Category Archives: Earth

Notes: Science-Based Targets

“Setting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in line with climate science is a great way to future-proof growth.”

Science Based TargetsThis headline from the first page of the website for the Science-Based Targets Initiative sums up their approach succinctly. It involves (a) using scientific methods and existing scientific consensus (b) to determine an organization’s fair share of greenhouse emissions reduction, on a timeline that also aligns with  science-based international climate agreements, while (c) maintaining something close to business as usual — “growth” in this case means steadily increasing revenues, profits, and market share — in the process.

Here is the formal definition:

Targets adopted by companies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are considered “science-based” if they are in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep global temperature increase below 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures, as described in the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

[Applies to the 4th or 5th AR (Assessment Report) of IPCC as well as modeling of the IEA (International Energy Agency).]

The technical note in brackets is part of the formal definition. While this specificity makes the definition seem extremely robust, it is important to keep in mind that that the IPCC’s work is based on numerous climate models, which in turn rely on both past scientific data and a great many assumptions about the future. One of those assumptions is how much carbon dioxide will be removed from the atmosphere in the future, by technologies that either have not yet been developed or that will be scaled up to enormous proportions in the coming decades. If those technologies do not materialize, the “level of decarbonization required” is likely to be much higher.

The Initiative, run by a consortium of prominent global organizations, also presents science-based targets — “SBTs” — as the best way to minimize uncertainty (i.e. “future-proof”) with regard to business prospects. Predicting future business success is much less certain than predicting future global temperature rise, so this promise of future business success, implied by the SBT Initiative, is not based on similarly scientific methods.

The concept of SBTs does not just apply to the operations of a company, but to its core products as well. The SBT Initiative has even described how oil and gas companies can participate, by setting science-based targets and timelines for steadily reducing their production of fossil fuels and replacing these products with other, renewable forms of energy products and services.

Note that the phrase “science-based targets,” used in connection with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, has been around since at least 1992*; but it only began to gain serious traction after the Paris Agreement of 2015, which established a broad international consensus around the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degress C or less.

* See, for example, “Convention on climate change: economic aspects of negotiations,” OECD, 1992, p. 22-23.

Film: A Beautiful Planet

Screenshot from the website for “A Beautiful Planet” (click to visit)

When these breathtaking views of our planet begin to fill the domed screen of an IMAX theater, filmed at the International Space Station by astronauts living there, it is difficult not to be moved. (Although the young students all around me in the theater, at Stockholm’s Natural History Museum, had no trouble not being moved. At lunch, some of them confessed to falling asleep.)

“A Beautiful Planet” begins with a simulated faster-than-light trip into the Milky Way galaxy and its hundreds of billions of stars, which underscores the absolutely non-special status of the star we know as the Sun.

But somehow, all this stellar ordinariness only enhances the planetary uniqueness of Earth — covered with glittering water and air, just warm enough for life, protected from solar radiation by a magnetic field, which reveals itself in the shimmering green curtain of the northern lights.

Familiar and unfamiliar places float by — Paris, Florida, massive lightning storms over the Congo, the enormity of the ocean, Arctic icescapes, great river deltas — and the message digs deeper and deeper into your consciousness: this planet is alive. We are part of that life.

By the end of the film, the astronauts whose pictures and voices have filled one’s head and heart have begun to speculate about whether another “Goldilocks Planet” (a planet where everything is “just right”) might host life as we know it, or at least something similar. Of course, given the vastness of space, that is very statistically probable.

But without real (as opposed to simulated) faster-than-light travel, we are not likely to find out. And until then, there is only Earth — Gaia — our spaceship, our extraordinarily beautiful home, captured in all its glory in this wonderful film.

Notes: The Anthropocene

In September 2017, an esteemed group of scientists — geologists, physicists, chemists, archaeologists, geographers, biologists, and oceanographers — published a milestone paper in a relatively new journal called Anthropocene. Launched just four years previously, the journal followed the creation of its titular concept, but preceded the official declaration of that concept’s reality.

The Anthropocene is the notion that this particular time on planet Earth, the time when humans are changing global ecosystems and geophysical patterns in profound ways, deserves its own name. The Holocene is the name given to the last 10,000 years, after the glaciers melted and we restlessly nomadic humans began to settle down and invent houses, agriculture, cities, nations, economics and technology.

The Anthropocene is the result.

In the article, which is entitled “The Working Group on the Anthropocene: Summary of evidence and interim recommendations,” the scientists declare the Anthropocene to be “stratigraphically real.” Here is what these words mean, in practical terms: we are leaving an indelible, geological mark on the planet.

Imagine a time, millions of years from now, when humans no longer exist (at least in our current form — perhaps we will have become clouds of sentient energy, wafting through a multi-dimensional cosmos, with vague memories of the blue-green planet of our birth). Imagine that the geologists of that time, who  have evolved from one of today’s lower mammals, start digging. What will they find?

At a certain layer of rock, which will be proven to be roughly the same time, all over planet Earth (or whatever they shall call their home in the solar system), the geologists will discover evidence of a profound transformation. They will find sudden changes in erosion patterns, and in the way sediments shift along ancient river beds. They will find molecular evidence of changes in the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the global dispersion of phosphorous and other elements. They will note a precipitous (in geological terms) rise in sea levels, and a rapid decline in polar ice. They will find the fossil evidence of extraordinary species that once walked the planet, but suddenly went extinct; and they will find evidence of other species, never before seen in the fossil record, that suddenly appear everywhere, in massive numbers.

It is unlikely that these future geologists will know that we called the new animals dogs and cats, cows and chickens, though they will be able to trace their evolutionary roots to wolves, larger cats, wild oxen, and a jungle bird from the area now called Southeast Asia. They will certainly find bountiful fossil evidence of our species, homo sapiens. But they will have no way of knowing that we called the extinct species elephant, pangolin, gorilla, rhino.

Finally, they will find copious “technofossils”, the geologically preserved remains of homo sapiens’ technology and industry. These might include plastics, buckyballs, graphene. The most surprising find will be the sudden appearance of plutonium, an element that occurs very rarely in nature, among deposits of uranium, but that suddenly will be seen as lightly distributed over large areas, “as  though it had rained from the sky”  they might say — which is exactly what happened.

The arrival of the Anthropocene as a concept appears to concern the scientific analysis of the recent past, because much of the academic debate around its introduction has circled around when, exactly, to declaim its historical beginnings. Should one draw the line in geological time at 1945, when the first atomic bombs began their rain of uranium and plutonium and other radioactive fallout? Or should we dial the clock back a few thousand years, to the global spread of agriculture?

In any event, the principal value of the Anthropocene is not as a tool for looking back in time, but for looking forward. Understanding that we have altered certain mega-processes in the Earth’s systems beyond restoration, that the stable and predictable conditions of the Holocene’s ten thousand years are in some definitive sense over, is a great mental aid in thinking about the future.

We are not just constantly changing our human world; we are creating a new Earth.