Imagining a Carbon Free World

Osbert Lancaster recently posted a blog about the difficulty understanding exactly what a commitment to a carbon free economy will entail. The too-good-to-be-true accounts, like the one provided by Lord Adair Turner, suggest a rather fishy estate-agent motivation. To believe that it’s ‘that simple’ makes you feel a little bit self-conscious and gullible. But those who give the terrifying ‘back to the Middle Ages’ accounts seem like they are trying to throw us off the track of something altogether reasonable.  To believe these makes you feel rather selfish, and like you’re choosing the easy route out.

The problem is that both accounts are equally possible. Contrary to belief, we can choose our own future. If we collectively decide that commitment to a carbon free society will mean living like the Flintstones, then action will be delayed until it really would mean going back to the Middle Ages. But if we believe that we can save the planet with drastic but reasonable changes in lifestyle, we’ll begin today making the changes necessary to see this vision through. Making the personal choice about whether you’re committed to a carbon free future entails predicting future possibilities. And this is tough, particularly when it comes to climate science and technology change, as the details are almost instantly overwhelming.

I’ve picked just one picture out of a McKinsey carbon reduction cost report compiled for Australia. It shows the cost of carbon reductions as we move into the future, and as targets for reductions get more and more tight. It takes us from business as usual reductions to 30 % below 1990 levels (most reports show a need to stabilize at an 80 % reduction from 1990 levels). The bright side of findings is the negative cost (that means money-saving) reductions early on in building efficiency. The darker findings are to the right as the cost of carbon reductions set in. It’s hard to understand how 50$/ton of CO2 emissions would affect you, but it is easy to look at the sorts of actions that they recommend and think, can I live with this? Does this seem reasonable? These include forest management, reforestation (planting trees), coal-to-gas shifts, on-shore wind energy generation, etc… These don’t seem like draconian measures to me. They probably suggest that the price of energy will get much higher but, don’t I remember the price of gas nearly tripling a while back? I think I was able to cope with that. 



This figure may help you sort through some of the complexity as you think about what a reasonable and viable future looks like to you. It may make you a little bit more prepared too, when you try to put the array of nonsense out there into perspective.