What We Must Do to Balance the Carbon Budget: A Letter from Fibershed Executive Director Rebecca Burgess

Our region has been graced with life-giving rain and snow in such abundance that it’s not easy to sit and type when I can hear the creek outside, knowing that countless waterways are spilling over into beautiful ephemeral waterfalls. This is the time of year to see these waters in person and imprint them into memory. I need these experiences to mitigate against the slipping ecological baseline that all too often has me forgetting what a healthy weather pattern is.

This precipitation brings reprieve from the 4 million acres that were on fire in our state just months ago (a doubling of the burned acreage record from the previous year), and quenches the thirst of the vegetation and soils experiencing the third driest year on record. We have had a tight succession of 1,000 and 1,200 year seminal drought cycles that now return in 2 and 3 year increments.

This gift of abundant water and snow from the sky, is not an indicator of an ongoing pattern however. Unfortunately, there has been no net reductions in the carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide levels within our atmosphere. (These reductions are requirements for stabilizing the climate, which hinges upon restoring Holocene levels of arctic sea ice, which would return the jet stream to its historic spatial patterning and keep the storm doors more consistently open during our precipitation cycles.) The message has been clear from the scientific community for years; emissions were supposed to peak in 2020 and 7.6% reductions every year thereafter were and are needed by 2030 to keep earth within what is known as the 1.5C degree pathway(1) — which is still a life-threatening increase, and yet at the same time, proving to be a hard-to-achieve goal.

What might a 7.6% reduction in emissions feel like to an everyday American if we were taking this extinction threat seriously? As an indicator, we can look to the onset of the pandemic, when global emissions plummeted from 2019 figures by 8.8% from January to June (2).

If we use the experience of COVID-19-induced shutdowns as a marker for our understanding of what emissions reductions that align with the 1.5C pathway require—the first half of 2020 provided a glimpse of how to achieve this goal given current technologies for transportation, energy, agricultural production and manufacturing. One stark contributor to the global drop came from the United States where overall emissions plummeted by 13%; this was largely attributed to a sharp drop in ground transportation and a 48% drop in emissions from aviation (3).

That precipitous drop in emissions from flights and the contribution that this made to meeting a known climate target is emblematic of a larger conversation of *who* is responsible for the emissions and *who* is responsible for climate chaos. This detail was further outlined in the scientific journal, Global Environmental Change, noting that only 11% of the global population is flying, and only 2-4% of the global population flies internationally (4). The inequity was explored more broadly in a report by Oxfam, noting that, “Carbon inequality is so stark the emissions of just the richest 10 percent would trigger catastrophic climate change by 2033 even if all other emissions were cut to zero (5).” (Income breakdown as outlined in the report is defined as such: $38,000 per year is enough to put someone in the world’s richest 10%; $109,000 per year puts them in the top 1%.) The report further outlined that, “the richest 10 percent (approx. 630 million people) accounted for over half (52 percent) of the carbon dioxide emissions.”

By the end of the COVID-19-induced lockdowns, the emissions from the United States and other industrialized nations surged for the remainder of the year, rising 2.6 parts per million by the end of the 12-month cycle (6). This is the fifth highest global rate of increase in the 63 year record taking period. By May of 2021, the parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere peaked to 419, the highest measurement taken since measurement began. This is equivalent to the CO2 concentrations that were in the atmosphere 4.1 to 4.5 million years ago when sea level rise was 78 feet higher than today and average temperatures were 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than pre-industrial levels (7).

Industrialized, colonizing nations (such as ours), have the responsibility and the obligation to balance our own carbon budget. To achieve this, both improved personal decision-making and sharp policy are needed and they are intricately intertwined. The citizenry of industrialized nations working to generate ecologically sound economies that work within the earth’s carrying capacity and internalize the impacts of economic decision-making, is ‘the essential work,’ (it is both personal and political).

I relay this message at every given opportunity, including during a presentation for a United Nations political forum held in July, focused on circular, regenerative textile systems. I shared the message as part of the global launch of the OP2B “Scaling Up Regenerative Agriculture” framework at the IUCN conference in September, where I was able to present virtually in succession of a personal hero, climate scientist Johan Rockstrom of the Potsdam Climate Institute. Rockstrom reminded the audience that current agricultural systems can only feed 3.4 billion people while safely remaining within the 9 planetary boundaries; if we continue to make shifts to land regenerating agriculture, we can safely feed 10.2 billion.

In mid-November, I was able to personally (yet virtually) thank tribes, farmers, ranchers for their work on the front lines of climate change during my acceptance speech of the International Ryan Young Climate Leadership Award, bestowed by the Textile Exchange during their annual conference in Dublin. I and our Fibershed team are provided weekly opportunities to share, learn, educate and build this work from within our own community and translate these learnings to the global stage. We’ve never seen the interest or request level so high to provide learning opportunities as it is right now; it seems to track with what appears to be a tipping point in awareness of our collective vulnerability. Whether this awareness translates into meaningful change has yet to be seen; the proof will be in the parts per million measurements.

While the global goal setting, commitments, and action plans are heartening, I continue to find the most hope and understanding as to what is required to achieve change while working at the local landscape level. This place where our community is working is the place where things start, emerge, and percolate up. We thank you for your commitment, support, and willingness to work with us across the months and years and look forward to continued collaboration with you!

Rebecca Burgess

1 https://www.unep.org/interactive/emissions-gap-report/2019/
2 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-18922-7
3 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00090-3
4 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378020307779
5 https://oxfam.app.box.com/s/q36ywh37ppur8gl276zwe8goqr6utkej
6 https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2742/Despitepandemic-shutdowns-carbon-dioxide-and-methane-surged-in-2020
7 https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2742/Despitepandemic-shutdowns-carbon-dioxide-and-methane-surged-in-2020