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This month has been a scary one for observers of climate change.
As we sweltered through the planet’s hottest recorded week in early July, the World Meteorological Organisation declared that we have entered “uncharted territory” – and it has certainly felt that way.
Europe, Asia and north America are struggling through prolonged heat domes, national temperature records tumble almost by the hour, and my social media has become a stream of storms, floods, and seemingly endless wildfires.
It should be a wake-up call yet, almost incredibly, the Prime Minister has responded by seeking to dial-down the UK’s climate ambitions. Such a course of action would threaten our commitments to reach net zero by 2050, set a dangerous precedent at a time when the world needs climate leadership and, most critically, endanger us all. But the idea is receiving growing support on the political right.
And while oil-funded think tanks and the conservative media try to persuade us that net zero is overly ambitious and unaffordable, the burning world shows us the opposite – that net zero is not ambitious enough.
The most obvious weakness with the UK’s net zero commitments is the timing. By setting a deadline of 2050, we have effectively agreed to continue making the problem worse for another 27 years. Worse, it’s not when we stop that counts but how much we emit in the meantime – yet current policy seems aimed at continuing to pollute for as long as we can and then switching it all off at the last minute.
Witness, for example, the Government’s decision to green-light a new coal mine in Cumbria, which it claimed to be compatible with our commitments because operations will cease in 2049. Such distant targets are an opportunity to delay the difficult decisions and kick the can down the road.
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More worryingly, the very concept of net zero is deeply flawed. It is based on the idea that all we need to do to prevent dangerous levels of warming is eliminate carbon pollution to the point where our remaining emissions are matched by the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by plants, soils and other natural carbon sinks, as well as – should they ever exist – novel carbon removal technologies. But this focus on emissions is misguided, because it is not how much we emit every year that ultimately counts.
What matters is the concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and these, as the planetary catastrophe unfolding around us testifies, are already far too high.
Atmospheric concentrations of the most significant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, are now around 420 parts per million, up from 280 ppm in the 18th Century and 336 ppm when I was born in 1979.
The safe level is generally considered to be no more than 350 ppm, yet net zero aims to stabilise concentrations at whatever level they reach when we finally reach carbon neutrality – and that may be as high as 470 ppm even if we meet our commitments globally. Given what we’re already experiencing at 420 ppm, stabilising the climate at such levels should be unthinkable – and that means we need to rethink net zero.
Rather than slowly applying the brakes with the aim of stopping by 2050, we should be slamming on the brakes immediately and then shifting into reverse. Simply reducing emissions to net zero is not enough, we should be aiming for net negative so that we can start reducing atmospheric concentrations back down to safe levels.
This has implications, among other things, for the idea of carbon offsetting. Offsetting allows polluters to continue emitting greenhouse gasses, so long as they pay for those gasses to be absorbed and stored elsewhere. Accordingly, the past few years have seen a global craze for tree planting – as governments, corporations and others have taken the quick and visible option of asking nature to do the work rather than taking the difficult steps required to genuinely decarbonise.
As a conservation scientist, I’m heartened to see that nature’s vast potential to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it in thriving, life-filled, ecosystems is finally being recognised, and it is right that we should invest in protecting and restoring the world’s forests, grasslands and seagrass beds. But we shouldn’t be doing it as an alternative to decarbonisation – we need to be doing both.
Rather than simply reducing emissions and using these ‘natural climate solutions’ (or, worse, the promise of future carbon dioxide removals) to balance them at dangerously high atmospheric concentrations, we need to eliminate emissions and then use the power of nature to reduce atmospheric concentrations back down to safe levels.
Net zero, ultimately, promises a state of equilibrium. But given the extreme events unfolding around the world, even stabilising the climate at 2023 levels would entail losses, disruptions and costs (not to mention the suffering and death) that are simply too much to bear, year after year after year. Reaching equilibrium at 2050 levels? I challenge you to even contemplate what that might be like.
To avoid the unthinkable, we need to rapidly bring an end to the fossil fuel era and transition to better, cleaner, ways of powering the world. The summer of 2023 must be a wake-up call, and we should no longer listen to the delayers arguing against rapid decarbonisation.
Instead, we must make the opposite case: that our safety is at stake, and net zero is not enough.
Charlie Gardner is Associate Senior Lecturer at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent