24 October 2009

350? Too Audacious a Target?

Today is the International Day of Climate Action, an event organised by 350.org. It aims, as I understand it, to raise awareness for climate change and the fact that we have exceeded the safe limit of amount of carbon in the air: 350 parts per million (ppm). The organisers advocate people globally to participate in an action that displays the number 350 prominently, and the Singapore arm of the movement intend to take an aerial photograph of supporters forming a massive 350 in Hong Lim Park.

However, I see a potential confusion here. Firstly, from what I know, this ppm thingy is a measure of how much carbon is in the air. It is a number that takes into account numerous factors, including stuff like carbon removal by forests. If you perform an ideal experiment and measure the composition of the atmosphere, this number is what you'll get for carbon dioxide.

Then there's another thing: carbon emissions, which is one part of this composition picture. Carbon emissions is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activities. While this number is, of course, linked to the atmospheric composition, it is not directly connected. A drop in emissions today will not ensure a drop in carbon dioxide composition in the atmosphere tomorrow.

Think of it this way: imagine a bucket with a source and a sink. While water flows in from the source, it is drained by the sink, and these two forms a balance. In an oversimplistic view, this is the pre-industrial age atmospheric carbon picture (oversimplistic because there are ice ages and all sorts of other factors that cause carbon composition to fluctuate) - with the source being the (natural) emissions, the sink being carbon removal capabilities like forests, and the amount of water being the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In comes the industrial age, and the source is increased tremendously and the sink decreases. The water level thus rose and is still rising. So even if we turn off our "extra" source and put in more sinks, it's gonna be some time before the water level reverses and returns to the original level. In fact, there is a projection which predict that this reversal will not come before a thousand years have elapsed.

In short, carbon composition will lag behind changes in emissions. Already, the composition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 390 ppm, way higher than the target, and in all realistic hopes, 350 ppm is too fanciful a number to dream for. Looking at the top chart below, obtained from an article by Michael Raupach et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

we can see that we have to cut our emissions drastically to even achieve 450 ppm (dashed green line) in the next century. Even 650 ppm looks way far off (dashed blue line). The various A and B lines are projections based on different scenarios (of which, if you want to know, can be found in the article). Even if we switch to clean technology completely - as described by A1T (solid green line) - we cannot even reach 450 ppm in a hundred years' time (though we will be captured by the error bars of 650 ppm). But the most realistic projection is A1B (orange line), which is based on a balance of fossil fuel and clean technology.

Now, much as I advocate environmentalism, I feel uncomfortable about brandishing 350 as the number. In all honesty, no climate scientists are able to tell you in certain terms what the magical number ought to be. In fact, 350 ppm is the lowest safety limit I've heard of; other predictions range up to 650 ppm, but I think that number is really skirting the cliff's edge. Nonetheless, that is already a difficult target to reach, as evidenced by the chart above. So there is no reason for inaction. Especially if you care.

15 October 2009

The Right to be Right

This is a blog post for Blog Action Day 2009 on the topic of climate change.

Environmental action often entails a change in lifestyle, most of which involves some inconveniences. For example, sorting out recyclables from trash and bringing them to the nearest recycling bin necessitates hassle. Buying compact fluorescent lamp which are more energy saving will result in a higher initial cost. Spending a night without air-conditioning will lessen the comfort of your sleep.

These undertakings of an individual alone have hardly an impact on the environment at all. The consequent reduction in carbon footprint is a drop in the entire ocean of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Alright, sure, there is the typical argument that the collective effort can have a marked change - as exemplified by events such as Earth Hour - but this argument does not induce much motivation in many people. This is an unfortunate truth - that a cumulative reward at the cost of compromise in personal lifestyle, particularly when the reward demands others to do the same, is not embraced by most people - and the past calls for environmental efforts have demonstrated that. Moreover, it is a vicious cycle: if most people does not want to take action, then there will be no collective benefit, and thus there is no practical incentive for the individual to be green, thereby sinking the situation into a deeper inertial hole. Some say it is up to governments to take action, but let us not forget that the government is subjected to people's desires, so there is only limited wiggling space for them to impose environmental restrictions on the people.

Such a dilemma reminds me of a course I took during my last semester at NUS. It was a geography module called Environmental Sustainability (module code: GE3239), and the lecturer once mentioned that Singapore unsheathes the argument that the effects in restricting our emissions is so negligible on the global scale that it matters very little how much we try to quell our carbon output. This is an iconic pragmatic argument, and it is not wrong in that perspective. After all, that bit Singapore contributes is truly minimal and it is the grand total of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere that counts. The climate does not go looking at the per capita emission.

Then is there any reason for the individual, which, in such a position, differs not so much from Singapore in the example above, to go green? There certainly is: environmental action grants the person a moral right to, at the very least, make a environmental statement. In the end, climate change is going to affect us all in some ways or other, and it would be hypocritical for one to be concerned if he does not observe and reduce his carbon footprint. Regardless of how small one's contribution is to the environmental cause on the large picture, in doing so he allows himself to say that he is concerned, that something has to be done, that it is unfair for the US to have such disproportionately high carbon output. One's effort will not make any practical difference if others do not do their part, but it gives him the right to be right.

Making an effort for the environment does not entail an upheaval in lifestyle. Steps can be small, little at a time, a bit here and there, and all in all one can shed his carbon footprint by a significant share. Below is a suggested list of a few actions that you can do - all of which I personally do - to slash your carbon emissions. These actions are not the typical feel-good slacktivisms such as Earth Hour or clicking one button on Facebook.

  • Go vegetarian or semi-vegetarian. Meat turns out to be a major carbon source, and cutting it not only benefits the environment, but also your health. Join the ranks of Albert Einstein, Sir Paul McCartney, Christian Bale and Carl Lewis.
  • Bring an environmental bags or regular plastic bags when shopping. In addition, I always tuck a small, folded plastic bag into a compartment in my sling pouch or backpack, in case I wanted to buy something on the spot.
  • Turn off the computer monitor, put the computer to standby or hibernate/shut down, as opposed to letting it idle off when you need to leave it for a period. How long a period it should be is up to you; for me, it is roughly one minute, five minutes and fifteen minutes respectively.
  • Try without the air-conditioner. It is a major electricity hog, and most people do not need it. And there are some nights, especially rainy ones, in which a fan is more than sufficient. You do not have to swear it off - Singapore's heat can be notorious - but how about raising the threshold of your heat tolerance?

These actions address more than mere climate change, which is the topic of this year's Blog Action Day. Certainly, climate change is one glaring symptom of this environmental disease, but other environmental issues (which may share the same root cause as climate change) ought not be neglected. Examples: depleting resources, vanishing biodiversity, destruction to coastal habitats, overfishing; and the actions listed above do address these issues and more. So do take heart and take action.