Sunday, August 13, 2023

Peak Carbon

"Do offsets offer any way down?"

Plowmen of Philippi, coin, 27 BCE
A few thousand years after the glaciers retreated, the world’s soils, mineralized by dust dropped by melting and grinding ice, reached what might be called “peak carbon.” The end of the ice age marked a low ebb in the atmospheric CO2 tide, and gradually, as field grasses and new forests migrated into areas previously covered by ice, soil storage of carbon reached a zenith — 10 to 12% by volume. The plant and animal respiratory cycle found its balance, an equilibrium state only disturbed by occasional volcanic cataclysms, massive wildfires, or droughts created by cycles that denuded great land masses. Earth has cycled through such states for an eternity. Until civilization arrived.

 “What do you think of Western civilization, Mr. Gandhi?”

Gandhi: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

Civilization changed all that. Vast forests were cleared to build cities and feed armies. Cows replaced buffalo and wildebeest. As forests gave way to fields and fields gave way to pavement, the cycle of respiration shortened like an asthmatic’s when in search of an inhaler.

— Brundtland Report (1987)

The surplus in the sunlight retention ledger progressed over 6000 years to 0.5 W/m2. Put another way, thanks to human settlement patterns, agriculture, deforestation, drilling and mining, the planet’s energy balance was too hot by half a Watt over every square meter of the planet.

  • The loss of sea ice is exposing dark ocean water, which absorbs more sunlight than reflective ice. This is causing the Arctic to warm at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.
  • The loss of ice on Greenland and Antarctica is causing the land to warm, which is melting more ice. This is a self-reinforcing process that is causing the ice sheets to lose mass at an accelerating rate.
  • As ice melts, it adds water to the oceans which speeds sea level rise. This is another feedback process that causes the ice sheets to lose mass at an accelerating rate.
  • Changes in weather patterns caused by warming leads to more frequent and severe storms, droughts, and floods which in turn melts more ice.

The rapid expansion of carbon markets over the past few decades slowed in 2022 and 2023. One reason was a general reckoning with quality and methodology issues. A common issue was permanence. Early awards were often for long periods — as much as a century — without accounting for how climate change might bring greater rates of damage to farms and forests from drought, disease, pests, floods, wildfire, and extreme weather.


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