Book Review: 2009 State of the World

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It’s 2100. Blinded by short-sightedness, fossil fuel lobbies prevented the Obama administration from moving fast enough to draft a treaty mandating reductions in emissions caps at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009. The administration refused to sacrifice what it called “American economic competitiveness” for the right of other countries to develop.

The plan drawn up was anemic—voluntary reductions, turning into hard, mandated emissions reductions of only 50 percent by 2050.

China, India and the United States just barely made their cuts. The permafrost melted, ice caps disappeared, sea levels rose the world over. Low-lying river deltas in South Asia and Africa were inundated, island-nations drowned, and drought and agricultural breakdown ensued.

Just enough was recovered from the wreckage to maintain world bodies. And in 2100, the International Court of Justice appointed a special prosecutor to consider charges of crimes against humanity against what were left of the fossil fuel companies.

Poring through reams of paper, libraries, document collections, computer files, governmental reports, United Nations briefings and IPCC communiqués, the prosecutor finds the 2009 State of the World, Into a Warming World, put out by the Worldwatch Institute.

Compressed into that short, glossy book is the evidence she needs to indict the corporations for knowingly pushing the world into catastrophe: that even in 2009, they should have known the effects of what they were doing, and that at least in broad outlines there were steps that could have been taken to arrest climate change.

But that’s a dystopic 2100. It need not come about.

And here in 2009, in the real world, we have the Worldwatch Institute’s latest publication. The essays in the book quickly lay out the challenges to a workable agreement on emissions reductions, as well as early signs of incipient but avoidable catastrophe—a clarion call. As Christopher Flavin and Robert Engelman write,

Scientists are reticent by nature, and the overwhelming complexity and inevitable uncertainty of the climate problem have led them to produce equivocal and hard-to-interpret studies that have given considerable comfort to those who argue it is too early to act on climate change.

In the past year, however, a few brave scientists have cast reticence aside. Speaking in Washington on the twentieth anniversary of his historic testimony, James Hansen had a sharp warning for policymakers: “If we don’t begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next several years, and get on a very different course, then we are in trouble. … This is the last chance.

But fatalism is not the theme. Optimism is.

W.L. Hare lays out a careful and considered scheme for what he calls a “safe landing,” as well as what a hard landing would look like. He suggests that the upper-bound 2007 IPCC estimates for warming by 2100—6.4 degrees Celsius—are likely the “prudent” ones to take seriously, and that evidence suggests sea level rises will be in excess of 1 meter, threatening to drown many parts of the world.

Hare calmly makes the case that total warming must not exceed 2 degrees Celsius, that even that number would carry with it unquantifiable destruction, and that the target should be less than 1 degree above pre-industrial levels, a “multicentury commitment.” He suggests that in order to have the best chance of doing so, emissions must peak by 2020 and thenceforth rapidly decline, and technologies must be perfected that can actually draw carbon from the atmosphere.

In another chapter, Sara J. Scherr and Sajal Sthapit provide a welcome primer on using agriculture to cool the climate—more low-tech but just as likely to be effective. They begin by invoking some numbers that suggest the land’s paramount importance, that it already contains three times as much carbon as the atmosphere, 1.6 billion tons residing as organic matter in the soil and another half-billion tons in living vegetation.

But that can change — of the 49 billion tons of carbon-equivalent GHG emitted in 2004, 15 billion tons came from land-use changes. Thirty-one percent of current emissions come from land-use or land-use changes, slashing-and-burning Amazonian rainforests, over-tilling soil with heavy machinery and letting loose stored soil carbon. They offer a five-pronged approach to solving the problem:

  1. Enriching soil carbon by enhancing soil nutrients through a conversion to organic fertilization techniques, by minimizing soil tillage, and by implementing biochar sequestration. If biochar were applied on just 10 percent of cropland, it could store 29 billion tons of CO2 equivalent
  2. Creating high-carbon cropping systems by moving to perennial grains, intercropping arboreal crops with fields and pastures, and using tree-farming.
  3. Promoting climate-friendly-livestock production by using intensive rotational grazing, feed supplements to reduce methane, and biogas digesters rather than letting carbon from decomposing manure seep into the atmosphere.
  4. Protecting existing carbon stores in natural forests and grasslands by reducing deforestation and managing conservation areas as carbon sinks

They firmly suggest using market-based incentives to change agricultural practices from carbon-emitting to carbon-absorbing.

The book also sketches on-going projects to reduce climate change, assaying its effect on the most vulnerable populations, focusing particularly on the Global South, and discussing urban contributions to climate change, the possibilities and pratfalls of geo-engineering, and efforts at adaptation in the Sudan and Fiji.

Janet Sawin and William R. Moomaw take on how to create a sustainable future. As they point out,

The transition away from fossil fuels requires a dual strategy: reducing the amount of energy required through energy efficiency and then meeting most of the remaining needs with renewable sources.

The IEA estimates that $45 trillion in investment, or an average of 1 percent of annual global economic output, will be needed between now and 2050 in order to wean the world off oil and cut CO2 emissions in half. It is imperative that the vast majority of these investments be in efficiency improvements and renewable energy.

Fair enough, with the caveat that simply halving emissions will not be enough to fend off the worst effects of climate change. They add that renewable energy already provides 18 percent of the world’s electricity and growing. Indeed, as they show, solar power alone, using current technologies, could meet global energy demand four times over; wind, geothermal, and biomass combined add up to three times global energy demand. The key is harnessing the resources.

One recommendation is turning buildings into power plants. Buildings use 40 percent of global energy, and produce roughly the same percentage of GHG emissions. They recommend construction of high-efficient buildings and installation of contraptions for passive solar heating and thermal storage and photo voltaic panels. They cite the example of the Passivhaus Institute in Germany, which has constructed 6,000 homes that use 1/10th of the energy of the average German home.

Another recommendation is the construction of a “smart grid,” alongside large-scale renewables. Renewables could generate 40 percent of national electricity in 13 of the 20 largest economies, and by 2050, between 50 and 90 percent in all of the largest economies, they point out.

They note that simply looking at the numbers suggests that complaints about renewal energy are absurd. In 2000, Germany drew 6.3 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. In 2006 this number was 14 percent. Meanwhile Denmark’s economy has grown by 75 percent since 1980, while the share of renewables burgeoned from 3 percent to 17 percent by mid 2008. By 2005, per capita CO2 emissions were 15 percent below 1990 levels. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that wind could provide 20 percent of American industry by 2030, assuming a 40 percent increase in demand.

As the authors conclude,

"We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to make a transformation from an unsustainable economy fueled by poorly distributed fossil fuels to an enduring and secure economy that runs on renewable energy that lasts forever."

Engelman ends the book with a terse summary of the challenges facing the movement to arrest anthropogenic global warming. He asks serious questions: Who will pay? Who will be allowed to emit? How do we deal with the right to development?

"Suppose the world collectively decided to allow 500 billion more tons of CO2-equivalent emissions before reaching that zero-emissions point. If the world then fairly allocated those previous remaining tons, who would get what? Who would do the allocating, who would enforce it, and how?"

Perhaps the obstacle hardest to circumvent is the one implied by some simple statistics: Although the U.S. and other industrial powers accounted for three-quarters of GHGs from 1850 to 2002, from now on, developing countries will be behind the buildup. It is vital to design a treaty that prevents that buildup, and to do so equitably. Engelman says 2 percent of every country in the world’s GDP is the amount needed to transition to a climate-friendly civilization, a number taken from Lord Nicholas Stern—over $1 trillion a year—although by now the situation has worsened.

Engelman notes that so far, the Kyoto and Montreal protocols have stopped some emissions that would otherwise have occurred, particularly in Europe, and adds that the clean development mechanisms have proven useful, if also an escape hatch for industrial countries to avoid emissions cuts. The treaties currently in effect, he adds, lack adequate enforcement mechanisms. That they are legally binding has not seemed to matter.

One of the more innovative ideas he discusses is the “development threshold,” wherein per-capita income below a certain amount—in the proposal, $7,500 dollars—does not count in terms of evaluating countries’ capacities to reduce emissions, nor would consumption of goods equivalent to $7,500 per capita.

Engelman doesn’t shy away from yet harder-to-face facts, such as the recognition that wealthy Western powers shall have to pay for emissions reductions in immiserated low-income countries “long after the emissions in industrial nations bottomed out near zero.” He suggests feed-in-tariffs (slow to take hold in the U.S.) which pay renewable energy producers for the energy they place into the grid. He also calls for the ending of hidden subsidies and incentives for GHG emissions, estimating their cost at $210 billion and their effect at 7 percent of global GHG emissions.

He also discuss “shadow carbon pricing”—an agreed-upon price so the cost of any carbon-producing activity could be “calculated and publicized,” creating momentum for actually taxing carbon at previously unthinkable rates. Such measures, he says, will be necessary, working synchronously and simultaneously, to stave off the worst.

The book provide a serious, comprehensive framework for understanding the crisis and for working to prevent it. Of the dozen or so books everyone interested in climate change must have on their bookshelf, this is one.