Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Climate Truth: A Plan for Sustainability

Metric Ton Depiction: Flickr, animation by A-Productions.

By Roy Morrison

There is a practical path for tackling climate change, for organizing from your house to your neighborhood, city, state and beyond. It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s three tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year as a goal and a measure for global sustainability.

Three tons is the basis for personal and collective action and planning on all levels. It is, and must become, the acceptable local and global standard first measuring where we are, sustainable or endangered, and as a guide to reaching sustainability.

Three tons per person per year of carbon dioxide emissions is a simple number. In the global aggregate, 21 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, more or less, is the sustainable global limit for natural cycles to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels level. A gigaton is a billion tons. This means that 21 gigatons is about three metric tons per person per year, or 6,612 pounds per year for each of us. Three tons per person per year of carbon dioxide from primary energy consumption equal to 70 gigajoules or 19,443 kilowatt hours a year was set as a sustainable global target for all by the U.N. in 2011. Remember that three tons per person per year number. That’s the target we need to keep in mind if we are to stop and then reverse the steady march toward climate catastrophe.

Three tons by itself is not enough given the carbon dioxide we’ve already added to the atmosphere and are continuing to do so. Three tons, or even less, as planetary target must be combined with global cooling also aggressively remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester in soil or biomass or otherwise remove and store it.

Yes, this is a global problem. But, from the other end of the telescope, climate change is the collective consequence of what all 7.6 billion of us do. Our opportunity and responsibility is to act from where we are, to take part in what must become a global movement from the bottom up for global ecological and social change.

There is another choice. We
can make and implement plans
for a three tons of carbon per
person future starting where we
live. Right here. Right now.

Current total global carbon emissions were 34 gigatons in 2017, an average of 5.5 tons carbon per person per year. This means collectively a 13-gigaton of carbon dioxide yearly excess. This is reflected in the relentless increase in atmospheric carbon measured by the Mauna Loa laboratory in Hawaii, now above 400 parts per million and rising from the pre-industrial level of below 300 parts per million.

Globally, at first glance, what’s the big deal? We just have to cut carbon emissions by a little more than half. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Some of the 7.6 billion, mostly poor people in poor nations are already way below three tons. The more “advanced’ the economy, the greater the carbon pollution. The rich, not the poor, are the global carbon hogs and are responsible for the lion’s share of historic and current pollution.

In Mali, the average emissions for 18 million people was only one-tenth of a ton of carbon dioxide per person in 2014 according to the World Bank, or 1.8 million tons total of carbon dioxide. In the United States, for 300 million of us, it’s an average of 16.5 tons per person per year or 4.95 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s 2,750 times greater than Mali. If we all lived like Americans, as many aspire to, global emissions would be 125 gigatons a year or about six times greater than sustainable levels. But we have only one Earth, not six.

Three tons per person per year of carbon dioxide equivalent is the basis for global convergence on sustainable conduct, for a global technological and social revolution based on making economic growth mean ecological improvement and for the pursuit of social and ecological justice and an end to poverty. Carbon dioxide equivalent includes the climate change effects of the emissions of other greenhouse gases like methane. Three tons per person emissions per year when combined with removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through soil building and biomass on land and sea will stop and reverse climate change.

Unfortunately, today almost none of us have any idea what our actual share of the problem is, nor do we understand what a sustainable level of emissions is. We don’t know the facts about the concrete goal we really need to be working toward and fighting for and how to measure our progress. Instead, we get lost in ever-shifting and incomprehensible blather about how much warming is deemed acceptable. The acceptable number continuing to rise (in order to keep business – and pollution – as usual churning) as the “acceptable” target increases from 1.5 degrees centigrade to two, to three, to four, to five degrees centigrade. Business and pollution as usual offer half-measures and promises action just in time, if we are lucky, before the planet warms sufficiently to cause massive crop failure as industrial civilization collapses amidst flood, drought, famine, war, mass migration of the desperate, and epidemics. All fall down.

There is another choice. We can make and implement plans for a three tons of carbon per person future starting where we live. Right here. Right now.

The global pursuit of three tons of carbon must be a reflection not of economic contraction and global depression, but of economic growth resulting in ecological improvement. This is global economic growth rooted in the community ownership of the new global efficient renewable energy system and ecological production systems. It is a plan for community empowerment and for asset building and a global sharing of resources as investment to help empower the global poor to build the sustainable energy and productive infrastructure. Unless this transformation, this 3 ton mantra for salvation, is global and shared, we cannot succeed to save ourselves in a world half sustainable and half mega-polluting.


A 100% renewable energy transition globally by 2050 is both technological possible and will reduce the average cost of energy by 30% from current fossil fuel and nuclear power prices, according to a comprehensive 2017 study of the European Energy Watch Group led by physicist and German PV pioneer Hans-Josef Fell and performed by Berlin’s Lappeenranta University of Technology. The study employed hourly simulation data for modeling 145 global regions using a mixture of renewables, primarily PV and wind and energy storage. Carbon dioxide emissions are radically reduced by 2030 and largely disappear by 2050 from energy production. In 2018, further examination of eliminating carbon dioxide from industrial and other sectors globally will be forthcoming.

This is the context of technological possibility, and the competitive economic advantage of zero fuel cost and zero emissions renewable energy for the pursuit of global sustainability and 3 tons of carbon per person per year as an achievable goal combined with global cooling activities to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by soil building and biomass.

But technological possibility and economic advantage will not by themselves overcoming the self-interest of polluters, the political inertia against dramatic change, and the trillions of dollars of soon to be stranded investment in fossil fuel and nuclear plants. To stranded plant is added the booked value of trillions of dollars of fossil fuels in the ground soon to be rendered worthless as fuel. Current economics is driving the abandonment of fossil fuels. This is why in March 2018, Duke Energy announced the closing of 9 more coal plants to be replaced by renewables and, alas, natural gas. When southern utilities in the U.S. like Duke and Florida Power and Light turn big-time for renewables, they clearly are driven by economic reality.

Three tons is meant to be a call to local action to start where we are, to push as hard as we can for a renewable energy transformation and transformation of the global industrial system to sustainability. This is happening on all levels from the efforts of Norenda Modi that is quickly allowing India to join China as a renewable leader, to efforts by U.S. States like California and New York in response to the Trump administration withdrawal from the Paris Climate accords. Like Governor Brown in California, we cannot wait for deliverance .We must act where we are and make that action part of a global wave of local plans and clear plans and demands to facilitate the grand global renewable transformation.

The Energy Watch Group writes that they “initiated this research to present an energy transition pathway encompassing all countries globally which is required for a comprehensive discourse on national government levels.” The purpose of 3 tons of carbon per person per year is to raise these issues from below, thorough local plans, local demands that engage their neighbors, local businesses, schools, institutions and their political representatives. It is bringing the possibilities for a renewable transformation to reality.

We will sink or float together. We must make sure that a minimum of 1% of global product, annually $1.1 trillion, raised through ecological assessments on pollution and high energy consumption is targeted for investment to helping the poorest pursue ecological paths and not fossil fuels. China and India, led by Xi and Modi, are already leading the way with trillion dollar renewable investment construction programs.

Globally, the renewable transition will require many trillions in productive investment, the everyday practice of making economic growth meaning ecological improvement. Much of this productive investment is to replace highly polluting and inefficient devices with more efficient and much less polluting machines, for example, installing only air to air heat pumps in buildings and not oil or gas burners. The three times more efficient electric heat pump, is a big money saver that slashes carbon pollution. It takes heat from the air, even in the winter. It is 3 times more efficient than oil or gas burners because of the second law of thermodynamics advantages of the Carnot refrigeration cycle. In this case, heat pumps cooling the air and dumping the heat into the house in the winter. In the summer it takes heat out of the air in the house and dumps it outside. This is three times more efficient than burning oil or gas for heat. And if the electricity is from renewable energy sources, carbon dioxide is slashed to minimal levels.

A carbon-based fuel when burnt combines with oxygen to produce 3.15 times its weight in carbon dioxide. Burn 1,000 gallons of fuel oil for heat releases 22.4 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon according to the EIA or 10.15 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. Electric heat pumps today reduces that to 3.4 tons and to a small fraction of that if the grid was renewably powered. The heat pumps could be sold by your electric utility on a no capital down basis and paid for from the savings form the fuel you no longer consume.

What to Do

What’s a concerned citizen to do beyond just worrying about business and pollution as usual that is leading us to common catastrophe? Suppose you knew that your personal share and entitlement for carbon dioxide emissions was three tons of carbon dioxide equivalents a year to hold the amount of carbon dioxide steady in the atmosphere. And you also knew, for example, that an average gas driven car emitted 4.7 tons of carbon dioxide per year and an electric car would cut that in half even when powered from the current polluting grid, and much, much less on a life cycle basis from a future global efficient renewable energy system displacing almost all fossil fuels.

Carbon dioxide life cycle footprint of fossil fuels is much greater than just the combustion. Included in life cycle carbon are substantial methane leaks from natural gas production and pipelines, the energy for drilling, mining, transport, refining, and disposal that are much more significant for fossil fuels and nuclear energy than for renewables. Reducing end use of fossil fuels has a much broader effect on net emissions.

A plan to help get to three tons is not simply to buy electric cars, but also to improve public transportation, bike sharing, installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure and car to home interconnection for millions of EVs to also help provide power into the electric grid, mandate phasing in of electric vehicles whose operating “fuel” cost is equivalent to less than $1.00 per gallon.

Understanding your current average national contribution in tons of carbon per person per year is the basis for understanding and changing not just your personal choices, but your local and national systemic issues necessary for getting to sustainable carbon levels.

Three Crucial Steps for Getting From Endangered Present to Ecological Future

An ecological transformation is not a recipe for stringency and poverty. It is a strategy for improved efficiency and massive productive investment over time to create a sustainable global energy, production, agricultural, and forestry system. This is a recipe for a global convergence on sustainable conduct. It is the basis for a plan for social and ecological justice and an end to poverty.

Technologically, a comprehensive and economic series of changes are available to transform the self-destructive industrial present to make economic growth men ecological improvement in the context of a global pursuit of social and ecological justice.

A family of four today as an interim step with a 12 tons of carbon per year entitlement and goal could quickly move from 14.9 tons carbon for car and heating to 7.1 tons with electric vehicle and heat pump even using the current grid. A wide variety of measures can replace the typical U.S. consumption pattern and become part of the ecological transition plan including car sharing, public transit, telecommuting and living near your work, bike sharing, autonomous electric vehicles for hire.

At bottom, once we look the three tons of carbon challenge in the eye, it’s a straightforward matter to develop a clear plan in steps to get from our polluting and self-destructive present to a sustainable ecological future.

Three numbers matter the most that serve as a personal and collective guide to solutions from the grassroots up. We can have much more power to help change what happens in our neighborhood and our town and state than we do nationally and globally. Yes, millions of people in the streets can help move the global leadership. But we have the real chance to participate in developing local plans for our town to take steps to:

  1. Inventory and understand our greenhouse gas emissions from all aspects including individual and industrial consumption but also from agriculture and from forestry. There are good free software tools now available to conduct an inventory including the Global Protocol for Community Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories. This 170 page report that provide detailed guidance and tools for conducting greenhouse gas emission inventories and developing and verifying plans

    1. Develop comprehensive plans to climate change mitigation focused on reaching the 3 tons per person carbon dioxide limit asap and to remove and sequester carbon from the atmosphere through soil building and biomass growth to provide global cooling and eventually return the atmosphere to pre-industrial carbon levels below 300 parts per million.

    1. Have an action plan for implementation of the plan on financial, legislative, technical, legal area. Understand what must be done and what tools do we need to make this happen. For example, to retrofit all buildings with PV and efficient appliances and EV changing capability could be facilitated by a combination of revolving loan funds from local revenue bonds providing loans to be repaid form the stream of saving from efficiency and renewable energy products. The measures needed will encompass the political, regulatory, technical, and financial areas.

Facing Reality and Shaping an Ecological Future

Three tons of carbon dioxide per person per year as goal and guide is the basis for more than typical climate change mitigation and adaptation plans. It is the basis for community action and beyond to craft a sustainable, prosperous, ecological and just future.

Three tons of carbon per person per year as global target for yourself, your city, your state and beyond is the basis not only for stopping and reversing climate change. It is the means for pursuing ecological economic growth, building locally owned assets in the renewably powered economy and for the pursuit of social and ecological justice manifested in concrete plans and to take action as consumers, workers, business people, investors, neighbors.

A sustainable earth. Image: Pixabay.

Sustainability writ large is the expression of grand co-evolutionary forces that have shaped our planet and the ecosphere. This has created the oxygen atmosphere with just enough carbon dioxide to maintain surface temperature within a range not too hot or too cold. The history of the co-evolution of life and planet Earth has been one of countervailing and healing response to excess that has permitted life to both survive periodic crises and mass extinctions and to respond to changing conditions and once again thrive.

We are in the midst of one of the times of crisis and the potential for a mass extinction event, this time driven not by geologic action like volcanoes, but by human industrial action and conscious human action. Humanity has joined the global process of sustainability that reshapes the nature of Earth on a fundamental and geological scale.

Humanity has the ability and the necessity, to play a healing role in response to industrial excess and toward the development of a sustainable civilization that will endure for geological time scale. If we fail we are almost certain to suffer the consequences of ecological and social crisis for geological scales potential lasting for hundreds of thousands of years as did the global warming of the Eocene.

We need to choose between pursuing a sustainable ecological future or accept decent into ecological chaos. Three tons of carbon dioxide per person per year is a means and a guide for healing and enduring ecological change and building a prosperous and enduring ecological civilization. Choose wisely. Now is the time.

Roy Morrison’s latest book is Sustainability Sutra (Select Books, NY 2017). He works on solar electric systems for farms to produce both food and solar

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