by: Joel Makower

Over the past year or so, I've taken to thinking more about scale and speed — how we need to vastly accelerate our efforts to create a greener economy beyond what we're currently doing. At the rate at which we are gradually improving energy and water efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and addressing biodiversity, deforestation, the loss of fisheries, and the human condition for the world's poorest billion or two — well, we're never going to get there. Indeed, for some of these issues, the indicators of progress are headed in the wrong direction.

Perhaps it's my advancing years, or my congenital impatience, or my reading of the tea leaves, or all three, but I find myself in a bigger hurry than ever to figure things out.

And one day on stage last fall, I just blurted it out: "We've got about 5,000 days to figure things out," I proclaimed. It turned out to be a powerful sentiment, based on the comments and subsequent calls and emails I received.

Five thousand days — 13 years and change. If you have a child in kindergarten today, in 5,000 days she'll be a freshman in college. Time flies.

Where did that number come from? I'll be the first to admit that it is not based on scientific analysis. Rather, it's a mix of what I've been hearing and what I've been feeling — an amalgam of information and instinct. (At Compostmodern, a one-day conference in in February that I emceed, I began the event with the 5,000-day reference. Later, during audience Q&A, I was asked how I arrived at that number. I flippantly responded, "I made it up," then went on to explain the rationale. Of course, only the first four words of my response became the story, as reported by Treehugger. You can watch some of it here.)

But 5,000 days is not without foundation. For example, in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of more than 2,000 scientists from around the world, announced that we have about 10 years left to enact policies that will avert climate catastrophe. Similarly, Al Gore, in An Inconvenient Truth, said that the world has 10 years or less to turn things around. Last year, IPCC's Nobel Peace Prize-winning chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, went further, saying only seven years remained to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at a level widely considered safe. In 2007, the World Wide Fund for Nature warned governments that they have five years — until 2012 — to "plant the seeds of change" and make positive moves to limit carbon emissions.

A little over a week ago, British Prince Charles told an audience in Rio de Janeiro, "The best projections tell us that we have less than 100 months to alter our behavior before we risk catastrophic climate change." That's a tad over eight years — about 3,000 days.

In comparison, 5,000 days may be optimistic.

Pondering the science behind such time frames was befuddling until Saul Griffith came along. Griffith, for the uninitiated, is an inventor, best known for his inexpensive technique for making prescription eyeglasses that has become one of the leading solutions for correcting vision in developing nations. His latest company, Makani Power, aims to create high-altitude wind turbines tethered like kites. His resume includes a PhD from MIT's Media Lab, a fistful of fellowships, and several honors and awards, including a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. This may be one case where that moniker isn't hyperbole.

I met Griffith at Compostmodern, where he gave a rapid-fire, mathematical formula-laden yet entertaining presentation about the need for radical new design thinking in the age of climate change. He uses his own life to underscore the need for designers and others to use metrics in order to effect change. He shows how he's methodically calculated the carbon impact of everything he buys and does, right down to his socks and surfing. At one point in his quirky presentation, he set out to "prove" my 5,000-day thesis, offering some scientific equations he says he "knocked out" in the relatively few minutes since my opening remarks. Suddenly, I felt vindicated.

Recently, I asked Griffith to revisit that explanation, which he did in a detailed email. I'll do my best to excerpt and summarize it here.

Griffith began by explaining that typical climate goals are expressed as a percentage of current emissions — such as an "80 percent reduction by 2050, using 1990 emissions as a baseline." That's only marginally helpful, he says, because it leaves out two key data points: the target level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration at which you hope to stabilize things; and how much power you plan to derive from non-carbon sources — renewables, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass.

Currently, he points out, we're at 387 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere. Let's assume that we want to try to stabilize things at 450 ppm — "the point of no return" at which some scientists believe we reach catastrophic climate change. Of course, a growing chorus of climate scientists argue that 450 ppm is too high to avoid climate change's worst impacts, that the target number should be 400 ppm or even 350 ppm.

Given the amount of energy the world now uses each year — about 10 terrawatt-years, or 10 trillion watts per year — it would take us about 40 years until we reached the 450 ppm concentration, given that based on current energy usage patterns, CO2 concentrations are growing by 2 ppm a year. (That assumes that energy use never increased over current levels, an unlikely scenario, given steadily rising global energy consumption.)

But Griffith asks us to assume that humans take the following bold, ambitious actions in the relatively near future:

  • replace the world's fleet of around 1 billion cars with small, light electric vehicles;
  • create 5 terrawatts (TW) of new solar generating capacity;
  • create 2 TW of new geothermal capacity;
  • create 3 TW of wind capacity; and
  • build 250 million new energy-efficient "green homes."

In the process, we'd replace the current 10 terrawatt-years of fossil fuel energy with renewables. However, building all that solar, geothermal, and wind capacity will require mining, smelting, transporting, manufacturing, and other industrial activities that themselves produce greenhouse gases. So, says Griffith, "At least for a while, we'll be using coal, oil, and natural gas to create the new solar cells, electric cars, wind turbines, nuclear power plants, green homes, and mass transit solutions, until we can make those machines with clean power from these resources."

Griffith calculates that building the billion cars would add 0.5 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere, and that creating the solar generating capacity would add 6 ppm. Building and installing the wind power and geothermal capacity would each add another 0.5 ppm, while constructing the green homes would contribute 9 ppm. That's 16 ppm on top of the current 387, plus the normal 2 ppm annual growth. "That would take us to 415 ppm from where we are today," says Griffith. At that point, we'd have only 250 terrawatt-years — 25 years of generating 10 TW of fossil fuel energy per year — before we reached the 450 ppm point.

If I did the math correctly, this assumes that we achieved all of Griffith's energy, vehicle, and building goals over the next six years or so. Suffice to say, that's not likely.

So, says Griffith:

Five thousand days is 13.6 years. If we do nothing for 13.6 years, and then we make the decisions above, we only get 7 years of our current energy consumption before we don't get any energy to run humanity. Every [unit of energy] after that has to be put towards the new infrastructure.

He concludes: "Even 5,000 days seems way too many."

Such calculations aside — whether 5,000 or 3,000 or even 10,000 days is the right number — isn't really the point. The point is that time is short, and getting shorter. In that light, where's the urgency? Where's the audaciously big thinking? Where's the scale?

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