Zero is a Pretty Small Number

October 15th, 2007

Blog Action Day has put out a call to post about the environment today, and this is partially in response to that.

The cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose have pledged to reduce landfill waste to zero by the year 2020. That is an ambitious goal- zero doesn’t leave much margin for error (or any, actually). I wondered how they planned to accomplish that. Recycling and composting go a long way, but those last few percentage points are going to be hard-fought.

On similar lines, I read about a study yesterday from the University of Victoria, Canada finding that according to the computer models used in the study, the European Union’s stated plan to reduce industrial carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 (even if adopted worldwide) will fail to meet the goal of limiting a global average temperature increase to 2°C. Even 90% reductions would eventually push temperatures over the 2°C and something very close to 100% reductions are necessary to limit the increase.

My first reaction to this is that 100% industrial emissions reduction is impossible. That means no carbon emissions at all- how can this be done?

My next thought is that distinguishing between “industrial emissions” and everything else is a nice way of saying “basically all emissions everywhere”. I guess that allows people to burn wood to heat their homes, but for all practical purposes if infrastructure needs to be created to eliminate carbon emissions from industry it won’t make much sense to maintain a carbon infrastructure for consumer uses.

This leads me to thought three, which is that if the data are accurate, they certainly clarify a lot of things. Peak oil/coal/gas issues become secondary if we have forty-three years to stop using all of them almost entirely. Alternative energy sources need to become not just mainstream but the default.

And thought four is that I sure hope the study was wrong somewhere, because zero is an awfully small number and we’re going to be right up against the wire if that’s the target we need to hit.

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