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Landmark We Could Have Done Without

by: Paul Kando

A few days ago the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history, up 43 percent from less than 280 ppm before the 1700s industrial revolution. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography estimates that the last time the concentration was 400 ppm occurred 3 to 5 million years ago, during the Pliocene Epoch, when temperatures were 5-7ºF warmer than today and sea levels were as much as 100 feet higher. According to measurements of CO2 trapped in air bubbles in Antarctica ice cores, 400 ppm is the highest concentration in at least 800,000 years. And CO2 concentrations have been monitored at Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory since 1958, when they were only 316 ppm.

CO2 History
photo credit: Climate Central

The evidence is conclusive that the culprit is the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. Global CO2 emissions reached a record high of 35.6 billion tons in 2012, up 2.6 percent in just one year. CO2 is a heat trapping greenhouse gas. Its rising concentration, in tandem with global temperatures is cause for concern about human interference with climate and biosphere, and about how high sea levels may be headed. Unless we immediately turn away from fossil fuels - improbable as long as the industrial revolution's outdated economic order holds sway - CO2 levels will not stop at 400 ppm. A hopeless situation? No, but it challenges our imagination.

Since no economy is possible without energy, a new 21st century energy-mix is likely to be the key. Our dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power serves the economic interests of a small minority that controls their supply. It syphons our energy dollars out of the local economy and perpetuates an economic model no longer viable. Yet in just eight minutes more solar energy arrives on Earth than the total worldwide annual consumption of fossil and nuclear energy combined. With improved energy efficiency, humankind has plenty of solar energy (and its renewable derivatives) to meet its energy needs.

Our use of fossil and nuclear-based "conventional" energy ultimately runs up against two unavoidable barriers - depletion of the supply, preceded by rising prices that make the remaining reserves unaffordable; and the ecological limit imposed by climate change. Therefore extracting more fossil fuels cannot be the answer, even if the distributed availability of solar energy threatens the energy industry's business model. That industry's interest is to postpone any transition to renewable energy as long as possible. Yet governments worldwide rely on the energy industry to manage the transition. The monopoly power of conventional energy is thus pitted against the public interest. The distributed energy is the energy of the people. Renewable energy offers tremendous advantages for democracy, while fossil fuel dependency makes beggars out of even the most powerful industrialized nations. One-third of the U.S. military budget, for example, is spent on securing oil supplies, and often supporting unpopular, autocratic regimes. This engenders hatred - and terrorism - against the United States. As a policy this is irrational, irresponsible and very expensive.

Well financed corporate propaganda tends to reinforce a sense of powerlessness to create change and dependency on non-renewable energy. Popular experience of new alternatives is the best antidote, as exemplified by the success of the German Renewable Energy Law of 2000 (EEG), which established an investment-autonomy for renewable energy. In ten years it created 45,000 megawatts of renewable electric generating capacity, financed by over 100 billion euros in private investment. In contrast, less than 10 billion was invested by conventional power interests. The EEG also created a new reality for ordinary citizens — to see, experience and participated in. Now 90% of the German public wants change to a renewable energy economy, while less than 10% want nuclear power. More than 100 German municipalities have already shifted to renewable energy, many becoming fully energy self-reliant - a source of motivation, empowerment and hope for others.

The economic future is on the side of renewable energy. As supplies dwindle and demand grows, fossils-based energy and nuclear power can only become more expensive with no end in sight, even ignoring subsidies to conventional energy and its externalities - from mountain-top renewal to acid rain, polluted water, and health problems. As for nuclear, not one power plant was ever built without heavy public subsidies, and the cost of its externalities - like radioactive waste products with half-lives of thousands of years - is simply incalculable. But for its reliance on defense contracts, it is unlikely that a nuclear power industry would even exist. In contrast, the cost of solar energy and its derivatives can only go down. Once the one-time capital investment has been recovered, the energy is delivered, free of charge, in perpetuity. This calls for fundamentally a new business model.

A bright future is entirely possible - a livable planet, decent jobs for all, and happy, healthy and sustainable lifestyles. It depends on developing a new economy, powered, like nature itself, by a combination of maximum energy efficiency and renewable solar energy, harvested locally and distributed by smart power grids operated for the benefit of all. Barriers to the transition to such an economy are not technical but political. To overcome them our actions must be well-informed and rely on indigenous popular support. A polity that shores up conventional energy interests can only slow this change, it cannot stop it.