Blog No.16. 350.org and Destination 2050: 350 by 2050

January 6, 2013

By Peter Ellyard

6 January 2013


Yesterday I joined 350.org, founded by author Bill McKibben in Vermont USA. This organisation is promoting the goal of reducing the carbon concentration in the planet’s atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) and then stabilize it there. This is the pre-industrial level, the level needed to create a climate-safe planet. It is just below 400ppm now and it is still growing. However I want suggest an addition to this goal. We should give this aspiration a time line.             In May 1961 John Kennedy set the USA for Americans to go to the Moon and return by the end of that decade. At the time nobody had a clue about how this might be achieved. The Apollo program became a heroic journey that inspired Americans to accomplish what had previously seemed impossible. History has many similar examples where a grand vision is realized because it inspires people to stretch themselves. The extraordinary success of the Apollo program was largely due to the fact that Kennedy transformed this static vision into a dynamic narrative by giving it a designated time frame, thereby generating a near complete buy-in by an excited American people. This would not have been the case without such a time line. This is the essence of ‘utopian realism’ – defining stretching almost utopian destinations, but also establishing totally realistic processes and timelines to accomplish these destinations. Getting a similar buy-in by the world’s peoples could be generated by nominating the year 2050 for the year for realization of the 350 goal. It would also assist creating a buy-in by the world’s diverse peoples irrespective of what their governments might think. This global 350 goal might seem more daunting that the Apollo Program. However the tools we have to realize this aspiration are also much greater. And these include building global consensus and a movement for its realization through the Internet, such as via 350.org. It is now possible to have Internet global equivalents of mass demonstrations. And creating a goal with a time line will stimulate innovation everywhere to realize this goal particularly when we have universal price on carbon. Imagine that, in the year 2025, after years of Internet driven pressure, the world finally agrees to a binding treaty to work together to create such an outcome by the year 2050.

          If we define the mission in terms of reducing emissions rather than reducing global atmospheric concentrations we set ourselves a more difficult task to accomplish. It is important that we define the goal in a way that best empowers our collective endeavor. Imagine a bath with a running tap and an open plughole. The level of water in the bath will depend in the relative water flow entering from the tap and leaving via the plughole respectively. In terms of atmosphere carbon reduction too many people concentrate on turning carbon emissions the tap off.  This is important but we can also make the carbon removal plughole much bigger.

            If we concentrate on turning off the tap – lowering emissions – we run full frontal  into the vested interests of big coal and big oil.  It is noteworthy that many climate change sceptic think tanks are funded by big oil. However we can also work on enlarging the plughole – removing carbon from the sky or ‘mining the sky’. And there are no vested interests opposing this endeavour. The technical challenge might be larger but the political challenge is a lot easier. And I think we can invent technology much faster than we can shift political environments particularly when we are fighting powerful self-interested opponents. When we put a price on carbon-which in Australia is currently $23.00 per tonne- we can earn income by directly removing carbon from the sky by both natural and industrial methods, many of these yet to be invented. In my own work I am working on new approaches in both of these, utilising both natural systems based on photosynthesis or by artificial industrial technologies  that include artificial photosynthesis. This is ‘mining the sky’ and even mining companies might be interested in gaining income from removing carbon from the sky. I am already working with several groups who are seeking to develop new innovations and businesses to remove atmospheric carbon. In my view ‘mining the sky’ while promoting  renewable energy by placing a price on carbon will do the trick, and this will make this aspiration a very realizable  goal for 2050.

         Achieving a 350 ppm atmospheric carbon level is a worthy ambition- worthy of our best selves, but it should also be a part of an even larger and more holistic aspiration –Destination 2050 as I describe it in my books, Designing 2050 and Destination 2050. Destination 2050 is a global society that is universally prosperous, sustainable, secure, just and harmonious (just five key words) by the year 2050. We cannot create a future we do not first imagine. But to realize any future  we also need a realistic strategy that includes a timeline. A lot of my work focuses on the year 2050. Achieving 350 by 2050 would add to this aspirational mix for the year 2050, which is already developing into a year of both focus and of reckoning.

         So congratulations to 350.org for articulating a goal of realizing a 350 ppm carbon concentration in the atmosphere. However let us turn this static vision into a dynamic narrative by giving it a time lime. Let us seek to realize this by the year 2050. 


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