Could the world really become net zero by 2040 ?

Last year I subscribed to the Guardian as I believe it’s a great independant newspaper. Their coverage of the climate crises and energy topic is most of the time pertinent. This enabled me to read a thought-provoking article stating and arguing that the world could be net zero much faster than thought, by the 2040s.

This is the opinion of Nigel Topping who served as UN’s High-Level Climate Action Champion at the COP26 organized by the UK. So one could say he knows what he is talking about. His viewpoint is based on facts such as the exponential growth of renewable energy sources (something I blogged about recently) as well as the increase in sales of electric cars. Mr. Topping also makes a parallel with the Apollo moonshot, something I blogged about a decade earlier…

” Systems change, not climate change “

While I applaud the optimism – something we definitively need in those times of pandemic, wars and climate catastrophes – I am not sure this is as straightforward as this. Indeed, our entire systems -ie. societies – will have to change to truly become carbon neutral in the next two decades. Simply switching from fossil fuels to renewables for our electricity and converting our fossil fuels cars to electric ones won’t cut it.

Our elected representatives as well as our business community seems to be solely focused and obsessed by quarterly gains and GDP growth. The thought that technology alone will save us – technosolutionism – prevails in the business community. At best, the climate emergency and the collapse of biodiversity are given an afterthought. Speeches upon speeches are delivered but when it comes to concrete and drastic action, to the wartime mobilization that is needed, nothing actually happens. The business-as-usual laissez-faire goes on and on. Yet, this would be the most important element to address.

On a technical standpoint, the situation is anything but simple.

Alternatives to fossil “natural” gas and coal are sought, and not just about electricity, but also for heat. Heat pumps are a great tool at our disposal but one should not forget about geothermal, cogeneration, district heating, waste-to-energy… All these solutions have to be adapted massively as well if we are decarbonize the way we heat our homes, offices, hospitals and countless of other buildings. We will also have to weatherize and insulate millions upon millions of homes to make them easier to heat during winters and cool them during increasingly hot summers.

I could dedicate another entire paragraph on decarbonizing our industry as cement and steel are massive contributors to climate change. Using biobased materials for construction could help but would definitively require alternatives in countless sectors.

While I applaud the current growth for EV, one needs to remember that electric cars are a tool to save the automotive industry, not to save us. An electric car is still a car : It’s still requires tons of space for parking, it still contributes to gridlock and traffic congestion. It keeps folks in a sedentary lifestyle that is bad for them. We are in the middle of an obesity epidemic… Additionally, it’s probable there won’t be enough energy storage minerals (lithium and so on) to switch all vehicles to electric. We need to get rid of most of our cars, trucks and pickups.

A complete overhaul of our transportation practices is needed. Most of us will have to bike or take transit to work or for grocery runs. This means we need to completely alter our cities and suburbs to allow for public transportation and cycling. Urban sprawl needs to be dealt with and reverse. This is by no mean simple, easy, cheap or fast. Sure, many things can happen in 20 years as Paris and many other cities have shown.

Our approach to food, agriculture and land use will also have to change drastically. Globally a third of the food we produce every year is wasted. Wealthy nations have massive meat consumptions and this is a serious problem for biodiversity and deforestation. Books such as Climate of Hope or Regeneration are explicitely showing this.

I think by now you will have understood my point : there are reasons for cautious optimism – ‘super-tipping points’ on the climate front but with so much to change and so much at stake, now is not the time to just sit back and relax. This decade is crucial. 1.5°C of warming could become a reality very soon.

Image credits : Benjamin Davies on Unsplash.

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