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Yale 62

Net Zero Carbon

By James Wechsler

Introduction: As Gary Richardson points out in his COP26 Summary, the much ballyhooed international meeting failed to do many substantive things that people were hoping for and can therefore be thought of as a failure. I have the same view of the concrete actions at COP26 but am of the opinion that, given the world’s turmoil, the meeting was quite successful. This differing conclusion stems from an a priori viewpoint that expectations were too high. To me, COP26 shows that countries are no better than people; each wants some other entity to make hard decisions and take blame. With inflated expectations for COP26, the meeting was a failure before it started. As long as all the news outlets keep saying that, we can lower even further our expectations for COP27.

The phrase Net Zero Carbon has often appeared center-stage throughout COP26. The phrase has been glorified by some and angrily maligned by others, even though it is just a simple math reference signifying that, when the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere equals the amount added to the atmosphere in any given time period, the net change in atmospheric carbon is zero.

Note: There are two distinct parts to reaching net zero. One is replacing the large carbon contributors with non-carbon sources, such as wind or nuclear instead of coal. This approach will not be addressed in this short note. Instead, I will concentrate on mitigation of carbon introduced by individual actions such as driving and home heating.

How could a simple phrase be contentious? Have you ever demanded that a country or even a person do something now? Net Zero Carbon requires that they balance their carbon checkbooks on a regular basis and threatens they will lose friends if it doesn’t balance. Unfortunately, the carbon mitigation and sequestration part of the balance is open to manipulation, chicanery, plain lying, and artificial intelligence. Although you and I never, or perhaps if we are being scrupulously honest, only rarely made a mistake or cheated even a little, it is claimed with considerable authority and abundant evidence that some people do make mistakes and some make them on purpose. that must not be allowed or net zero will become not zero.

A common way to sequester carbon is to plant trees, which do remove carbon from the atmosphere. If the carbon I release into the atmosphere can be sequestered by two trees, I only need to plant two trees, right?

Not so fast! The two trees have to grow to considerable size to begin sequestering carbon in the earth. That will take perhaps five or ten years. Since we are describing a constantly repeating scenario, I am automatically that many years behind, but our goal is to reach net zero as quickly as possible. I must therefore do more. I could plant more trees. How many? I had better factor in the fact that some trees will not grow, some may succumb to drought or flood, and even grown trees can disappear in a wildfire. So how many trees must I plant and should I plant some in my yard and some in Africa and some in South America to be sure that enough will grow. And who will do the counting in all those places? Luckily, there are many other ways to sequester carbon — some are possible now, some are likely to be available at reasonable scale in the near future, and some are probably pie in the sky.

I volunteered to write this because Net Zero is such a prominent catchphrase. Unfortunately after constructing a reasoned argument and then researching the real numbers for how many cars are operating in the world, I have concluded that carbon sequestration, unless it can somehow be deployed on a massive scale very soon, is most appropriate after the world has replaced every fossil fuel power plant with nuclear, wind, or solar. Replacing fossil fuel power plants should be the priority and possibly only priority until it is completed. Opposing arguments are eagerly encouraged and desired.

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