We all know by now that the average world temperature taken at the surface of the earth has been increasing since the expansion of the industrial growth that occurred in the late 19th century. Its consequences are more than concerning.

But what can be done on the local level to tackle this problem?

In 2021, Plymouth joined 148 (now 203) other US municipalities in declaring a “Climate Emergency.” Emergencies grab one’s attention, but they don’t always prompt immediate action.

In New England, the effects of this global warming can be seen in the surges and winds from more powerful hurricanes, the acceleration of sea level rise, flooding from king tides, heavier downpours and snowfalls, and the changing distributions of fish stocks. Those are just some of the many impacts and increased storminess is a major reason why your homeowner insurance premiums have soared in recent years.

Scientists have observed a proportional relationship between the build-up of CO2 and the earth’s rise in temperature. They now agree that the earth’s warming is undeniably the consequence of the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Because this warming has taken place incrementally over more than a century, much like the fable of the boiled frog, we barely seem to notice the change from year to year.

The problem of climate change is both subtle and paralyzing in its complexity. All should be troubled by it, but can anyone really make a difference by riding a bike instead of driving a car, installing solar panels, or avoiding the consumption of red meat?

To act locally, it may help to think globally first. Consider the idea of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions. Emerging from the Paris Climate Accords in 2015, net zero has been gaining currency as the world increasingly awakens to the threats of climate change.

Net zero refers to a pathway for limiting the atmospheric warming resulting from human-caused releases of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Those include methane–or natural gas–and nitrous oxide. It combines reductions of CO2 emissions with removals of CO2 from the air.

Importantly, the achievement of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions has become the focus of governments, businesses, and civic groups at all levels, from international to national to local.

Plymouth, for example, has established a Climate Action/Net Zero Committee (known as the CANZ Committee) with a mission to “identify and advocate for equitable climate adaptation actions and greenhouse gas emission reduction strategies.” To start, CANZ is helping to draft a climate-action plan for the town, which is aimed at encouraging energy conservation in business and residential building construction, modernizing transportation infrastructure (think vehicle charging stations), and identifying land-use strategies that could help remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Sounds like a good idea, but what are net-zero greenhouse gas emissions exactly?

Net zero refers to a scientific theory that the earth’s atmosphere should stop warming above a “pre-industrial” worldwide average if the amount of greenhouse gas emissions less their removals equal zero. To achieve that, CO2 emissions from power plants and vehicles will need to be lowered, and removals from the air will need to be increased. Any emissions that remain after reductions are made must be netted out by removals because reductions in emissions are unlikely ever to reach zero by themselves.

CO2 emission reductions can be achieved by substituting wind, solar, hydro, biomass, or even nuclear power for fossil fuels to generate electricity, conserving energy through innovative building construction techniques, and encouraging the use of electric vehicles.

CO2 removal approaches are still mostly on the drawing board. They involve restorations or expansions of natural systems, such as forests, salt marshes, or kelp beds, and direct air capture and storage of CO2, among a number of other ideas.

In practice, net zero reflects a non-scientific choice about limiting the extent of atmospheric warming above an annual average global temperature baseline of 15° Celsius (59° Fahrenheit). This choice was agreed upon at the Paris Accords to be 1.5°C (2.7°F) above the average. Theory and observation suggest that achieving net zero would mean that the atmosphere should stop warming any further than the agreed-upon 1.5°C.

Butthere will still be the effects of the “baked-in” warming of the last century’s climate change, including extreme high temperatures, increased frequency and intensity of storms, rising sea levels, habitat changes and ecological shifts, among many more. So we’ll have to live with some of the changes we’ve already caused.

Natural removals of CO2 by the oceans, forests, salt marshes, will continue to reinforce human removals. Scientific theory predicts, however, that a continued warming of the atmosphere by the oceans, which take up 90 percent of the heat resulting from the greenhouse effect, would just balance the cooling from these natural CO2 removals. Because of this, humans will have to intervene by removing even more CO2.

How can Plymouth do this?

The problem of climate change looms so large that it seems almost impossible for any one of us to make a difference. But one of the easiest things we can do now is to learn more about complex concepts like net zero and how it might be achieved in our own town.

Volunteering for the Plymouth CANZ Committee (there are currently four empty slots!)—or even just attending its meetings—would be an important first step. Meetings take place at two-week intervals on Wednesday evenings at 5:30pm. And a good contact is Mark Reil, the town’s Climate Resiliency and Sustainability Planner: mreil@plymouth-ma.gov.

Porter Hoagland writes on environmental and natural resource matters that affect Plymouth. Hoagland, a Plymouth resident, can be reached at phoagland@whoi.edu.

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