-funded media outlets often present fake solutions that tell people to focus on individual choices rather than working together to end fossil fuel use and build alternatives. Perhaps the most common “divide and conquer” fake solution is the “carbon footprint” — designed by BP Oil. We need to stop just focusing on individual choices and focus on systemic changes.

  These two changes are necessary to get to a zero emissions society:

1)  Stop burning fossil fuels (this accounts for roughly 89% of global CO2 emissions)

2)  Stop deforestation (this accounts for 10% of all greenhouse emissions)

The pathway to fixing these two things is complex but we can pinpoint social-power structures that are causing emissions to accelerate. Some are overt — like the fossil fuel extraction apparatus — while others are more subtle — like the way fossil fuel use has been woven into the way we structure our lives, or the way governments have built deforestation and fossil fuel extraction into the funding of social programs. 

We can’t just address one thing. This is the most complicated puzzle ever created. Every aspect needs to be addressed at once, and no single person or single sector has all the skills to address it alone. We all need to work in concert, all doing very different types of tasks. 

If everyone works together, it is possible to get to a zero emissions society within five years. Here is a list of things that — if all done fast enough at the same time — would get us closer to a zero emissions society. The list below draws upon conversations with climate scientists, social scientists, and engineers who have taken time to break things down to members of the Slingshot collective.

Individually, we do not control these things which is why collective action is essential. Different folks need to work on different stuff, and to respect the work of those with different fields of expertise. This is a cooperative game.

Getting to Zero Emissions

1) Rapidly build solar panels and windmills. Electricity generation accounts for 1/3 of CO2 emissions. If we were to divert 25% of steel production into building windmills over the next five years, we could meet the entire 5 TerraWatt Global Energy Budget with windmills alone. Solar panels are also a great option. Solar panels with an efficiency of 20% placed over just 0.1% of the Earth’s surface would completely meet The Energy Budget. (See: tinyurl.com/UWClimateBook)

2) It’s time for an Energy Storage Revolution. A common excuse to continue to use fossil fuels to generate electricity is that they can provide electricity when the wind is not blowing or at night. Saying goodbye to fossil fuels means rapidly expanding secondary storage methods. There are two basic kinds of energy storage:

Bulk methods. Ways to store lots of energy in bulk include gravity batteries, flywheel storage, and pumped hydro. Lots of great bulk storage methods already exist and just need to be rolled out quickly.

Micro methods. Smaller, more precise forms of energy storage are also needed. There’s definitely a nuanced conversation to be had here, especially in terms of the way smaller batteries often use rare minerals with harmful mining practices. Presently, there are efforts underway to develop Rare-Mineral-Free batteries. These efforts absolutely need more attention and public support. (See: tinyurl.com/OSUbatteries)

3) Freeze new investments in fossil fuel extraction and combustion. Global energy investment was $2.2 trillion in 2022. About $1.1 was invested in fossil fuels — infrastructure that is designed to operate for decades. Net income for oil and gas producers was $4 trillion.  While renewable investments are rising rapidly, why is any money still being invested in suicide energy?

4) End Fossil Fuel Subsidies. Fossil fuel subsidies lock fossil fuel consumption in place. In 2020, $5.9 trillion was provided by the IMF and national governments to subsidize fossil fuels. These funds should be directed towards carbon-free energy alternatives instead.

5) Reduce the distance goods and food need to travel to get to us. Rapidly localizing production of food & goods would make a big difference in reducing the emissions produced from shipping. This includes developing robust local networks of urban farms and local means of producing goods. What if fabrication labs were like public libraries? Why not 3-D print & fabricate most stuff locally? What if there was a farm on every corner?

6) Make the built environment more habitat-dense & engaging. Biophilic design brings more habitat into urban spaces. Making cities greener and more inviting increases the likelihood that people will want to walk, ride bikes, or use public transit. 

7) Build reliable public transit and EV infrastructure. Burning fossil fuels for transportation accounts for about 1/3 of CO2 emissions, so decarbonizing transport is essential. Public transit helps. Making it easier to walk and bike and drive less also helps. But some folks will still need to drive and for that Electric Vehicles (EVs) are a form of harm reduction: it’s a less harmful replacement for a deadly behavior.

7) Stop subsidizing air travel.  Air travel is a heavy emitter and there is no good technology to replace it at this time. Less than 10% of the population flies in a given year, yet governments heavily subsidize air travel. Let’s use the funds for rail and other options. 

8) End Investor Ownership of Energy Companies. Presently, most utility companies are owned by Wall Street investors who also have holdings in fossil fuels. This means they have a “conflict-of-interest” incentive to promote accelerated burning of fossil fuels. This is partly why most of our grids haven’t switched to renewables. In 2023, around 60% of the U.S. grid is still powered by fossil fuels. All energy companies need to be immediately transitioned to co-ops or public utilities. (See: tinyurl.com/fossilfuelgrid)

9) Switch to Regenerative Agriculture (RA). Unsustainable agricultural practices drive 90% of deforestation. Switching to RA would mean building resilient ways of meeting food supply needs while protecting the ecology. More info here: tinyurl.com/RAfood101. 

10) Improve Gender Equity. Data continue to show that gender-based oppression is linked to ecological harm. Even when controlling for other factors, one study found that countries with better gender equity experienced a 11.51% decrease in emissions over a roughly four-decade period. Having better gender equity throughout society improves decision-making, and has been proven to accelerate de-carbonization efforts. For more on this: tinyurl.com/GenderClimateJustice

11) Dismantle structural racism. There are countless examples of how structural racism contributes to climate change. Racist forms of gentrification increases the distances people have to drive to get to work. Sociologist Julius McGee coined the term “energy racism” to describe how racialized wealth gaps prevent marginalized groups from owning energy efficient appliances, locking them into poverty while locking in higher emissions. Info: pdx.academia.edu/JuliusMcGee

12) Improve Indigenous Sovereignty. Analysis of satellite data shows that when Indigenous people have better control over ancestral land, ecosystems are more likely to be preserved, combating climate change by protecting carbon sinks and preventing deforestation. tinyurl.com/ICCAreport2021

13) Build the Cooperative Economy. Cooperatives are a form of business or housing project owned by those who use it, rather than outside investors. Since the 1800s, the co-op movement has slowly been growing. Building resilient co-op networks have been found to be better for the environment, since they factor out Wall Street algorithms and keep decision-making in the hands of real people who live on earth, rather than letting dumb math run the show. See 2021 International Co-op Alliance report: tinyurl.com/Coops4Climate

14) Diversify eco-aesthetics and rhetoric. Right now, ecology-positive aesthetics are pretty limited, and the rhetoric of getting to zero emissions tends to only appeal to some groups. There is a need for artists, designers, and media-makers to develop a full range of visions, eco-aesthetics and ways of talking about a more ecologically grounded society that appeals to all types of folks. 

15) Switch to renewable construction and fabrication supplies. Construction & fabrication materials can be sourced locally in a variety of ways, including mushroom bricks, hemp, bamboo, and more! Switching to renewable fabrication and construction supplies would make a big difference. (In 2021, 7% of global emissions came from the cement industry.)

If we take care of everything on this list, it would get us past a 90% reduction in emissions, while laying the groundwork for the social process that would get us to zero.