As the days count down toward Black Friday and its opposite, Buy Nothing Day — both celebrated the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, by buying things or not buying things, respectively — it's time for the planet's most fortunate to mount more than a symbolic protest of refusal on the nation's favorite day of consumer excess. It's all well and good not to buy for a day, or even a weekend. But after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan, record droughts and mounting climate casualties, the logic of securing this year's latest toy just doesn't cut it. (Did it ever? Who remembers pet rocks and Chicken Dance Elmo?) Nor does a cashmere twin set and pearls. This year we need to give the gift of survival, to ourselves and the planet.
At last week's United Nations climate meetings in Warsaw, Kevin Anderson, one of the world's leading climate scientists, identified the pace of emissions reductions that wealthy countries must achieve to cap the anticipated rise in global temperature at 2 degrees Celsius: 70 percent by 2020. This date, only six years away, is a lot closer than the commonly referred-to 2050 deadline that's so far off we can easily ignore it. The 2020 target involves us, not the children and grandchildren we supposedly care so much about. Anderson is getting real, explaining that to have an "outside chance" of staying below 2 degrees, wealthy countries will need to cut emissions by 10 percent a year, and achieve full decarbonization between 2020 and 2030. That has implications for what we do this Friday, and every day up to Christmas, a period during which about 20 percent of the nation's annual retail sales occur.
So far, we're a long way from the kind of commitment that Anderson and other scientists are desperate that we make. At the United Nations-sponsored Copenhagen climate talks four years ago, the U.S. pledged a grossly inadequate 17 percent reduction by 2020. Officially measured greenhouse gases have fallen by 12 percent since 2005, but even that modest progress raises a host of questions.
One is about statistics. The decline in measured emissions is based on "territorial" emissions — that is, those that are created in production, rather than from consumption. Exhibit one is the offshoring of carbon pollution, particularly to China, where most of the toys under the tree are made. Estimates are that about a third of China's territorial greenhouse gas emissions are for goods it exports.
A second factor has been the expansion of fracked natural gas, which accounts for a good bit of the current emissions reductions. While the use of natural gas instead of oil or coal may reduce CO2 emissions in the short run, it does so at the expense of the higher and more climatically destructive methane gas emissions, as well as poisoned water and soil, that are produced from fracking.