Tending and Turning the Ship

How much have we learned and changed in recent decades? It’s amazing–LEDs, electric cars, affordable rooftop solar, and report after report about climate change impacts and its causes (primarily greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels). Wow. And how much have our national greenhouse gas emissions gone down? They haven’t.

The chart below is from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2015 (published 2017).  “MMT COs Eq” is a unit of measure for greenhouse gases (like gallon is for water). While there have been some ups and downs over the years, you can see there’s never been much change. USA emissions in 2015 are higher than they were in 1990. (6,587 MMT CO2 Eq. in 2015, compared to 6,363  in 1990.)

Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2015 (published 2017). Figure ES-1 Gross U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Gas (MMT CO2 Eq.), Executive Summary, p 4.

Okay, but how much of our energy comes from renewable sources today? In the USA about a tenth. The picture below  from the Energy Information Administration shows major energy sources since 1776. The  black layer (on top of natural gas) represents electricity generation from hydropower. The little green wedge near the top at the far right is all other renewables.

Share of U.S. energy consumption by major sources, 1776-2016. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, April 2017.

In 2016, we got about 2.1 % of our energy from wind and about 0.6% from solar. The rest comes from hydropower (2.4%) wood, biofuels and biomass waste (4.6%) and a little from geothermal.

While we’re at it, how much do we need to lower emissions? Scientists around the world agree that, to avoid climate catastrophe, greenhouse emissions from the whole world need to go down by 40-70% in the next 35 years and to zero within 85 years.(1) A more recent report says emissions need to be zero in the next 65 years and less than zero (taking out more than we emit) within 85 years.(2)

This isn’t meant to discourage anyone, just the opposite! It’s meant to put the challenge we face in real terms and to talk about real answers that start with you and me.

Tending and Turning the Ship

Our individual actions matter, and together they matter even more. But just changing our personal energy use, even if ALL of us do, is not sufficient. Only a very small portion of greenhouse gas emissions comes from households (about 20%).  And, compared to the whole world, our whole country is pretty small fish. About 15% of global emissions come from the USA.

There are nearly 8 billion people on the planet? What can you and I do?

We need to do things that will help turn the ship. It is not enough for each of us to run around taking care of our cabin and mopping the decks. These things matter but they are not enough. We need the whole ship to turn, so that everyone will change direction together. This requires big, big things, beyond each of us individually but possible when we act together. Things like carbon pricing to change markets and drive innovation, countries working together to come up with fast-acting workable plans to reduce global emissions, and redefining the measure of good government in terms of human well being and happiness rather than GDP and economic growth.

To learn more about things each of us can do, that will matter, to help both tend and turn the ship, please see Things We Can Do.