It might be natural to see solutions to the crisis in this way. Our society is so drenched in carbon that many cannot imagine achieving climate goals without some emissions.
But “low carbon” is still carbon, and any additional emissions will only continue to exacerbate the crisis. Ultimately there is only one number that matters in this crisis: the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Currently, this number is at 417 parts per million (PPM), which is up from 393 PPM ten years ago, and well above levels considered safe. CO2 in the atmosphere is what holds in heating from the sun, like a blanket. As long as this number continues to rise, planetary heating and its terrible consequences will continue to accelerate.
So yes, even “low carbon” will increase CO2 PPM. To use the bathtub analogy, we are filling our atmospheric tub with CO2 at a rapid rate today. “Low carbon” will still continue to fill the tub, just at a slightly slower rate; it will do nothing to begin to reverse or even stem the crisis. “Low carbon” will just continue make it worse.
The comfort in using the term “low carbon” is perhaps understandable. It may feel like an economically reasonable reaction to our dilemma, as it seems impossible to completely stop using fossil fuels in the near term. Fossil fuels underlie the entire global economy and a sudden ending could cause an economic shock. It also may seem socially responsible to allow emissions to continue if they will offer the benefits of modernity to those without it.
And on a personal level, using the term “low carbon” might offer some folks a buffer against being considered a doomer, zealot, or Luddite by others. “Low carbon” may be a reassuring signal that you are not a person who will induce despair over the realities of global heating and its solution.
All of these reveal the real problem with the term “low carbon.” It demonstrates an unwillingness to accept that which must be done. Mitigation denial shies away from the science that tells us very clearly that fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, and that we need an urgent plan to move away from them. When asked how to address the climate crisis, renowned climate scientist Michael Mann has responded: “Simple: we have to stop burning fossil fuels and spewing carbon pollution into the atmosphere.”
Notice he didn’t say: “Simple: we just have to burn less fossil fuels and continue spewing lower amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere.” He hasn’t said that because it isn’t true.
Ending the use of fossil fuels will radically reshape our lives and none more so than the high carbon emitters among us. The limits of a carbon-free world will curtail their expectations and privileges and restrict their accumulation and display of personal and professional symbols of status. No doubt this can lead many hi-emitters to deflect the need to end fossil fuel use.
Meanwhile, the planet continues to get hotter. Unfortunately, this is not just a debate over physics. This is a human rights violation, as the worsening crisis affects those least responsible for it, especially global youth. The only equitable action for high emitting nations is to institute a policy of absolute zero emissions – no use of any fossil fuels at all – as soon as possible.
On this front, the group UK Fires, a collaboration between the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Nottingham, Bath and Imperial College London, has produced an important report entitled Absolute Zero that provides a real pathway to zero fossil fuel use based on existing technology. This is an example of the clear-eyed courage with which we must face reality.
If we are to stanch the impacts of the climate crisis, and thus do justice, we must achieve absolute zero emissions, and then we must drawdown excess CO2 in the atmosphere. “Low carbon” does neither of these things. “Low carbon” is mitigation denial which, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., serves only as a winter of delay. And delay results in more destruction and death. It is time for all of us to speak only the truth.