The Sustainability Buzz

The Planet’s Carbon Odometer Turned Over 400. What Now?

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released the data that we’ve hit carbon dioxide levels of 400 parts per million (PPM) in our atmosphere.  This, in turn, sparked a media flurry of hand-wringing over how we’re failing to combat climate change, and we continue to be on a collision course with “the end of time.”  It also reignited the inevitable climate-deniers’ flames, and they likewise took to the media to either outright deny that we’d hit 400 PPM or insist that it doesn’t really matter.

(After all, they claim, studies have shown that the earth’s CO2 levels reached levels higher than 400PPM hundreds of millions of years ago.  Never mind the inconvenient but important fact that no humans were around at the time, so who knows if these levels could have sustained human life on the planet, although we have our opinions on the matter.)

So who’s right?  And what does that mean?

NOAA certainly is not in the business of being sensational, and their science is sound, so we can believe them when they say we’ve turned over 400 on the planet’s carbon odometer.  But does that mean we’re doomed?  There’s no doubt that we are on an unsustainable path when it comes to carbon and climate change, and it’s not a situation where we can wait until we hit some doomsday threshold to take action.

But to say we’re doomed also cheapens the amount of great work currently being done in the fields of renewables, carbon management and carbon footprint reduction.  It devalues the literal millions of small steps that individuals are taking everyday to live lighter on the planet.  Indeed, Grist recently reported on how Millenials are eschewing car culture in favor of bikeable, transit-friendly cities, which may be motivated by non-environmental reasons, but have a considerable environmental impact.  These (relatively smaller) impacts, when taken in total, can start to add up.

This doesn’t mean that our work is done—far from it—but more hand-wringing isn’t going to solve the problem.  As Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said in a piece recently published by the New York Times, “If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit an iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck.  If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”The time for action is now, but it’s important to remember that even incremental action is important in the long slog towards abating carbon creep.  Even if your company isn’t sophisticated in its carbon measurement and management, it’s still worthwhile just to get started.  It’s like exercise.  Just because you can’t go on a 10 mile run today, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take that walk around the block.

Additionally, giant sweeping change related to carbon, even if there were a corporate and political appetite for it, might be as detrimental as doing nothing in our financially and environmentally integrated world.  As renowned climate scientist Ralph Keeling recently pointed out, “The answer [to how to keep carbon from growing beyond 400 PPM] is that we would have to reduce immediately our burning of fossil fuels by something like 55 to 60 percent.  That is clearly not going to happen.  If it did happen, it would be an economic catastrophe.  So, it’s not in the realm of something we should hope for, but it tells you where we have to get to at some point.”

Less sophisticated companies are fortunate because there are companies setting great examples when it comes getting where we need to go related to carbon measurement and management.  We highlight our work with Bimbo Bakeries in this month’s Buzz, and the forty leading businesses that have signed onto Ceres and the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy’s Climate Declaration all provide great models for how to tackle climate change and remain competitive.  So there’s no excuse for inaction—companies everyday are proving that you can tackle your carbon footprint and continue to be highly successful.  We’ve even been fortunate enough to work with a few of them.

In the end, it may turn out that a post-400 PPM world looks a lot like a pre-400 PPM world for now.  But it’s not likely to look the same when we get to, say, 450 PPM—just as 400 PPM doesn’t look the same at 350 PPM did.  And if the past road from 350 to 400 is any indication, what’s in store probably isn’t so great—sea level rise, more severe weather, including droughts and water scarcity, extinction of plants and animals.  It doesn’t sound so great to us, and according to Keeling, it could only be about twenty years off.  Wouldn’t you like to say you played a part in making sure we never know what 450 PPM looks like?

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