Monday 24 August 2020

Net Zero 2030: a Tortoise moonshot

The heat is on

Tortoise members have been working out how to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Here’s why

Last year the UN’s climate experts said we had 11 years to act decisively or face runaway global warming.

This year we did act decisively – against Covid.

The pandemic seemed to warrant shutting down the world economy in a way that climate change never has and maybe never will. But it has left millions of people wondering: what if?

What if we could summon the will to do what’s needed to bring climate back under control before it’s too late? What would it take?

As Tortoise hunkered down under those strange empty skies in March, we asked our members if these were questions they’d like to help answer. A large group of them – of you – said yes.

We called the project Net Zero 2030, nicknamed it the moonshot, and set about measuring the task of getting to net zero carbon emissions within a decade.

The task is huge; most people say impossible. It would require a revolution in social and economic priorities and the biggest shift in investment patterns in at least 200 years. A gigantic heap of junked internal combustion engines would be the least of it.

So why shoot for 2030? Why not 2050, the year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has settled on as a net zero target if we are to have a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees?

There seem to be at least three answers.

First, we’re already on course to overshoot 2 degrees, never mind 1.5, and the difference between them is likely to be catastrophic for hot countries, low countries, poor countries, natural carbon sinks and most of the aquatic world.

Second, whenever we get to net zero, most of the CO2 emitted by humans since the dawn of the industrial revolution will still be warming the planet for generations after that. We need to move on to negative emissions as if our lives depended on it (because they do).

And third, we’re human. For most of today’s leaders and many of today’s voters, 2050 is meaningless. It’s someone else’s problem. It’s a punt.

Like John F. Kennedy with the original moonshot, we decided the deadline needed to be firmly in view if people were going to take it seriously.

And so to the caveats. The field of road maps to net zero is crowded, which is good. We’re not aiming to be comprehensive or definitive. Instead we’ve sought, experimentally, the wisdom and the curiosity of a crowd of volunteers.

The result is not what you’d expect from McKinsey or the World Resources Institute. We defer to their deeper knowledge of divestment trends and the minimum cobalt content of lithium-ion batteries. But we hope we’ve made some constructive contributions to the conversation all the same.

They’re divided into three groups:

The Goal (on where we have to get to);

The Will (because we need to find the popular and political will to act);  and

The Way (on how we might get to where we need to go).

Under these headings you’ll find Alfie Ireland’s take on decarbonising UK transport, Abbey Wong’s introduction to “excellent dumb cities” and Sophie Littlewood on the wholesale energy transition that needs to underpin them.

You’ll find Megan Kenyon, Harrison Brewer and Bradley Shippey on net zero and local, national and international governance, respectively.

There’s a fair amount of time travel to and from 2030, because we thought it would be useful – uplifting, even – to imagine this moonshot as an accomplishment, not just a terrifying challenge. (Look out for Gavin and Alice, conceived by Harrison Brewer and sketched by Lizzie Lomax.)

There’s a forensic analysis by Rosie Hamilton of how to shrink the carbon footprint of period products and – essential reading – there’s James Whyte’s explanation of how one reggaeton hit had the climate impact of the annual CO2 emissions of four African countries.

This moonshot is a work in progress. You’re not reading Apollo 11 yet, but we’ll keep adding to this week’s output for as long as you feel inspired to create it.

Sincere thanks to everyone who’s contributed so far. As Glenn Frey pointed out before his time, the heat is on.

Giles Whittell




Reporting team: Bee Boileau, Harrison Brewer, Amy Campbell, Danielle Goodman, Rosie Hamilton, Alfred Ireland, Megan Kenyon, Sophie Littlewood, Sindhu Ram, Niamh Ryall, Bradley Shippey, Tareq Sholi, Jelena Sofronijevic, Rob Wavell, James Whyte, Abbey Wong, Alice Wright

Editors: Giles Whittell, Barney Macintyre, James Wilson, Ella Hill

Design: Oliver Bothwell

Picture editor: Joe Mee

Illustrations: Lizzie Lomax

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