Climate change: the three-ton solution

Stopping climate change is like the weather. We complain. But nothing changes. The problem is global. Each of us is in the same place as the other 319 million Americans, or the more than 7 billion people in the world.

The good news is that there’s a practical standard we can use to measure if we’re living sustainably. 

It’s three tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year. At the average individual rate of three tons, yearly total global carbon dioxide emissions would be 21 gigatons. That’s equal to the global natural carbon sinks in the ocean, soil, biomass that keep the amount of global carbon dioxide in the atmosphere level. 

The global average is now 4.5 tons carbon dioxide a person per year. Drop from 4.5 tons of carbon dioxide per year to three tons and game over. Seven billion people times three tons each is 21 gigatons. That’s it for climate change. Forget about rising seas, crop failures, Miami and New York underwater; back to watching football.

But the devil is in the details. While the global average is 4.5 tons, the U.S. average per person is 17.5 tons per year. China is 6.4 tons a person per year. Since there’s a lot more people in China, they have now passed us as carbon dioxide champ.

If everyone followed the path of the U.S., and now China, relying on polluting fossil fuels, we would need several earths to deal with the consequences of our pollution.

The solution is an aggressive pursuit of an ecological global growth initiative that makes economic growth mean ecological improvement, makes us all sustainability richer and tackles climate change.

We need to invest trillions in building the renewable resource infrastructure and the sustainable ecological industrial systems where all outputs are used as inputs in other systems. 

Trillions of productive investment over the next thirty years means enormous profits, millions of sustainable jobs in sustainable communities. It means transforming agriculture and forestry as well as industry. It means using existing proven technology which is only getting better by the day.

For example, the U.S. coal generating plant “fleet” of 1,309 plants with a capacity of 343,757 megawatts produces 1.6 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity a year. This amounts to 5.32 tons of carbon per American per year all by itself. 

Investment of $90 billion a year in photovoltaics for 20 years, at $1.50 per watt with storage, could replace coal generation. It would cover a block of land 137 miles on each side, or 217.5 square miles per state. This can be from roadways, rooftops, marginal land. Renewables will increasingly come not in big plants but in building materials, from roads and small vertical axis wind turbines.

Reality is that we’d build a mix of complementary wind, solar, and other renewables and link the systems with high-voltage direct current (HVDC) power lines and storage.

The United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies and biggest emitters, can lead the way by starting the Global Climate Club and committing to meet the sustainable three-ton carbon dioxide per person target.

The stick is that nations who don’t join the Climate Club will be subject to stiff import tariffs. 

The carrot is the establishment of a means to transfer capital and technology for renewable energy and sustainability from rich polluters to poor nations.

A Basic Energy Entitlement would place assessments on all energy use, 1 cent per kilowatt hour equivalent, and invest in renewables in poor nations. A commitment of 1 percent of GDP will support global investment in renewable transformation and drive the global convergence on three tons of carbon.

This is the basis for a sustainable and prosperous future. Each of us can pursue the three-ton solution for our homes, or, if we are Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, for the planet. 

Roy Morrison’s latest book, “Sustainability Sutra: An Ecological Investigation,” will be published in May by Select Books.

Categories: Opinion