Yesterday’s IPCC report on the Mitigation of Climate Change was launched at a press conference attended by more than 3,000 people around the world. It offers solutions to problems that seem to have gone past the tipping point. While sounding a positive note throughout – “We know what to do, we know how to do it, now we have to get on and do it” – the content time and again undermined the hope this gave us. This is not business as usual…this is a big change of direction. We left COP26 thinking that the Net Zero commitments had established a pathway to safety. The UK’s own Net Zero Strategy setting out a 10-Point plan and published in October 2021 led the way.
Now this new IPCC report, the third in a critical trilogy of reports, calls for fundamental and urgent change in the management of carbon globally. Even worse, there is a funding gap of between 3-6 times what is required in investment to achieve the goal of restricting warming to below 1.5 degrees. The sum is in trillions. Action is required now, without delay according to this report. Yet this funding is not available as we speak.
At the heart of the report is a startling admission: carbon dioxide removal is essential to achieve net zero. Land use cannot compensate for delayed emission reductions in other sectors. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), or Direct Air Capture Systems (DACS) – the most developed processes by which we can mechanically remove carbon from the atmosphere – are essential.
But the possibility of achieving the change it describes is facing one insuperable block. The change outlined in the report is not affordable within the current constraints of existing technology. Any economic solution would require innovation currently not visible in the area of climate change technology. And this requires a huge amount of investment.
How do we deal with a situation in which the means of protecting what is most valuable to all of us, our own lives and our children’s lives, cannot be accessed because we do not have enough money to pay for it? Perhaps it is an inevitable condition, but this is excessively pessimistic. It seems to insist that if life is indeed priceless, the means of saving it are literally, as well as figuratively, also beyond price.
But we have got it wrong. Money is our servant, not our master. The creation of money, of business, of technology, of science, only has value insofar as it serves the needs of our society. Economic systems only exist to serve society. As John Maynard Keynes said: “Neither economic activities nor any other class of human activities can rightly be made independent of moral laws.” This simple truth is too often ignored. Economic life is too often treated as if it obeys its own rules, and follows its own path. It does not. It has no value beyond the service it provides to society.
We are blinding ourselves to the implications of this simple truth. Carbon Capture and Storage and Direct Air Capture Systems are not too expensive, nor are they uneconomic. If the IPCC and the rest of us started from a different point, as we must, then we will reach a different conclusion.
The start point must be:
We cannot afford to let any more time pass by without removing carbon from the atmosphere in quantity. The IPCC Report makes this explicitly clear. “Take action now, or 1.5 degrees is beyond reach. The deadline is now…if there is no advance before COP27, we know 1.5 is inevitable” according to the panel. The price we will pay for failing in this regard is enormous, in terms of loss of lives and livelihoods worldwide.
We must use the existing technologies for carbon removal (CCS or DACS) with all possible speed, at a scale sufficient to remove carbon in the quantities necessary.
The cost of doing so must be borne, ideally shared by all major nation states in the developed economies.
Calculating the cost of doing so should be achieved by calculating the cost of NOT doing so. “The longer we put off action, the bigger the challenges will be.”
Money is neither an object or even a consideration in this five step process. Survival is. The means by which the cost is calculated requires us to reconsider the value of the money it will consume.
If the worse comes to the worst predicted in the IPCC report, the money that we might not be able to afford now will no longer exist. Money will no longer exist. We will no longer exist.
This does bring out the paradox of climate change. The climate, which is the most precious feature of our existence, has no value in our existence. None of us has ever paid for rainfall, nor sunshine. Yet our entire lives depend on both.
How can we break this paradox? It depends now on political will. The IPCC is right in its analysis. The future we face without doing something about carbon is bleak. Today, politicians all over the world are reading this report. Their decisions in the coming weeks and months will dictate how the problem is addressed.
Right now, in the aftermath of COP26, global policies concerning climate change are concentrated on the Net Zero concept, and are given variable timelines by which it will be achieved. These range from 2045 (Scotland) to 2070 (China). But the principle is the same.
Unfortunately, the principle embraces the continuous net emission gain until the point at which Net Zero is reached. In other words, our world will continue to get warmer until the target date is reached, which will be the first time that carbon emissions are less than carbon removal, and the temperature finally stops rising. Things are going to continue to get worse for a very long time, before they start to get better.
The IPCC report makes it quite clear that this will spell disaster. In that respect, it would seem that the IPCC has got it entirely right. But much more determination is required, and with it, the optimism to believe that we can make a difference. We must not despair, we must continue to hope, and work to justify that hope.