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Climate Truth: Seven Key Numbers for Sustainability and Local Plans

Roy Morrison’s latest Book is “Sustainability Sutra” (Select Books, 2017). He builds solar farms.

Local action on climate is both an essential and available path for ecological transformation. Local action does not require permission from Washington or from Paris. Action overcomes despair. Local action and planning for sustainability is essential to avoid severe climate change and chart the path for a transition to a sustainable ecological civilization.

Seven simple numbers with global consequences can help guide local action and the pursuit of crucial ecological goals. They will serve as a co-evolutionary force with global geophysical impact. Co-evolution is sustainability in action. Through co-evolutions plants and animals have maintained just enough oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to keep the planet not too hot and not too cold. Through co-evolution life has been able to withstand periodic mass extinctions and once again thrive.

Now it is our time to co-evolve self-consciously to respond to the pollution and habitat destruction unleashed by industrial civilization. Our local responsibilities with healing global consequences are to slash greenhouse gas emissions and to remove carbon dioxide by soil building, tree planting, and through aquaculture, which can produce enormous amounts of kelp and algae in the oceans to pull many gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The issue on the table is not to figure out how close to catastrophe we can get without upsetting the polluters, but to make a 180 degree turn from catastrophe and work toward both slashing carbon dioxide emissions at least 80 percent or more by 2040, and at the same time sequester many gigatons of carbon in soil and biomass through an exercise in global cooling. This will be the policy and investment basis for turning from business and pollution as usual to building an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization will be one that nurtures and maintains the balance of the ecosphere with the intention of persisting on geological time scales, millions of years. For this to happen, economic growth must mean ecological improvement, the regeneration of ecosystems and the biosphere, and a global convergence upon sustainable and just norms for all. The context of this is the global adoption of efficient renewable resources to replace fossil and nuclear fuels; installation of an ecological productive infrastructure; ecological agriculture, forestry and aquaculture; and the pursuit of social and ecological justice.

What I propose is an aggressive ecological economic growth and investment strategy that benefits everyone, makes social and ecological justice the basis for new ecological market rules, and establishes an ecological definition of fiduciary responsibility. The goal is to build an ecological global civilization that will be richer, greener, more peaceful, fairer, healthier, and sustainable.

The reduction of carbon dioxide to a sustainable thee tons per person per year level combined with three tons of sequestration per person per year (and rising) is a recipe for a sustainable ecological global growth system.

Seven simple numbers can help guide our path forward.

Number One: Fifty-four Gigatons of Carbon Dioxide Emissions per Year Globally

In 2017, global carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions were 54 gigatons. This means, there was an excess of 33 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year above the sustainable 21 gigaton limit discussed in Number 3 below. This excess 33 gigatons is overwhelming produced by the “advanced” industrial economies, in other words, by the countries with the largest economies. The excess 33 gigatons is decidedly not distributed evenly among the world’s seven billion people.

What does the current excess of 33 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year mean to the atmosphere and to our climate and our future? The release of one gigaton of carbon dioxide results in an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide by 0.127 parts per million (ppm). Fortunately the Earth and atmosphere recycle and sequester a substantial portion of this carbon dioxide. Some is incorporated into biomass and then soil. Some dissolves in oceans and becomes carbonic acid. Without this recycling and sequestration, the current yearly emissions of 54 gigatons would increase atmospheric dioxide levels by about 4.4 ppm a year. The actual average increase is now about half that or 2.25 ppm a year.

Current carbon dioxide concentrations are currently about 410 parts per million. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations reach 450 ppm, global warming will exceed two degrees centigrade. Increase in global average temperatures above this level is considered very dangerous. If emissions continue at 54 gigatons a year, we will reach 450 parts per million in about 20 years or 2038.

Number Two: 286 Parts per Million of Carbon Dioxide

In pre-industrial times, atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 286 parts per million. In July 2018 carbon dioxide concentrations reached 412 ppm, the highest level in 800,000 years.

The common global goal must be to return the atmosphere and global ecosphere to pre-industrial conditions in the context of a global ecological civilization where economic growth means ecological improvement.

Number Three: 21 Gigatons of Carbon Dioxide Emissions per Year

Twenty-one gigatons a year, that’s 21 billion metric tons. This is roughly the amount of carbon dioxide that the biosphere can handle. At this level, wecan keep our climate in the goldilocks zone, just right for the ecosphere, for humanity, and for agriculture, fishing, and aquaculture that supports a population of 7.2 billion and rising.

History shows we do not need to go to zero or negative emissions. In the Eocene, some fifty million years ago, there were huge volcanic eruptions that led to a spike in carbon dioxide levels and sent global temperatures soaring in the Eocene thermal maximum. All the ice melted, ocean levels were 70 feet higher, and the Arctic and Antarctic were tropical. This persisted until, some hundreds of thousands years later, a great mat of duck weed and micro-algae growing in the warm Arctic Ocean pulled many gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returned the planet to a more familiar climate regime.

The lesson is that at 21 gigatons of carbon emissions annually combined with sequestration of an equal amount, as discussed below, the planet is likely eventually to do just fine

Number Four: Three Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalents per Person per Year

For 7 billion of us globally, 3 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per person per year is a roughly sustainable 21 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

For the United States, the average carbon dioxide output per person is almost 17 tons per person per year. This is far above the global average of about 7.5 tons of carbon per person per year. In a poor country like Mali, carbon dioxide emissions per person per year are only 0.1 tons; in Italy 5.3 tons (and falling); in India 1.7 tons (and rising); in China 7.5 tons (and rising), and in Australia 15.4 tons (slightly rising).

To get to a sustainable three tons in the United States, we would have to eliminate eleven tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year. That’s the challenge. The place to meet the global challenge is where we live, starting right now.

The oil and gas and coal to light and heat and cool our houses and power factories and our cars is extracted and sometimes shipped thousands of miles by a huge and enormously polluting and destructive global industrial system. Worldwide, the burning of these fossil fuels results in the release of about 50 billion carbon-dioxide-equivalent tons of pollution every year. The sun, wind and water that can replace these fossil fuels and stop that carbon pollution are available with zero fuel cost.

In the United States, when coal and natural gas are used for fuel, the production of one kilowatt hour of electricity results in the release of 1.22 pounds of carbon dioxide. In 2017 2,481 billion kWh of electricity were produced using coal and natural gas in the United States. If the same energy had been produced with sun, wind, or water, there would have been a reduction of an estimated 1.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide, or 3.9 tons of carbon dioxide per year for each of the 350 million people in the United States. That would be a meaningful bite out of the current 14 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year.

Clean electricity can be used not only to replace present uses of fossil produced electricity. Clean electricity can be used to power to our cars and trucks, our factories, and heating and cooling units. This will result in a further reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

I have been a part of developing a six megawatt solar photovoltaic PV project for Becket, Massachusetts. It is mechanically complete and will come online shortly.  It will produce 7.2 million kWh a year and offset almost 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year and, in 30 years, around 105,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This means for the 1,750 people in Becket that this power would cut carbon dioxide by 2.2 tons per person per year.

To get to sustainable emissions of three tons of carbon dioxide per person per year in your community, you need to understand where you are now and make plans for where you want to go. Take advantage of all available technological, legal, and financial tools at hand. Start by conducting a local carbon inventory using available online tools, such as those provided by the World Resources Institute at https://ghgprotocol.org/. We may not control what happens nationally. With our neighbors, we have, however, a great deal more say about what happens.

Local planning for three tons of carbon per person per year and an ecological transformation means understanding the strongly positive effect of such things as things replacing fossil fuel heating and hot water with air-to-air heat pumps; improving building efficiency by cutting air infiltration and increasing insulation; using plug-in electric vehicles; building and using district heating and cooling systems; using organic wastes for compost to build soil and sequester carbon; using bio-digesters and syn (synthetic) gas production to displace fossil fuels; and replacing fossil fuel electricity with renewably powered micro-grids and energy storage systems.

Improvements like these provide will yield economic growth that improves the environment and makes communities sustainable.

Number Five: Sequester Three Tons of Carbon Dioxide per Person per year in Soil and Biomass

One way to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is to emit less. The other way is to sequester more. This means using agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in biomass and soils on land and sea. Three tons of carbon dioxide per person per year needs to be sequestered. If this were done globally, it would completely offset carbon emissions if these emissions were also limited to three tons per person per year.

Accomplishing this rate of sequestration would transform agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture such that they would become both a source of expanded and sustainable global food production and also the basis for removal of many gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to return global carbon dioxide to pre-industrial levels of 286 parts per million.

Number Six: 20 years

 What happens in the next 20 years is crucial for the future of civilization.

There is typically a lag in how quickly climate change’s consequences manifest. It takes time, for example, for ice to melt and for global currents to alter as ocean salinity changes. But once changes on geophysical scale become manifest, chaotic dynamics rule as the ecosphere finds new semi-stable equilibrium that will almost certainly be far less favorable for existing human activities, most crucially agriculture.

If we wait until these chaotic dynamics manifest themselves, we will have waited too late.

Number Seven: Eight 4-Year Plans for Global Ecological Transformation 2018-2040

Starting with a local town, city, or neighborhood carbon inventory, we can start to make comprehensive plans for:

  • Reducing carbon emissions to three tons of carbon per person per year through an efficient renewable energy transformation;
  • Removing atmospheric carbon dioxide and sequestering it in biomass and soil at rates of three tons per person per year;
  • Adapting to the effects of climate change;
  • Engaging in ecological economic development involving investments in the renewable energy transformation, and in industry, agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture that will make economic growth mean ecological improvement.

These plans would involve goal setting and then backcasting from these goals to the concrete steps technically, physically, financially, legally, and educationally needed to reach the goals.

The planning horizon should be eight 4-year plans to move from business as usual to new sustainability paradigm. The lives of present and future generations depend on it.


Left to their own devices, global government conferences and the financial masters of the universe are unlikely to do what needs to be done to avert climate catastrophe, let alone to put us on the path toward a prosperous and peaceful ecological civilization.

We have the power now to start from where we are to make and implement plans for achieving a three tons of carbon dioxide per person per year sustainable global standard combined with sequestration in soil and biomass to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Over time, through eight 4-year local plans, we can move our neighborhoods, towns, and cities far along the path toward an ecological future.

It’s time for us to look up and open our eyes to creative and transformative possibilities. The sun is rising, wind is blowing, and water is flowing.


3 tons of global carbon and 70 gigajoules of primary energy per person:

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), 2011. World Economic and Social Survey 2011 – The Great Green Technological Transformation, Chapter 2.


Global Carbon Emissions

Best current and historical data sets from NOAA Earth Systems Research

NOAA Research, 2015. “Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.”


Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions

 Nov 20, 2017 – The world’s countries emit vastly different amounts of heat-trapping gases … 2015 per capita carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion.


Annual CO2 PPM Increases Fluctuate

   Annual Increase         uncertainty

1999        0.93        0.11

2000        1.61        0.11

2001       1.61        0.11

2002       2.50        0.11

2003       2.27        0.11

2004       1.60        0.11

2005       2.54        0.11

2006       1.68        0.11

2007       2.27        0.11

2008       1.57        0.11

2009       2.02        0.11

2010       2.32        0.11

2011       1.92        0.11

2012       2.61        0.11

2013       2.01        0.11

2014       2.18        0.11

2015       2.99        0.11

2016       2.98        0.11

2017       1.95        0.11

The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum

 Introduction: The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) is one of the most intense and abrupt intervals of global warming in the geological record. It occurred around 56 million years ago, at the boundary between the Paleocene and Eocene epochs.


 On The Path to 450 ppm Carbon Dioxide

Earth’s CO2 levels have crossed the 400 ppm threshold for good

Brittany Patterson, E&E News reporter Sept.29, 2016


Kneeling curve for carbon dioxide increase

The rate of growth in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere has accelerated since the beginnings of the Keeling Curve.  The rate has gone from about 0.75 parts per million (ppm)/yr in 1959 to about 2.25ppm/yr today.


Grim Math Behind the Global Carbon budget

The United Nations Environment Programme’s sixth “Emissions Gap” report, released Friday, provides an overview of the “intended nationally determined contributions” (or INDCs) that nations have proposed leading into Paris. Last week the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change released a similar inquiry that suggested that current pledges could possibly keep the world to 2.7 degrees Celsius, but UNEP is not so optimistic. It says 3 to 3.5 degrees Celsius can be expected, with a two-thirds probability, if all the pledges are implemented, including those that are “contingent” on funding and other actions.