2020: the necessary, desirable and achievable turning point to safeguard our climate

The UN climate talks in Bonn were dealt a devastating blow this week. Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels are set to rise again this year after three years of almost no growth, according to scientists from Future Earth's Global Carbon Project. 

At a major event during the summit (see below) myself and colleagues spelled out why this news is so bad, but also how we can turn it around. And we revealed the well-guarded secret to solving the greatest challenge facing humanity. 

But let’s start with the challenge. Emissions must peak by 2020 to have any chance of staying “well below 2°C” (3.6°F). Two degrees is the limit that scientists have proposed is relatively safe for people and planet. The world cannot wait until 2030. If the world waits until 2025 to peak emissions, even then the goal set out in the United Nations Paris Agreement may have slipped from our grasp.

I should say, though, that even a world that is 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures will mean a dramatic and global economic upheaval. But this will undoubtedly be more manageable than the shock of a 3°C world (5.4°F), or beyond. If we are lucky, staying below 2°C may be enough to avoid catastrophic tipping points in Earth’s life support system. 

Can we avoid this fate? Yes. It will not be easy. It means clashing with the most powerful vested interests on Earth – the fossil-fuel industry. It will also mean challenging an economic dogma that is failing to deliver on its promise to bring prosperity, security and wellbeing to many. 

I am optimistic, though, that emissions can peak in 2020. 

From there, the pathway to staying below 2°C is deceptively simple: we need to cut emissions by half or more each decade, achieving close to zero emissions by the second half of the century.

At the same time, we need to stop deforestation in its tracks and turn farming from a major emitter of carbon to a storehouse, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and into soils and plants. Our farmers will become planetary stewards with the most important job on Earth: protecting the resilience of the biosphere while feeding the world a healthy diet. Indeed, my organization the Stockholm Resilience Centre has just started a collaboration with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation to understand how we can protect our biosphere in the coming decades, and avoid potential harmful feedback loops in our natural systems where oceans and lands that currently absorb half our daily carbon emissions instead start emitting carbon instead.

There is a second deceptively simple step that would turn this dream into a reality -- abandon subsidies on fossil fuels and put a price on carbon. Direct subsidies from governments to the fossil fuel industry are approximately $500 billion per year. Putting it another way, we are subsidizing fossil fuels to the tune of $150 per tonne of carbon. Adding health costs, and other indirect impacts of carbon dioxide pollution, it is much more. A recent report places total net subsidies for fossil fuels at $5.3 trillion in 2016 alone

Why should this continue? Simply turning off this tap to the coal and oil industries and directing this towards clean technologies would accelerate the transformation of our societies, which is already underway despite the massive amount of money going to slow down this progress.

And here’s another well-kept secret we exposed at the climate summit. A world free of fossil fuels will improve the lives of every person on Earth. 

Clean energy will eliminate the air pollution that fogs our cities and kills millions each year. Altering our diets to reduce red meat and lower fats and sugars will make us – and Earth – healthier, by dramatically reducing carbon dioxide. And moving away from internal combustion engines will help make cities livable as congestion disappears and cycle routes open up. Finally, the energy revolution is set to become the heart of the next industrial revolution creating new jobs and new industries. It has the potential to create economic prosperity for many decades. 

The time to fight harder for the future we want is right now. Global emissions of carbon dioxide came very close to peaking. This is the tipping point we all want so there is now no time for complacency. The resilience of our planet is our birthright and our common heritage and it is high time we secured this for future generations. 

Photo credit: Owen Gaffney

You can watch the video of the event on the UNFCCC website featuring the following speakers:

· Mary Robinson (chair), president Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice and former President of Ireland

· Christiana Figueres, founder of Mission 2020 and former executive secretary of UNFCCC

· Johan Rockström, Director Stockholm Resilience Centre

· Keven Anderson, Zenstrom professor CEMUS, Uppsala University and Chair of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

· HJ Schellnhuber, Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The event was sponsored by the foundation along with Stockholm Resilience Centre, Mission 2020, Uppsala University. Sponsorship was “in kind” rather than financial. 

Last updated November 14, 2017

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