It's called 'living within your means.' What parent doesn't teach that lesson to his/her children. Part of giving kids an allowance is to help them learn how to control their money.
How did we, as a species, humankind, come to believe we didn't have to live within our means?
How did we figure we didn't have to live within the finite limits of our planet, our one and only biosphere, Spaceship Earth?
For that's what our planet is to our species and our global civilization, a spaceship hurtling through the cosmos at incomprehensible speed. Beyond it there is no life for us, at least not yet. Unless and until we reach another inhabitable spaceship, we'll have to make do with the one we're in now, Earth.
How we have abused Spaceship Earth and we managed to do it in the span of just two centuries. The place has been around for billions of years but, since the Industrial Revolution, we've been at it like a massive horde of Vandals.
Before the Industrial Revolution humankind numbered in the low to mid-600 millions. Today we're past 7.6 billion (if you knock off 7 billion, we would be back where we were pre-Industrial Revolution). In 2030, the year by which we're supposed to have cut overall greenhouse gas emissions, we're expected to hit 8.2 to 8.3 billion. 2050, barring some enormously murderous event, look for upwards of 9.4 billion.
The Rosy Future of the Carbon Economy
While we're supposed to be putting out the global dumpster fire, a.k.a. the carbon-economy, those in the fossil fuel business such as OPEC and the IEA, see fossil fuels, including coal, burgeoning at least as far out as 2040. Their projected increase, about another 30%. They say it will be the equivalent of adding another China plus another India of fossil fuel consumption. Not sure how that's going to affect our ability to cut global GHG emissions 45% in a breathtakingly brief 12 years.
Carbon Taxes and Fossil Fuel Subsidies
We can stop this madness, say some, with carbon taxes. Hey, we've got a prime minister who wants to do that very same thing. There's a snag. There's always a snag. Given where we are today, not where we were in the 80s, those who know how to run the numbers on this have identified an effective carbon tax, one that might really make a difference. They have a range. It begins at a low of $200 per ton of CO2 all the way up to $600 a ton.
Our guy wants $20 per ton up to a max of $50. And, while that's going on he's still going to keep up those direct and indirect subsidies to Canada's oil and bitumen barons. The IMF has our generosity to Big Carbon pegged at upwards of $34 billion each year "in direct support and uncollected tax on externalized costs." (the latest IMF estimate is considerably higher but I chose to go with the lower number)
As far as carbon taxing being some one-size-fits-all solution, the Conference Board of Canada's 2017 report, The Cost of a Cleaner Future, poured a bucket of ice-cold water on the carbon tax solution.
The report, The Cost of a Cleaner Future, examines the impacts of carbon pricing and of the investments required to help Canada achieve significant emission reductions. It finds that even if carbon taxes were to reach $200 per tonne by 2025, this would only result in a 1.5 per cent reduction in GHG emissions outside of the power generation sector.Then we reach the other conundrum. For a carbon tax to be relevant, it has to be global in application. Canadians are high-footprint GHG emitters but we're also just 36-million people out of 7.6 billion who share this Earth. How do you carbon tax the world when so many governments are hopelessly corrupt, so many nations failed states and so many fellow humans live in desperate poverty? Son of a bitch, I never thought of that until just now.
Petcoke-Laden Bitumen and Offshoring Emissions
Then we have another layer of hypocrisy. We focus on domestic emissions but, like Pilate, wash our hands of any responsibility for flooding world markets with toxic, filthy, high-carbon, petcoke laden bitumen. The carbon crimes that other nations may commit with that is no concern of ours. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has a 'hear no evil/see no evil/speak no evil' position on the petcoke they flog abroad. Deny everything. Hey, this is Canada, it works.
We could refine Athabasca's crud on site, in Alberta, and put that petcoke safely back in the ground where it can do no harm but, again, hey, this is Canada and we are a petro-state.
In Other News
We've taken a look at Spaceship Earth, the source of all life as we know it, in the context of over-population and our lethal carbon economy. There's one more major threat to consider, our rapacious over-consumption of Earth's resources.
We broke a major taboo around 1973 when, for the first time, mankind, then all 3 billion of us, consumed resources beyond Earth's ecological carrying capacity. We came to exceed the planet's ability to replenish these essential resources. We went after the Earth's reserves. We entered a state called 'overshoot.' The simple graph below illustrates how overshoot works. The red line represents our consumption. The dotted black line is Earth's ecological carrying capacity. The graph illustrates that, as overshoot worsens, the planet's carrying capacity degrades. Even as our demand goes up and up, the planet's ability to provide resources goes down and down and down. I won't go into detailed explanations of what occurs when the red consumption line passes its zenith except to point out how dramatically it plummets.
But how can this possibly be? Few of us have paid much attention to it but mankind has been going to town. It's called the 'Great Acceleration.' If you click on that link you will find no end of charts on where humanity has gone, especially since 1950, on everything from population to fertilizer consumption, GDP to energy use, CO2, methane emissions, and ocean acidification. The 1950 mark depicts how far mankind had come in 12,000 years of human civilization. The rest shows how much further we advanced in just the following 60 years. You'll see that the trend lines go sharply up until today they're almost vertical. We are reaching our zenith.
A recent study found that our planet's carrying capacity has already degraded to the point where it can support a maximum of two billion humans. And yet we think we're headed for nine billion.
We're now consuming the Earth's resources at more than 1.7 times the carrying capacity or replenishment rate. We've been raiding the reserves to pull this off. Those reserves are vanishing. The Earth is succumbing to exhaustion. It is visible to the naked eye from the International Space Station where astronauts can gaze down and see dried up lakes, rivers that no longer run to the sea, forests that have succumbed to logging or massive pest infestations, once fertile soil now reduced to sand that rises in great clouds over China and crosses the Pacific Ocean to reach North America, coastal dead zones and algae blooms that clog our rivers and lakes. And that's just some of the stuff you can see with the naked eye from space.
They're All Connected
We have to solve as best we can each of these threats if we're to have any prospect of solving any of them. Why must we deal with them all? The simple answer - chaos.
Focus on one - climate change is the flavour of the month - and the other two will defeat your best efforts. Even though different regions are impacted in ways and degrees not experienced in more fortunate countries and areas these are global threats that can only be addressed globally.
If Canada was to somehow decarbonize at the stroke of midnight tonight, what difference would it make in the global scheme of things. Not much, really. If the rest of the world or a significant fraction of it descends into chaos from famine, the collapse of freshwater resources, severe weather events of increasing frequency, intensity and duration, these nations and their peoples will not be able to contribute to the solutions. Those countries and regions will become destabilized and a threat to everyone else whether that takes the form of epidemics, war, terrorism even nuclear proliferation.
As Gwynne Dyer puts it, no tribe, no matter how peaceful, will allow its children to starve before it raids its neighbour.
The Tall Order
There are common threads that run through all these dilemmas and from those threads emerges the Tall Order.
The goal is to get back inside Spaceship Earth, the biosphere, the only place where life can be sustained. We're outside now. We're exposed and it's extremely precarious and worsening with each passing year.
The challenge is to find ways in which humanity can again live in harmony with Earth's environment, the biosphere. That is going to mean living within the planet's carrying capacity. We have far too many people. Our per capita carbon footprint is far too large. Our per capita consumption levels are massively beyond what the Earth can provide.
There are several ways these challenges can be met and a few by which they will be met in ways we'll deeply regret if we ignore the options that still remain open to us. Either we embrace the reality of our situation or it will extinguish us.
What'll it be? Your call.