We’re faced with a planetary crisis. For some, it is a reason for hopelessness and despair. But for others, it is a call to action—and we are starting to see some significant action at every scale: local, national, and global. I would argue that we have enough time—barely enough—to avoid a global catastrophe. But time is short.

To avoid the gravest threats to the environment and global society, we must stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2050.  But can we do that? How? This is the subject of much analysis by scientists and concerned citizens around the world (including our own Energy Committee here at Kendal).

In this blog post, I will summarize what I consider the most helpful information on what must be done globally, what the US needs to do and what we at Kendal-Crosslands must do. I’ll include links to more detail for those who want to dig deeper.

Carbon neutrality for the world

Many people are looking at ways for the world to achieve carbon neutrality. The best basic resource I have encountered was an unexpected one: the new book by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, called “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”. I hadn’t expected Gates to be such a deep thinker and good writer on this topic, but I have to admit that he is.

Gates emphasizes that small changes, while helpful, are not going to solve the problem. Massive changes are needed. He provides an easy-to-understand framework for talking about on the amounts of carbon involved. This makes it relatively easy to determine that some “solutions” are not going to work. For example, offsetting carbon by planting trees cannot do the job—if all the world’s arable land were planted in only trees, it would barely compensate for the carbon that one country (the US) generates.

Where does the carbon come from? Gates goes through the main sources of the world’s carbon: generating electricity (27%), industry (31%), agriculture (19%), transportation (16%), and heating/cooling (7%). He discusses the solutions we have available right now, and the ones we still need; and he focuses on the costs. He also spells out the changes in government policies that will be needed.

Gates provides a helpful list of the key areas where new technology is needed and under development. There are about 20 items on the list, but we only need a combination of a dozen or so to actually work out in practice in order to achieve carbon neutrality. Some significant items on the list:

  • Electrical storage that can last a full season
  • Zero-carbon cement, steel, and fertilizer (these are carbon-intensive industries)
  • Zero-carbon plastics
  • Plant-based and cell-based meat and dairy
  • Nuclear fusion
  • Large-scale carbon capture (direct from air and at point of creation)

You get the idea: some of these will never happen, but others will—and will play a crucial role in our future. This book is highly recommended.

The IEA report. Although he defines the key requirements, Gates does not attempt to lay out a step-by-step process to reach carbon neutrality. For those looking for those specifics, a recent report by the International Energy Agency (a UN body), provides much of the detail on exactly what must happen, and by when. For example, the world must give up gasoline-powered cars by 2030—a very tall order. There is a good summary of the report here. You can download the entire report (244 pages) and related presentation materials and data here.

(Don’t confuse the IEA with the EIA—the Energy Information Agency, part of the US Department of Energy. The EIA’s annual reports describe our energy use now but are practically useless for understanding the path to carbon neutrality.)

Carbon neutrality for the US

There are numerous analyses of the steps the US can take to achieve carbon neutrality, but I have not encountered any resource that is as clear and accessible as the Gates book. And reading the Gates book provides a reasonable starting point for thinking about the US, since many of the world’s problems are the same as those for the US.

But for a specifically US-oriented strategy, my current favorite is from the Princeton “Net-Zero America” project. You can download it here. It is huge (345pp.) but it is easy to navigate among the parts, and the layout uses an attractive presentation-style approach with lots of graphics.

Another good one is an RMI report that focuses on what we need to do between now and 2030 in order to achieve carbon neutrality in 2050.  It is called “Scaling US Climate Ambitions to Meet the Science and Arithmetic of 1.5°C Warming”. You can download it here, and when you do you will also get a useful (and short!) “companion brief” on sector-by-sector steps that are needed.

If you are particularly interested in the grid and how our generation and transmission of electricity must change (and the governmental policies that will be required), there is an excellent report from the National Academy of Sciences that you can download here.

These reports all have in common an emphasis on a few key factors:

  • The rate at which renewable energy resources are built must accelerate
  • New buildings must be all-electric and highly efficient
  • New cars will have to be all-electric by 2030
  • Industry will have to make major strides in both efficiency and substitution of electricity for fossil fuels, and will have to institute carbon capture

Carbon neutrality for Kendal-Crosslands

Many of the same strategies that apply to the world and to the US also apply to Kendal-Crosslands. (Fortunately, though, we don’t have to deal directly with industry’s problems, such as steelmaking and the manufacturing of cement.)

As Jim Craig demonstrated in his Zoom presentation for the Kendal audience last week, cottage retrofits during turnovers (at least those currently contemplated) just won’t be enough to get us to our 2030 goal of a 50% reduction in our carbon footprint. In his calculations, Jim assumed that our retrofits would improve efficiency by 10%, which is doable but more than we are actually doing in most cottages at the moment. The only really significant option for the next ten years is changing how we get our electricity. We may be able to install rooftop solar panels or a solar field. Or we may be able to procure renewably-generated power. (Some ways of doing that, such as those based on “renewable energy credits” only make sense for the short term, however.) Jim ended on an optimistic note: if we start now, and if we make it a priority, we will be able to reach our 2030 goal.

Over the longer term, as we revitalize our existing buildings and build new ones, efficiency must get a high priority (as it has in the Woolman and Mott projects at Crosslands). Cottage and apartment retrofitting for much greater efficiency (perhaps a 50% reduction in electricity usage) needs to become a focus.

We’ll have to shift our buses, vans, and maintenance vehicle fleet from gas and diesel to electric. Eventually, we’ll have to stop using natural gas (which is involved in heating our Centers and our swimming pools, in our laundry, and in our kitchens).

I am confident that we can accomplish all of this. And if we get started now, Kendal-Crosslands can be a leader in the field of sustainability, just as we have been in other domains in the past. But it won’t happen without a strong commitment by residents, staff, and administration.

We all can do something, however small, to contribute to our energy savings, and that’s where we need to start. Recycling, turning off appliances, mindful use of three-season rooms—these and similar measures are all part of our path to carbon neutrality.

Major cuts to our carbon footprint will require investment by Kendal-Crosslands in projects such as more efficient buildings, solar panels, batteries, and smart thermostats. Small increases in fees might be required in some cases. But if we want to begin fixing some of the climate problems that have been caused by the exploitation of the planet during the past century or two, we must start now and we must start here. Our administration and our facilities staff are supportive of these ideas, but they won’t undertake projects that don’t have resident support. They need to hear from us that we consider this work a priority.