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Balance on Planet Earth - Sustainability on Planet Earth

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

Section 1 - The Big Picture

Julie Smith, April 4, 2022,

This blog provides an overview of chapters in my book on sustainability. I will post a blog as I complete each chapter, with a link from the chapter title at the top to the pdf of the complete chapter. The complete chapter provides more details that support the discussion in the summary, and includes the references that were used.

What you will find in Chapter 2:

What does balance with the planet look like? What about us humans? How low can we go? Are there too many of us? When was the last time we were in balance?

What does balance with the planet look like?

Indicators show us that our planet is in trouble, and I think it’s fair to say that these indicators, like loss of wildlife and higher temperatures, can be thought of in terms of balance. Earth’s historical CO2 and temperature fluctuations over millions of years can also be described as a balancing act, as glaciers ebb and flow. Then, it follows that the recent extreme increases in temperatures can be attributed to an imbalance, with more CO2 in the atmosphere than the planet can balance with. We’ve established the imbalance of CO2 as the core driver of global warming, and that human burning of fossil fuels is the main underlying cause of all that excess CO2. We can easily make a block diagram of what that balance looks like. If CO2 is in balance, the amount entering the atmosphere will exit the atmosphere. If we add too much, it will accumulate and the planet will warm up, and if the addition rate of CO2 is reduced, or taken up, say, by forests and trees, then the CO2 in the atmosphere will be reduced, and the planet will cool.

What about us humans?

If CO2 emissions are at the bottom of global warming, and humans are at the bottom of the CO2, then that makes humanity complicit in global warming, right? And, if humanity is at the bottom of global warming, then how can we talk about CO2 emissions and global warming without including humans in the discussion? And, if we bring humans into the discussion, what exactly is humanity’s role in all this? How can we, in particular, be throwing our planet out of balance, when we’re just one species among all the diversity? So, I wondered if there was a way to account for humans separate from the fuel.

Figure 2 plots total CO2 emissions against human population, and shows that the human population is indeed a near-perfect underlying factor of higher CO2 emissions. This really shouldn’t be a huge surprise, given that humanity is responsible for burning fossil fuels. It really emphasizes, at least for me, the role that each and every one of us plays in the overall climate change we’re experiencing. Just with our mere existence.

How low can we go?

I took a closer look at how much carbon emissions each person is responsible for, on average, using global emissions and global population. The CO2 per capita is interesting, because it shows that the global average was already just over 2 tonnes per year per person way back in 1850. This is surprising, because that was just under half the global average today, which is around 5 tonnes per capita.

Total CO2 emissions have increased for the past 50 years, since the first earth day, but it hasn’t been because of increased CO2 per capita. This leaves only one other explanation. Total emissions have increased because of increased population at similar emissions per capita. And, this is just the CO2 balance on our planet. We humans create a lot of other imbalances in the web of life on our planet, that is driven by all our general activities, our mere existence, with our sheer numbers, our sheer mass of humanity, at the bottom of it. So, how do we account for all that disruption, if we’re already accounting for all the CO2? Some of this imbalance is because of our sheer numbers, which are also related to how much CO2 we emit. So, how do we talk about one without the other? How can we separate planetary destruction from human population? Truth is, we can’t. Not if we want to be honest and have a complete and useful conversation, that is.

Are there too many of us?

Once again, when we talk about balance on an entire planet, how can we talk about that without including human population? We could include a discussion about population of other species, except that there probably isn’t a single species, other than humans, that is actually increasing at this point. So, what we’re really talking about is balance between humans and all the life on the surface of the planet. Or, more specifically, humans and our associated activities. At any rate, our sheer numbers are definitely at the bottom of our activities that are impacting the balance on our planet, and it’s a lot more than the CO2. When we’re taking out forests at 12 million acres per year, for our endless wants and needs, impacting entire planetary carbon sinks and taking the land from wildlife all at the same time, it becomes a big contributor to the demise of wildlife and to our planet. We’re doing the same thing in the oceans, fishing species to extinction, one by one, from whales to salmon to krill. The analogy that humans are a cancer on this planet appears to have some basis in fact.

When was the last time we were in balance?

After all, if we’re out of balance, and if we want to get back in balance, then we need to know what that balance looks like. If we’re moving towards even worse imbalance, then how can we figure out what to do to get back in balance? The 2015 Paris Agreement set a limit on the maximum post-industrial temperature increase that the planet can endure, before we pass a truly dangerous tipping point. The limit to temperature increase was set at 1.5 ºC, or 2.7 ºF, which works out to a global average temperature of 59.4 ºF, compared to about 56.3 ºF in 1910. In order to reach this goal, we must achieve net zero emissions within 15 years, and according to ICCP, we will have to limit CO2 emissions to 30 Gt/year or less from then on. But the problem is, this target is waaaaaay higher than human emissions in 1910, the last time we were in balance with the planet, when we were emitting a measly 7.49 Gt/year. Table 1 shows a comparison of where we were in 1910, compared to where we were as of 2019, in terms of the underlying measures we’ve been considering, CO2 emissions, CO2 concentration, temperature, forest cover and human population.

The CO2 concentration climbed steadily from 302 ppm in 1910 to 326 ppm in 1970, when we had that first Earth Day. At that time, there was a lot of concern among scientists that we were heading in a bad direction, but that urgency was ignored by most people, including myself, and we continued with business as usual, as we continued increasing our CO2 emissions to the whopping 40.53 billion tonnes/year that we saw in 2019. We are already past the tipping point that climate scientists have been warning about all along. Yet, here we are. Oh, we’ve crossed it.

It turns out the scientists were right. We’re out of balance and continuing to head in a bad direction. So, now, the question is, are we going to finally do something about it? Or are we going to just keep on with business as usual and drive our planet right into the ground with our complacency? By 1970, when scientists were warning us in earnest, our population had reached 3.7 billion, and we were emitting about 20 billion tonnes/year of CO2. The sheer mass of humanity, as we increased the population to more than double what it was in 1910, while continuing to destroy forests to satisfy our endless wants and needs, continued to drive the CO2 and temperature up. So, it turns out that us teeny weeny little humans can indeed change the climate on our big gigantic planet earth, much as we’d like to think otherwise. And, fascinatingly, most of us continue to ignore this issue, as though somebody else will take care of it, or the problem will go away by itself. The problem is that the longer we ignore the issue, the harder it will be to get back in balance with our planet, if it’s not too late already. One thing is clear: we’re definitely not going to save our planet for future generations if we continue to ignore population growth. Human population growth is an integral part of the equation. That is a fact that we would do well to heed.

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