Peak Carbon

by | Jun 21, 2008

When I write my column for Environmental Leader each month, I’m pretty conservative with the facts and ideas that I use. But this month I’m throwing out an idea that’s, at best, half-baked, and then I’m going farther out on a limb and making a prediction based on it. I’m doing this because I think the idea is important, and I’m increasingly convinced that the prediction will be true. (Apologies if someone else has been talking up this idea — I’ve been searching for it but may have just missed it.)

I call the idea “Peak Carbon.” Like “Peak Oil,” Peak Carbon implies that GHG emissions will, at some point, top out, and then trend downward until we stop needing to worry about them. But unlike Peak Oil, Peak Carbon is a good thing. And while Peak Oil is driven only by supply, Peak Carbon is driven by supply (e.g. Peak Oil, Peak Coal, etc.) as well as changes in behavior, legislation and technical substitution (e.g. solar replaces coal).

(Author’s Note: I often criticize others for being imprecise and using “carbon” when they mean “carbon dioxide” or “green house gas,” but since I’ve already thrown caution to the wind, I’m going to violate my own rule and misuse the word “carbon” since it sounds better.)

Formally, here’s my proposed definition: Peak Carbon is the point in time after which GHG emissions shrink each year, until the future point in time when we deem our emissions levels to be safe. GHG emissions will be measured by CO2 equivalents and with a five-year moving average.

This definition needs to be cleaned up a little bit (especially how we deal with the average right around the peak), but hopefully you can see the idea: after Peak Carbon, the emissions shrink year over year until we’re not worried anymore. I’ve thrown in a five year average in order to account for one-year blips due to extreme weather or other external factors. Also, I’m ignoring offsets of any kind — I want real emissions reductions.

Some of you may say that’s interesting, but its the rate of the decrease that’s important, and you would be right. But I believe that it will be a major milestone when we start decreasing on a consistent basis, and I think we should formally recognize that we’ve done that.

So, now my prediction: Peak Carbon occurred in the US in 2007.

Yep, I’m predicting that annual GHG emissions in the US will now drop regularly going forward, with only minor setbacks every once in awhile. My rationale is that there are short-term, medium-term and long-term drivers in place which are capable of, together, sustaining reductions over decades:

Short term (next 5 years): During this period the intertwined occurrences of rising oil prices and dampened economic activity will drive down demand, while cost-conscious companies and individuals will make serious effort towards efficiency gains.

Medium term (5-20 years): GHG legislation at state and federal levels will yield results. High oil prices will keep upward cost pressure on all types of energy, dampening demand, but also creating a great economic opportunity for clean energy alternatives. With this opportunity combined with the maturation of some of today’s bleeding edge ideas, decarbonization of US electricity sources will seriously kick into gear in this time frame.

Long term (20+ years): Second and third generation legislation will build on the positive and negative learnings of the first wave. Our electricity will get greener, and we will finally see the innovations and infrastructure needed for major emissions reductions in our transportation system.

Do I have charts and graphs and sources for all of this? Nope, just an educated guess based on everything I’ve seen and read the last few years. So feel free to knock it around and let me know what you think.

Can you come up with a better milestone? A better prediction? How about Peak Carbon for Europe (2004?) or China?

Or better yet, what’s your prediction for Peak Carbon for the Earth?

Surely that will be a milestone to celebrate.

Dave Douglas is Chief Sustainability Officer at Sun Microsystems.

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