EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Can We Mobilize Fast Enough?: Stabilizing Climate

Earlier we outlined the need to cut net carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020 to minimize the future rise in temperature. Here we summarize the Plan B measures for doing so, including both reducing fossil fuel use and increasing biological sequestration.

After energy demand is stabilized by dramatically improving efficiency, replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy for generating electricity and heat will reduce carbon emissions in 2020 by more than 3.2 billion tons. (See Table 10–1.) The biggest single cut in carbon emissions comes from phasing out the use of coal to generate electricity. Other cuts come from eliminating all the oil and 70 percent of the natural gas used to generate electricity. 41

In the transport sector, the greatly reduced use of oil will eliminate 1.4 billion tons of carbon emissions. This reduction relies heavily on the shift to plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars that will run on carbon-free sources of electricity such as wind. The remainder comes largely from shifting long-haul freight from trucks to trains, electrifying freight and passenger trains, and using green electricity to power them. 42

        Table 10-1. Plan B Carbon Dioxide Emissions Reductions
and Sequestration in 2020
Action Amount
    Million Tons of Carbon
Energy Restructuring  
  Replacing fossil fuels with renewables for  
  electricity and heat 3,210
  Restructuring the transport system 1,400
  Reducing coal and oil use in industry 100
Biological Carbon Sequestration  
  Ending net deforestation 1,500
  Planting trees to sequester carbon 860
  Managing soils to sequester carbon 600
Total Carbon Dioxide Reductions in 2020 7,670
Carbon Dioxide Emissions in 2006 9,350
Percent Reduction from 2006 Baseline 82.0
Source: See endnote 41.

At present, net deforestation of the earth is responsible for an estimated 1.5 billion tons of carbon emissions per year. The Plan B goal is to bring deforestation to a halt by 2020, thus totally eliminating this source of carbon emissions. But we are not content with just halting deforestation. We want to increase the number of trees in order to sequester carbon. Planting trees on deforested areas and marginal lands will sequester more than 860 million tons of carbon each year. The similarly ambitious planting of trees to control flooding, reduce rainfall runoff to recharge aquifers, and protect soils from erosion will take additional carbon out of the atmosphere. 43

The other initiative to sequester carbon biologically is achieved through land use management. This includes expanding the area of minimum- or no-till cropland, planting more cover crops during the off-season, and using more perennials instead of annuals in cropping patterns. The latter would mean, for example, using less corn and more switchgrass to produce fuel ethanol. These practices can sequester an estimated 600 million tons of carbon per year. 44

Together, replacing fossil fuels in electricity generation with renewable sources of energy, switching to plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars, shifting to all-electric railways, banning deforestation, and sequestering carbon by planting trees and improving soil management will drop net carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 more than 80 percent below today’s levels. This reduction gives us the best chance of keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations from topping 400 parts per million, limiting the future rise in temperature. 45

The most efficient means of restructuring the energy economy to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels is a carbon tax. As noted in Chapter 4, we propose a worldwide carbon tax of $200 per ton to be phased in at the rate of $20 per year between 2010 and 2020.

Paid by the primary producers—the oil and coal companies—this tax would permeate the entire fossil fuel energy economy. The tax on coal would be almost double that on natural gas simply because coal has a much higher carbon content. Once a schedule for phasing in the carbon tax and reducing the tax on income is in place, the new prices can be used by all economic decisionmakers to make more intelligent decisions. In contrast to a cap-and-trade approach, in which the price of carbon fluctuates, the price of carbon with tax restructuring is predictable. For investors, this reduction in risk is invaluable.

For countries everywhere, particularly developing ones, the economic good news is that the Plan B energy economy is much more labor-intensive than the fossil-fuel-based economy it is replacing. In Germany, for example, which is a leader in the energy transition, renewable energy industries already employ more workers than the long-standing fossil fuel and nuclear industries do. In a world where expanding employment is a universal goal, this is welcome news indeed. 46

The restructuring of the energy economy outlined here will not only dramatically drop CO2 emissions, helping to stabilize climate, it will also eliminate much of the air pollution that we know today. The idea of a pollution-free environment is difficult for us even to imagine, simply because none of us has ever known an energy economy that was not highly polluting. Working in coal mines will be history. Black lung disease will eventually disappear. So too will “code red” alerts warning us to avoid strenuous exercise because of dangerous levels of air pollution.

And, finally, in contrast to investments in oil fields and coal mines, where depletion and abandonment are inevitable, the new energy sources are inexhaustible. While wind turbines, solar cells, and solar thermal systems will all need repair and occasional replacement, to invest in these new energy sources is to invest in energy systems that can last forever. This well will not go dry.

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41. Table 10–1 calculated with the following: fossil fuel and transport carbon reductions using IEA, World Energy Outlook 2008 (Paris: 2008), p. 507, industry reductions using IEA, Tracking Industrial Energy Efficiency and CO2 Emissions (Paris: 2007), avoided deforestation and planting trees from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 543, 559, and soil carbon sequestration based on conservative estimates in Rattan Lal, “Soil Carbon Sequestration Impacts on Global Climate Change and Food Security,” Science, vol. 304 (11 June 2004), pp. 1,623–27.

42. IEA, World Energy Outlook 2008, op. cit. note 41, p. 507.

43. R. A. Houghton, “Carbon Flux to the Atmosphere from Land-Use Changes: 1850–2005,” in Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), TRENDS: A Compendium of Data on Global Change (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), 2008); carbon sequestration based on IPCC, op. cit. note 41.

44. Lal, op. cit. note 41.

45. Carbon dioxide pathway modeled using fossil fuel emissions from Tom Boden and Gregg Marland, “Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751–2006” and “Preliminary 2006–07 Global & National Estimates by Extrapolation,” both in CDIAC, Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions (Oak Ridge, TN: ORNL, 2009), and from land use change emissions from Houghton, op. cit. note 43, with decay curve cited in J. Hansen et al., “Dangerous Human-Made Interference with Climate: A GISS ModelE Study,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 7 (2007), pp. 2,287–312.

46. Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Renewable Energy-Employment Effects: Impact of the Expansion of Renewable Energy on the German Labor Market (Berlin: June 2006); “German Plan to Close Coal Mines,” BBC News, 29 January 2007; Michael Levitin, “Germany Says Auf Wiedersehen to Nuclear Power, Guten Tag to Renewables,” Grist, 12 August 2005.

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