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Carbon sinks extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorb more carbon than they release. Carbon sources, conversely, release more carbon than they absorb. They cover about 30% of the Earth’s land surface and as much as 45% of the carbon stored on land is tied up in these sinks. Carbon sinks are therefore an essential means of helping fight climate change, but without major changes to current human practices, they are unable to mitigate the detrimental effects alone. 

The Carbon Cycle 

The carbon cycle refers to the natural flow of carbon between the ocean, rocks, fossil fuels and living organisms. Forests are examples of carbon sinks as trees and plants extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis – some is also stored. When plants die, the carbon dissolves into the soil where microbes are then able to release the carbon back into the atmosphere by process of decomposition, where it’s available to other plants for photosynthesis.

Oceans are considered to be the main natural carbon sinks, absorbing approximately 50% of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Plankton, corals, fish, algae and other photosynthetic bacteria contribute to this extraction of carbon

Any process that uses fossil fuels – such as burning coal to generate electricity – releases more carbon into the atmosphere than carbon sinks can absorb. Cattle farming also releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. It also contributes to deforestation, depleting the planet of its carbon sinks; according to the World Resources Institute, farms emitted 6.6 billions tons of greenhouse gases in 2011, equivalent to about 13% of total emissions. The agricultural sector is the world’s second largest emitter of GHGs, after the energy sector. 

Ideally, the carbon cycle would maintain Earth’s carbon concentration, helping to move carbon from one location to the next and keeping atmospheric carbon levels stable. However, due to human activity, the carbon cycle is changing: we are releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than Earth can handle by using fossil fuels and maintaining large livestock operations. Deforestation is further exacerbating this problem as it depletes the Earth’s  supply of carbon sinks. Since 2016, an average of 28 million hectares have been cut down every year, equivalent to one football field of forest lost every second. Consequently, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is rising. 

Solutions to combat this problem include banning deforestation, planting more trees, utilising renewable energy sources and reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Carbons Sinks Examples

Aside from the aforementioned oceans being the main natural carbon sink in the world, forests are also significant carbon sinks examples as well. According to a report published in January 2021, forests absorb twice as much carbon as they release each year,  absorbing a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

As the world’s largest and best known tropical rainforest, the Amazon accounts for just over a third of tree cover across the tropics and is one of the most important natural carbon sinks in the world.  Their role is more important than ever especially as the world’s carbon emissions exponentially increase over the last few decades. However, recent studies have recorded the Amazon releasing higher carbon emissions than absorbing it due to deforestation and higher rates of wildfires.

Similarly, mangroves are highly regarded in their role of absorbing and capturing carbon in the atmosphere, and in fact, have been known to be a more effective carbon sink than forests. Mangroves have been recorded to absorb almost 10 times as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than terrestrial forests. Indonesia currently boasts the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem, accounting 23% of the world’s total.

Recent research in what has been dubbed as the world’s largest seagrass project, has also found seagrass to be a particularly effective carbon sink and hugely successful in restoring oceans and  purifying the water.

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carbon sinks

(Source: Earth.Org) 

Artificial Techniques 

In addition to natural carbon sinks, technological advances have helped produce artificial techniques that extract carbon from the atmosphere. 

Examples include: using geological carbon sequestration techniques that inject carbon dioxide into deep saline aquifers to produce large pockets of salt water; injecting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations deep under the Earth’s surface and using light-sensitive algae that are capable of absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen.

Artificial technologies, however, are not efficient or advanced enough to cope with the effects of the climate crisis. Investing in research and companies who commit to finding alternate ways of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will prove worthwhile.

According to a report from BloombergNEF (BNEF), global greenhouse gas emissions likely hit their peak in 2019. Emissions from energy use have dropped 8% this year due to COVID-19-related lockdowns- a decline equal to two-and-a half years of energy sector emissions. While emissions may not rise to this level again even as the global economy rebounds from the pandemic, they still need to fall dramatically to avoid catastrophic warming. 

The report- called “New Energy Outlook”- finds that emissions will rise gradually until 2027 as the economy recovers, but will then decline 0.7% year-to-year until 2050. Wind and solar energy, along with battery storage, will supply 56% of the world’s electricity demand by 2050, with some countries generating as much as 80% of demand. 

What Does This Mean?

To mitigate warming, investments of as much as USD$130 trillion in clean energy and green hydrogen technology between now and 2050 will be needed.

The report found that along with a peak in global emissions, oil demand will peak in 2035 and fall 0.7% each year to 2050. Electric cars will become price competitive with internal combustion vehicles before the mid-2020s, and then will overtake them, further cutting into oil demand. Coal demand peaked in 2018 and will continue to fall. It will make up 18% of electricity generation by mid-century, down from 26% today. However, natural gas will continue to grow, increasing 0.5% per year. 

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BNEF CEO, Jon Moore, says, “The next 10 years will be crucial for the energy transition. There are three key things that we will need to see: accelerated deployment of wind and PV, faster consumer uptake in electric vehicles, small-scale renewables and low-carbon heating technology, such as heat pumps, and scaled-up development and deployment of zero-carbon fuels.” 

Japan has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050 according to prime minister Yoshihide Suga, who says that responding to the climate crisis is “no longer a constraint on economic growth,” a bold and welcome move by the world’s third-biggest economy and fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The country has revised its earlier commitment of achieving an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 followed by becoming carbon neutral “as soon as possible” in the second half of the century. Japan is now in line with the EU, which set itself a similar target last year, as well as China, who recently announced that it would become carbon neutral by 2060

Suga says,”We need to change our thinking to the view that taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structure and the economy that will bring about growth.”

Japan’s current energy plan, set in 2018, calls for 22-24% of its energy to come from renewable energy, 20-22% from nuclear power and 56% from fossil fuels. It currently plans to reduce its dependence on coal, decreasing its contribution to the country’s electricity generation from 32% in 2018 to 26% by 2030. 

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Suga did not provide details on how the country will reduce its emissions to zero, but said that it would promote renewable energy and prioritise safety as it seeks a bigger role for nuclear energy. He added that he would speed up research and development on next-generation solar batteries and carbon recycling and promised to “fundamentally change Japan’s long-term reliance on coal-fired energy.”

However, for Japan to achieve carbon neutrality will require a massive overhaul of the infrastructure in the country, which remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels; in fact, the country plans to build or is in the process of building 17 new coal-burning power plants. Therefore, there are doubts that Japan will be able to achieve this goal, not only given its reliance on fossil fuels, but also the public opposition to increasing nuclear energy’s share of the energy mix after the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. 

By the early 2000s, the country had made progress in reducing its emissions through the use of nuclear power, which constituted roughly a third of Japan’s total power supply. Japan has struggled to cut emissions since the Daiichi incident, which forced the closure of dozens of nuclear reactors, only a small number of which have restarted. 

The use of nuclear energy has been widely opposed in the country since 2011, and Suga’s announcement that Japan would continue to develop nuclear power- with “maximum priority on safety”- nevertheless drew boos from members of Parliament. The country may then have to explore other cleaner technologies to generate power.

Japan is already considering a substantial increase in wind and solar power, and it is also looking at newer, less-established technologies, such as plants that burn ammonia or hydrogen. 

The country has also pledged to end government subsidies for the export of coal-fired power technology to developing countries; it is currently supporting three such projects and says that it will consider financing more only in “exceptional” cases.

According to Takeshi Kuramochi, a climate policy researcher at the NewClimate Institution in Germany, says that Japan’s decision was most likely driven by a “combination of domestic and external political pressures.” He added that Suga may have felt that it was important not to allow China to assume leadership on the issue. As a developed nation, “it would be somewhat embarrassing for Japan to have a net zero emissions timeline later than China,” he adds. 

150 municipal governments in Japan have already pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

Japan is already feeling the consequences of the climate crisis. Rising temperatures have contributed to deadly heatwaves in the last few years and scientists say that the crisis also contributed to the size and intensity of the devastating typhoons that struck the country last year. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

Google and Facebook have both pledged to become carbon neutral, following in the footsteps of Apple and Microsoft. 

Google is going one step further than Microsoft (who pledged to go carbon negative by 2030, meaning that it will account for all the carbon that it has ever produced and add enough mitigation to counteract its effect). In 2007, Google pledged to be carbon neutral and has made an investment to match all of the electricity it uses with renewable energy. The company says that it has purchased enough carbon offsets to bring its carbon footprint dating back to the company’s founding

In a blog post, the CEO of Google and Alphabet, Sundar Pichai, says, “The science is clear: the world must act now if we’re going to avert the worst consequences of climate change. We are committed to doing our part. Sustainability has been a core value for us since Larry and Sergey founded Google two decades ago.”

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Additionally, the company will become the first to commit to run entirely on carbon-free energy in all of its data centres globally. 

To achieve this, Google will pair wind and solar energy and will use its artificial intelligence to predict its future electricity demands. 

Climate activists praised the announcement. Elizabeth Jardim, Senior Corporate Campaigner at Greenpeace USA, says, “Today’s announcement, combined with Google’s promise in May to no longer create artificial intelligence solutions for upstream oil and gas exploration, shows that Google takes its role in combating climate change seriously.”

Meanwhile, in a separate announcement from Google, Facebook has announced that it will achieve net-zero carbon emissions and become carbon neutral by 2030. Director of Sustainability, Edward Palmieri, says, ““Facebook’s global operations will achieve net-zero carbon emissions and be 100 percent supported by renewable energy. We are also setting an ambitious goal to reach net-zero emissions for our value chain in 2030.” 

Both companies’ announcements follow similar announcements from Apple and Microsoft. In January, Microsoft pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030, and to remove all of its historical emissions by 2050. In July, Apple announced its own plans to become carbon neutral by 2030. This encompasses not only its entire supply chain, but also the lifecycle of all its products, including the electricity consumed in their use.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

The climate crisis is the most pressing issue humanity is facing today; global temperatures have increased by 1C since the pre-industrial period and under current policies, are expected to increase by 3.1-3.7C by the end of the century. Why do we need to reduce carbon emissions? Carbon emissions remain in the atmosphere for 100 years and up to 80% of this dissolves into the ocean over a period of 20- 200 years. The crisis not only has impacts for the environment, but also for the economy. Evidence shows that reducing carbon emissions will benefit the economy, but will governments make the decisive actions needed?

Why Do We Need to Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Global temperature increase and climate change are causing environments inhospitable and posing greater risks to public health. Problems caused by excessive carbon emissions to the atmosphere are vast and widespread. From exacerbating outdoor air pollution, which according to World Health Organisation led to an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths, about 90% of them reside in low and middle-income countries, to ocean acidification – causing ocean temperature to rise, coral bleaching and creating irreversible damage to marine ecosystems – to food insecurity, where changes in temperature and precipitation affect crop yield and shift agricultural zones.

How Do Greenhouse Gases Affect the Economy?

A 2017 study found that in China, 1.23 million air pollution-related deaths in 2010 represented up to 13.2% of the country’s GDP. In the same year, air pollution caused over 23 000 deaths in the UK, representing up to 7.1% of the GDP. Another report projects that annual premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution will increase to up to 9 million people in 2060 from 3 million in 2010, as well as an increase in annual global hospital admissions: 11 million people in 2060 from 3.6 million people in 2010. One of the biggest benefits of reducing carbon emissions is that it would decrease the number of deaths related to air pollution and help to ease pressure on healthcare systems.

To achieve growth in the economy while still prioritising the reduction of carbon emissions, a decoupling between the two is needed. There are a variety of ways this can be done; a notable example is implementing a carbon tax

Carbon taxes are seen as a way to reduce emissions, while making the economy more efficient, and are advocated as a means to improve the operation of the economy, lower dependence on foreign fossil fuels (for importing countries), reduce pollution and cut government spending. Over the last 20 years, Sweden has proven this with their carbon tax; announced in 1991, the price of carbon has risen steadily from €29 to €125 in 2014. Globally, Sweden has the highest level of carbon taxation in the world and has been able to achieve decoupling. The revenue from this tax is used wherever the country needs it. 

China is the highest global emitter of carbon and experiences high levels of air pollution. In 2010, China’s Low-Carbon Pilot Policy (CLCP) was implemented in five provinces and eight cities aimed at decoupling economic growth from fossil fuel use by shifting to an economy based on energy efficiency and renewable energy. While the pilot cities have made progress in establishing low-carbon plans, there are barriers such as a lack of explicit definition for ‘low-carbon city’, confusion resulting from several parallel programs, and insufficient supporting policies. However, the CLCP promotes regional economic growth and while it increases production costs, it also promotes the growth of enterprises’ output and benefits. Additionally, it helps to strengthen internal management, efficiency and innovation, which fosters competitiveness and higher productivity. A 2019 study shows that as a result of the CLCP, the degree of competitiveness in markets has been magnified, encouraging economic growth by not only selling products at competitive prices, but also driving for innovation. This is clearly evident in July 2021 when China managed to launch a national emissions trading scheme after much delay. The market saw 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide quotas worth USD$32 millions traded on the first day of its opening, making it the world’s largest carbon market

A 2017 study claims the best way to avoid increasing production costs is for developers to produce new technologies that reduce CO2 emissions while also decreasing costs. According to the National Statistics, as a result of not only climate regulation and economic structural change, but also technological advancements that took place in the UK, the region was able to achieve decoupling between 1985 and 2016 with GDP per head rising by 70.7% while emissions dropped by 34%. These technological advancements involved developments in vehicle efficiency and replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy; between the years 1990 and 2017, the use of energy from renewable sources grew by 1 267% while fossil fuel consumption decreased by 22%. Denmark’s rapid increase in renewable energy reduced emissions while encouraging local production. 

Conversely, productivity is negatively affected by the climate crisis through the loss of infrastructure through disasters like flooding, sea level rise and the hampering of agriculture. 

A study in the journal, Nature, says that for each trillion tonnes of CO2, GDP losses could be nearly half a percent. Developed countries such as Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the UK will have less than 0.1% of productivity loss per unit emission. However, productivity losses in developing countries like India, Thailand and Malaysia will range from 3-5% of total GDP per year for every trillion tonnes of carbon emitted. Implicitly, keeping carbon emissions down would result in a reduction of productivity losses (the degree of reduction depending on the country). 

Further, if we pursue all of the low-cost climate crisis abatement opportunities currently available, the total cost of mitigating the climate crisis would be 200-300 billion Euros per year by 2030 – less than 1% of the forecasted global GDP in 2030

It is imperative that countries achieve this decoupling and reduce carbon emissions, ideally through a carbon tax, to ensure a more sustainable and prosperous economy. Failure to act, or acting too late, will result in even further climate breakdown, affecting any chance humanity has of extending its lease on the planet.

Is it wise for airlines to ask passengers to subsidise fuel bills to cut emissions, considering that the industry had shrunk 75% by April due to COVID-19? Some carriers, such as SAS and Lufthansa, are doing exactly this by offering passengers the option to offset emissions from their flights with contributions to the cost of using sustainable aviation fuel, which is less polluting, but far more expensive than traditional kerosene. 

Passengers flying SAS can pay USD$10 for 20 minute blocks of biofuel, while Lufthansa allows customers of any airline to calculate their emissions and then pay the carrier to use greener fuel on its own flights to offset all of part of their journey. 

However, these voluntary contributions may soon be mandatory. In early August, the European Commission said that the EU is considering implementing quotas on sustainable fuels to tackle the climate impact of aviation. It would also seek to implement an obligation for the fuel industry to produce a minimum share of these fuels. Already, Norway has set a 0.5% requirement, which will rise to 30% by 2030, and SAS has set a target of 10% by 2025 and 17% by 2030. 

While the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that the airline industry has dropped fuel burn per passenger-kilometer by half since 1990, sustainable aviation fuel costs up to four times more than conventional fuel. Lars Andersen Resare, head of sustainability at SAS, says that these costs need to be included into the price of flights. 

Currently, aviation accounts for 2-3% of global emissions, which is expected to rise to as much as 25%. Climate Action Tracker, an independent group that assesses emission reduction pledges, estimates that international aviation emissions will rise by 220- 290% between 2015 and 2050, even taking into account the COVID-19-induced decline this year. 

Chris Stark, chief executive of the UK’s Committee of Climate Change, says, “Aviation is not an easy sector to decarbonise because the fuels are energy dense and you need that for long distance. In theory, sustainable aviation fuels address that problem.” 

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The CCC believes that a realistic target for sustainable aviation fuel is about 10% by 2050. Any ambitions for the sector to reach net zero emissions can only be met with a variety of measures, from improving how aircraft are flown to limiting growth in passenger demand. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still aim to use them, however. 

Sustainable fuels used today are largely made using household, municipal or industrial waste and while they emit roughly the same amount of carbon as conventional kerosene jet fuel when burnt, the improvement results from the fact that its production process absorbs CO2, leading to a reduction in CO2 emissions of up to 80% on a life-cycle basis. 

However, they are not yet produced in enough volume to make a significant difference- IATA puts current sustainable fuel production at 50 million litres a year. This keeps the fuel expensive. Warren East, chief executive of Rolls-Royce, the UK aero-engine maker, believes that volume has to be increased by a factor of 1 000. The problem: finding investors, especially now in the middle of a pandemic. Even before COVID-19, there was reluctance to invest without government incentives to encourage their use. 

Analysis at McKinsey found that to keep global temperature rise at 1.5°C by 2100, sustainable fuel would have to account for 20% of jet fuel by 2030. 

Some companies are making the leap however. LanzaJet, a partnership between Canada’s Suncor and Japan’s Mitsui, is aiming to build three plants producing 200 million litres of sustainable jet fuel each from 2025. Virgin Atlantic and Japan’s ANA are among the airlines who have committed to buying the fuel. 

Another company, Velocys, is being backed by British Airways and Shell to produce sustainable fuel from municipal waste. It is building a UK plant and aims to produce 50 000 tons of fuel annually by 2025. The company says that this is enough to fuel 1 000 transatlantic flights a year. 

However, meeting the industry’s need for sustainable fuel will require more than $1 trillion in capital costs, according to some experts, which will require the cooperation of a range of industries, governments and regulatory bodies. 

The EU’s proposed plan is a good first step. Other support measures could include loan guarantees for plant construction or subsidies such as those given for renewable energy to close the price gap with conventional fuel.

In the UK, there are calls for the government to provide £500 million to expand sustainable aviation fuel capacity. John Holland-Kaye, chief executive at Heathrow Airport, is one such supporter. He says, “This is the earliest opportunity to help make flying sustainable. But there is also an economic opportunity here. The key for the government is how many new jobs it will create.”

Investing in forests to fight climate change seems like a sure bet. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, pump out oxygen, and live for decades. What could go wrong? The answer, according to a newly published paper in Science, is: a lot.

Fires, rising temperatures, disease, pests and humans all pose threats to forests, and as climate change escalates, so too do these threats. While forest-based solutions need to play an important role in addressing climate change, the risks to forests from climate change must also be considered.

“Current risks are not carefully considered and accounted for, much less these increased risks that forests are going to face in a warming climate,” William Anderegg, a biologist at the University of Utah and first author of the new paper, told Mongabay.

As societies strive to meet climate goals such as those set by the Paris Agreement — which aims to limit the global temperature rise to “well below” 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) by 2100 — interest in planting, protecting, and managing forests (strategies referred to as forest-based natural climate solutions) has grown in recent years. A number of arenas and policies such as the Trillion Tree Campaign, supported by the United Nations, as well as individual companies have also launched tree-planting initiatives.

Up to 30% of global emissions today are pulled out of the atmosphere by land-based plants. But for forests to be good carbon-removal investments, they need to be relatively permanent, meaning that the plants and soil in a forest will absorb carbon and keep it locked away for decades or centuries. What climate change does is exacerbate many of the threats to forest permanence.

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forests climate change
Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

“Avoiding a 2° [Celsius] or 2.5° increase in temperature will be difficult without a very robust natural carbon solution,” Daniel Nepstad, president and founder of the Earth Innovation Institute, who was not involved in the paper, told Mongabay. “The paper helps us put in perspective the realistic expectations of a forest as a climate mitigation approach.”

An estimated 44% of forests are threatened with what is known as a stand replacing disturbance such as a high-intensity fire, hurricane, or disease outbreak that would kill most or all of the mature trees in the stand. The combined effects of multiple disturbances such as both drought and disease or drought and fire also hasten forest destruction.

“Climate change is going to supercharge the risks that forests face,” Anderegg said. “We’re going to see more fires, more droughts and more pests and pathogens in a warming climate.”

The recent fires in Australia and in the Amazon served as a global wake-up call about the increasing threat of fire on a warming planet and the impermanence of forests. Fire causes an estimated 12% of stand replacing disturbances to forests worldwide, and is a particular threat in Mediterranean climates, boreal forests, Australia, and the Western U.S. In the U.S., fire risk has already doubled over the past 30 years.

Droughts also threaten forests globally. A drought in California between 2011 and 2015 killed an estimated 140 million trees and caused the state’s ecosystem to be a net source of carbon rather than a sink. The disturbance accounted for 10% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from that time period.

Biotic agents such as insects and plant diseases also present a huge challenge to forests and forest management. The mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), for example, is responsible for the deaths of billions of trees in temperate and boreal coniferous forests. At this point, science does not have a good way of predicting where, when, and to what extent these threats will present.

Anderegg and a group of global experts gathered in 2019 to talk about natural climate solutions. Here, they asked: How can we assess the risks to forest permanence? What can science contribute to be sure forest-based solutions are good investments for the climate? And how can we get that information to land managers and policymakers?

The newly published paper in Science was one of the outcomes of that meeting. In it, the authors provide a road map for assessing risks to forest permanence. Forest plot data, remote sensing, and mechanistic vegetation modeling are highlighted as some of the best scientific tools available.

Combining long-term satellite records with forest plot data, for instance, can provide solid estimates for future forest stress and disturbance.  Computer models in climate risks as well as models of tree growth and fire disturbance are also becoming more advanced.

However, because much of the forest plot data is collected in temperate forests, tropical forests have large gaps in data and monitoring. Also, many of these cutting-edge tools and techniques are not widely used outside of the scientific community, meaning policy decisions sometimes rely on science that is decades old.

The authors urge policymakers to be sure forest-based, natural climate solutions are done with the best available science. Likewise, scientists are urged to improve tools for sharing information across different groups outside of science.

Publicly available, easily usable and open-source tools to connect decision and policymakers to science and data are a priority, and something Anderegg and colleagues are currently working to create. The hope is that these tools will inform local decision-making based on current scientific understanding.

Beyond assessing risks to forests, the authors stress the importance of investing in forests in both an ecologically and socially responsible way.

“Planting native tree species and perhaps a diversity of tree species, involving local communities, and respecting indigenous communities and their rights in these forestry efforts are some of the ways to do this,” Anderegg said.

Another key point is to be mindful of how and where forests are planted. Across the high latitudes in Canada or Russia, for instance, the reflective nature of the snow cools the planet. So planting trees in these areas and covering the snow would actually tend to heat up the planet.

Finally, programs that offset carbon emissions by creating and protecting forests, while critical, should not distract from the simultaneously urgent matter of reducing fossil fuel emissions.

“There has been a tendency over the years, and it resurges every now and then, to put too much faith in forests or tree planting as a climate change solution,” Nepstad said. “First and foremost, we have to decarbonize the economy and move beyond fossil fuels, and that message has come through in this paper.”

“Keep in mind that there are lots of other reasons that we want to protect, conserve and perhaps restore forests,” Anderegg said, “such as biodiversity benefits, clean air, clean water, ecosystem services and tourism…Forests are about more than carbon.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Liz Kimbrough, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

 

How are the biggest companies in the world working to reduce their carbon footprint? Apple has announced a target of becoming carbon neutral across its entire business and manufacturing supply chain by 2030. The new commitment means that by 2030, every Apple device sold will have net zero climate impact.

Apple has also said that any company hoping to become a supplier has to commit to be ‘100% renewable for their Apple production’ within 10 years. 

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, says, “Climate action can be the foundation for a new era of innovative potential, job creation and durable economic growth. With our commitment to carbon neutrality, we hope to be a ripple in the pond that creates a much larger change.”

While the move has been generally applauded, Greenpeace says technology giants like Apple have a responsibility to act quickly in mitigating the climate crisis as they produce vast quantities of waste. Elizabeth Jardim, Greenpeace USA’s senior corporate campaigner, says, “I am happy to see that Apple has worked with suppliers to source actual renewable energy and that it has not relied on low-impact solutions like offsetting or renewable energy credits. But I will want to see how the company is further phasing out reliance on fossil fuels throughout its operations on a near-term timeline.” 

Apple has said that its plan to become carbon neutral involves investment in new eco-friendly projects as well as the purchase of green energy offsets to compensate for some continued use of carbon-emitting fuels. 

Apple says that more than 70 of the company’s existing suppliers have already committed to use 100% renewable energy for work on its products by 2030, the equivalent of taking 3 million cars off the road every year. 

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Roadmap

Apple’s Environmental Policies

The company has released a 10-year roadmap detailing some of the actions it plans to take. These include the use of a new robot to recover materials from the engines of devices returned for recycling so that they can be reprocessed and put back into supply chains. 

Other efforts include increased use of recycled raw materials in its own products, new solar panel projects to power its own data centres, investment in environmental projects, including work to restore mangrove trees and shrubs in Colombia and woodland-grassland savannahs in Kenya and work on eco-friendly projects to benefit local communities, including the installation of rooftop solar panels at a facility for disadvantaged children in the Philippines and the electrification of an off-grid fishing community in Thailand.

The second part of Apple’s plan is to increase production of renewable energy. New and completed projects in Arizona, Oregon and Illinois bring Apple’s renewable capacity for its corporate operations to over 1 GW- equivalent to powering over 150 000 homes a year. The company is also opening renewable power plants in Scandinavia, the Philippines and Thailand. 

By developing its own renewable energy projects, the company controls 80% of the renewable energy it uses today. 

Carbon Neutral Vs Carbon Negative

When a business is carbon neutral, it adds no carbon to the atmosphere. It can do this by balancing its emissions, for example by removing a ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for every ton it produces, offsetting its emissions or not releasing greenhouse gases in the first place. This slows down emissions as opposed to reversing them.

To be carbon negative, a company must remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits.

Apple’s Climate Progress

In 2019, Apple decreased its carbon footprint by 4.3 million metric tons through design and recycled content innovations in its products. Since 2009, the company has reduced the average energy needed for product use by 73%. Further, all iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch devices released in the past year are made with recycled content. 

Finally, the number of facilities participating in Apple’s Supplier Energy Efficiency Program grew to 92 in 2019; these facilities avoided over 779 000 annualised metric tons of supply chain carbon emissions. 

What Are Other Tech Giants Doing?

Apple ’s aim of becoming carbon neutral follows climate-focused pledges by other technology giants.

Microsoft has pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050, to have removed the same amount of carbon from the environment as it has ever emitted. It has also announced the creation of a consortium involving Nike, Starbucks and Mercedes-Benz, among others, to share information on carbon-reducing technologies.

Amazon has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2040 and Google has pledged to extend the carbon-neutral status it claims for its own operations to encompass its supply chain but has yet to set a deadline. 

According to a study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is approaching levels not seen in 15 million years and perhaps never experienced by hominoids. 

Atmospheric CO2 Levels Over Geologic Time

The study shows that within five years, atmospheric CO2 will pass 427 parts per million, which was the probable peak of the mid-Pliocene warming period 3.3 million years ago, when temperatures were 3C to 4C hotter and sea levels were 20 metres higher than today. 

Around 2025, the Earth is likely to have CO2 conditions not experienced since the Middle Miocene Climatic Optimum 15 million years ago, when our ancestors are thought to have diverged from orangutans.

Researchers from the University of Southampton were able to construct high-resolution records of atmospheric CO2 levels thought to be prevalent during the Pliocene epoch. This was achieved by deriving data from the boron levels in extremely small fossils collected from the Caribbean Sea. 

Their findings were able to confirm previous trends observed in ice cores, and enabled the researchers to build on this data in order to generate precise estimations of CO2 when solar radiation matched the levels observable today.

“A striking result we’ve found is that the warmest part of the Pliocene had between 380 and 420 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere,” Thomas Chalk, one of the contributing researchers, said. “This is similar to today’s value of around 415 parts per million, showing that we are already at levels that in the past were associated with temperature and sea-level significantly higher than today.”

“Currently, our CO2 levels are rising at about 2.5 ppm per year, meaning that by 2025 we will have exceeded anything seen in the last 3.3 million years,” one of the researchers of the study said. 

The study outlines how data about what the climate was like in the past can assist in predicting what the climate is likely to be like in the future, which is especially important in formulating a response to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions that have accumulated over the past two centuries as a result of industrialisation. 

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What Does this Mean for the Future of Earth’s Climate?

Gavin Foster, a professor of isotope geochemistry at the University of Southampton and contributor to the study, says, “Ice sheets today haven’t had a chance to catch up with CO2 forcing. We are burning through the Pliocene and heading towards a Miocene-like future.” 

During the Middle Miocene epoch, ice sheets shrank further and sea levels were significantly higher than the Pliocene- which Foster stated had occurred prior to any human habitation or evolution. This raises concerns about what the Earth’s future climate is going to be like given the burden of human-induced pollution. 

What is Being Done?

The rise in temperature trajectory for the current era is being addressed as part of a new international collaboration coordinated by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), led by the UK’s Met Office. In what will be an annually-updated five-year climate prediction, scientists and researchers alike stressed that there is a 20% chance the Earth will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels before 2025.

The WMO secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, says, “this study shows – with a high level of scientific skill – the enormous challenge ahead in meeting the Paris Agreement on climate change target of keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5C.” 

Historically, our planet’s land and oceans have functioned as major ‘sinks’ in the global carbon cycle, together absorbing about half of global carbon emissions. Unfortunately, their carbon sequestering effectiveness is rapidly diminishing as temperatures rise, to the extent that carbon deposits on land may become net greenhouse gas emitters by mid-century if climate policies remain unchanged. How can this phenomenon be explained, and how are its risks mitigated?

Over the past 150 years, human activities have emitted about 545GtC (Gigatonnes) of carbon, with fossil fuel combustion comprising approximately three-quarters of this. Since terrestrial and marine biomes have each absorbed at least 30% of these emissions, effects of global warming have been significantly restrained. However, their capacity for carbon storage is fundamentally dependent on environmental determinants and can hence be severely reduced in hotter or drier climates.

The Importance of Carbon Cycle

Most carbon on land is locked up in tropical rainforests, peatlands and permafrost. While higher CO2 concentrations initially stimulate vegetation growth by facilitating photosynthesis, these benefits are rapidly overshadowed by falling soil moisture amid rising temperatures, causing plants to dehydrate and die. Not only is carbon fixation directly reduced from plummeting productivity or death of plants, lower transpiration rates mean that rainfall is diminished, giving rise to hotter and drier climates. This creates ideal settings for fires to ignite or spread, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere in a positive feedback loop. In 2019 alone, fires in Indonesia’s dry forests and peatlands emitted  more than 708 million tons of greenhouse gases, dwarfing the 366 million tons emitted from the Brazilian Amazon fires.

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global carbon cycle
Global carbon cycle diagram explaining the fast carbon cycle (Source: U.S. DOE, Biological and Environmental Research Information System at https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonCycle )

Outside the tropics, rising temperatures cause permafrost soils in polar regions to thaw. Notably, permafrost thaw in Russia allows decomposition of its largely-preserved organic material into carbon dioxide and methane, raising atmospheric carbon concentrations while undermining the stability of existing infrastructure. In oceans, warmer water temperatures reduce the solubility of carbon dioxide gases and impede its flow to greater depths, a process called ‘vertical mixing’, and may deprive phytoplankton of the nutrients they need to drive the biological carbon pump. More dangerous, however, would be the melting of deep-ocean methane hydrate, where methane is frozen in ice deposits. Despite potential applications as an alternative energy source, its release of trapped methane has been theorised to be a primary contributor in the end-Permian mass extinction. Though such occurrences are unlikely without significant spikes in water temperature, such potentially devastating consequences cannot be disregarded, especially when mean ocean temperature is already projected to rise by up to 4°C by 2100.

To disrupt these positive feedback loops in the global carbon-cycle, extensive reforestation or carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are commonly proposed as mitigation strategies to offset our carbon footprint, however neither route can function as a silver-bullet for anthropogenic climate change by itself, unless the root causes of human-induced carbon emissions are fundamentally addressed. Doing so necessitates substantial coordination of climate policies in all major economies to disincentivise greenhouse gas emissions, notably through carbon-pricing mechanisms such as ‘cap-and-trade’ or Pigouvian taxation. Whilst transition risks may pose significant short-term disruptions, substantial action is necessary to prevent uncontrolled global warming in the long-term. 

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