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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Stop Digging
distributed 9/30/16 - ©2016

The latest numbers have been released, and the news is not good.

I'm not talking about polling for the US elections. The numbers that I most care about describe grim facts about the climate crisis.

This September -- when CO2 levels generally hit their low point in an annual cycle -- the monthly average did not drop below 400 parts per million. Scientists say that the readings will not drop below that symbolic line again in our lifetime.

Far more importantly, a new report issued this month spells out stark details about what must be done if we are to have any hope of containing climate change. It takes the "keep it in the ground" call about fossil fuels to a new urgency.

Surprisingly, I find an element of encouragement in the new report's dramatic recommendations. Precisely because we're in so much trouble, there's a new clarity to the decisions that must be made.

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Briefly, on passing the 400 ppm line. The source for those iconic measurements of carbon dioxide levels is the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. Instruments on that high mountain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean yield the world's most reliable measurements. Daily records going back to 1958 are the basis for the "Keeling Curve" showing the rising saw-tooth graph. (The observatory's website has a fascinating collection of graphs and articles.)

400 parts per million isn't functionally all that different from 399 or 401, but it is a powerful symbolic line. Crossing beyond 400 -- which was first touched in May of 2013 -- shows how we're moving into ever more dangerous territory. If 350 ppm is the "safe" level for climate stability, then putting 400 behind us, and perhaps touching 410 next spring, is a clear indicator that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gasses are a threat which must be addressed.

Just as a birthday in a decade year often evokes more introspection, so, too, does passing this symbolic line call us to awareness, reflection, and action.

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The new report comes from a collaboration of 15 organizations. It is titled, The Sky's Limit: Why the Paris Climate Goals Require a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production.

The Paris climate goals, as you may remember, were agreed upon just last December. Delegates from the world's nations established the goal of "holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels." Meeting those temperature goals requires a sharp reduction in emissions from fossil fuels.

For several years, we've known that it would be suicidal to develop all of the coal, oil and gas that exist in the world. In 2012, Bill McKibben distilled that information into three numbers, revealing that 80% of known reserves have to be kept in the ground if we're to hold to less than 2 degrees of temperature rise.

This year's report -- which also has led to a compelling article from McKibben -- used records from the fossil fuel industries to find out how much fuel is in "developed reserves", the stuff that is already in production or under contract.

They found that the oil, gas, and coal in already-producing fields and mines are more than we can afford to burn while keeping likely warming below 2°C (a 66% chance). The oil and gas alone are more than we can afford for a medium chance (50%) of keeping to 1.5°C.

Forget about the fossil fuels that we know are there, but haven't been touched. We're already tapping into fuel sources that will push us past the Paris goals. "These are the sites where the necessary wells have been (or are being) drilled, the pits dug, and the pipelines, processing facilities, railways, and export terminals constructed."

A "logic tree" in the report identifies three options for choices about fossil fuel supply and emissions. (1) We, globally, can keep extracting fuels, and not succeed in limiting emissions. This leads into the full-blown catastrophe of climate chaos. (2) We can keep extracting fuels, and at some future point take the dramatic steps needed to achieve a sharp reduction in emissions. This leads to large and sudden job losses, and severe economic shocks from "stranded assets." (3) We can decide now to stop all new extraction, and begin a managed decline in fossil fuel production. "By starting now, the transition can be managed efficiently and fairly, to the maximum benefit of everyone involved."

The executive summary of the report thus offers three recommendations:

  • No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them.
  • Some fields and mines -- primarily in rich countries -- should be closed before fully exploiting their resources, and financial support should be provided for non-carbon development in poorer countries.
  • This does not mean stopping using all fossil fuels overnight. Governments and companies should conduct a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and ensure a just transition for the workers and communities that depend on it.

The final paragraph of the report says, "the conclusions are also remarkably straightforward at their core. To keep from burning more fossil fuels than our atmosphere can withstand, we must stop digging them out of the ground."

Because the data and the conclusions of the report are so clear, we have been given a helpful new strategic clarity. We can -- we must -- stop arguing about specific instances of wells or pipelines. We must work for categorical changes.

The world community must reject every new coal mine, starting now. We must refuse all new drilling operations. Generally, that will also mean that no new oil pipelines or coal export terminals will be built. We need to stop now. Nothing new can be added to existing production.

China has already adopted a policy of closing some existing coal mines. The US government has stopped issuing new coal leases. The US ban has to be extended to oil and gas leases, too -- both onshore and offshore. (That was the demand behind our "Break Free" protest last May at a BLM lease auction.)

It is no longer a question of whether good pollution controls are put on gas wells -- we have to stop drilling new wells. It is no longer a question of the ecological destruction of mountain top removal -- we have to stop all new mining operations.

There is an absolute standard to meet. We, as a global community, must not allow any new fields of coal, oil or gas to go into production. What is already in production must decline to net zero by no later than 2070 -- and 2050 improves our odds.

The report spells out many details about what is needed to make this energy transition happen -- technically and economically. There is a pathway to a just transition. It is a challenging pathway, but it is the only viable option that is available.

We've just passed the line of 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere -- and the rate of increase is accelerating. Without dramatic action, we are on a rapid path to climate chaos.

"Stop digging" is the only realistic choice. May we heed the wisdom of the new report, and demand policy changes to put those recommendations in place.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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