Why Rapid Decarbonization Is the Only Choice We Have

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Statkraft

"Oh, that's nice. But it's nowhere near enough."

Writing for TreeHugger, this is a comment I get often. Whether it's attacking a plug-in hybrid minivan for not being a bicycle, or attacking Tesla's fancy solar tiles for being installed in suburbia, it's a sentiment that both drives me crazy and has me nodding in agreement.

The fact is that we have to start somewhere. But we also have to move rapidly towards a truly low carbon economy.

Whether it's scientists announcing that the Great Barrier Reef is officially "terminal" or the seemingly never-ending streak of headlines announcing another "hottest year on record", the planetary crisis we are facing is going to be monumentally expensive and downright dangerous regardless of what we do from here on in.

So we have to start any conversation about sustainability from the understanding that rapid decarbonization and an eventual goal of zero (or preferably negative) emissions are non-negotiable. And simple math suggests that the longer we wait, the steeper the emissions cuts we'll have to make will become.

Yet we also have to accept that there's no way to get to zero emissions overnight. And many of us are saddled with less than optimal circumstances within which to make the transition. If you're living in a heavily car-dependent region, for example, your immediate mobility choices may be limited to buying a greener car and/or abandoning your community. Similarly, installing Tesla's solar tiles on the roof of a suburban home is a squillion times better than shrugging your shoulders and doing nothing, because you can't do everything.

So how do we navigate the transition to zero without becoming overwhelmed or discouraged? A team of researchers recently proposed an interesting road map in a paper published in the journal Science—humans should aim to halve global emissions every decade. It's an attractively simple, yet ambitious, way to define the challenge ahead of us. And—combined with carbon capture and land use changes—the researchers claim that it could get us to net-zero emissions by mid-century. It also shifts the focus from the end goal to the speed at which we get there. An important distinction, given that emissions cuts now are worth significantly more than those achieved in 2045.

But how does this translate into the decisions we make about our individual lifestyle choices? I'm not sure there are many of us who have a firm and concrete grasp on our specific carbon footprint—nor are we likely to audit our own lives to ensure we halve our own emissions every single decade. But we can apply some important filters to where we invest our energies. When considering a lifestyle change or consumer purchase, for example, I often ask myself the following questions:

1) Does it significantly reduce my personal impact on the environment?
2) Is it a stepping stone toward bigger shifts?
3) Can I use it to leverage further change elsewhere?
4) Are there more effective ways to spend my time/money/energy?
5) How does it fit into the broader picture of societal shift toward decarbonization?

Buying a used Nissan Leaf, for example, took out a major chunk of my family's fossil fuel use. But it's only in combination with lending that car out to friends, sending my kid to a neighborhood school, working from home, walking to the store, offsetting my family's electricity use and becoming civically engaged in voting and advocating for sustainability that it starts to feel like significant change.

Once you start thinking in these broader terms, it becomes easier to prioritize your time and your efforts. And given the herculean task ahead of us, we're all going to have to get better at that.