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Sensemaker: This time it’s different

Wednesday 28 April 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • More than 150 Indian districts were due to go back into lockdown as the country’s Covid death toll passed 200,000.
  • The Siberian city of Novosibirsk was shrouded in dark smoke from forest fires prompting an official “black sky” warning.
  • The UK’s Department for Transport confirmed hands-free motoring at up to 37 mph would be allowed in suitably equipped cars later this year. 

This time it’s different

That is the idea behind the seven-month climate awareness marathon that started on Earth Day last week and culminates at COP26 in November. It’s different in that this time, six years after the festival of good intentions that was the 2015 Paris Agreement, awareness is supposed to translate into action. We shall see.

Earth Day’s 40-nation summit hosted by President Biden was another feast of pledges. They are worth enumerating (see below) but proof of seriousness will have to come at COP. In the meantime surging post-lockdown carbon emissions and two big new ideas will compete for our attention and control our mood swings. 

Those ideas are:

  • We need to move faster. This was the theme of the Biden summit, which focused on 2030 carbon goals rather than far-off 2050 ones that can be left to future generations. (It’s also the theme of our Accelerating Net Zero summit tomorrow. Sign up here.)
  • This might actually be doable. As the brilliantly clear-headed Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development put it, big countries have at last started doing their technical homework and the result is a new engineering-based consensus that “decarbonising the energy system is not some pie-in-the-sky dream, but is a rather practical and achievable task”.

Sachs breaks the energy transition down into six simple steps:

  1. Phase out all fossil fuel-based energy generation and replace it with wind, solar and nuclear.
  2. Electrify transport.
  3. Electrify buildings – including heating, cooling and cooking.
  4. Turbocharge energy efficiency with better design and materials.
  5. Power carbon-intensive heavy industry and shipping with green hydrogen instead.
  6. Maximise carbon sequestration with natural solutions like reforestation.

Importantly, the most dramatic new emissions pledges come from countries which broadly aim to keep their promises. These include:

  • Japan, aiming for a 46 per cent cut below 2013 levels by 2030 compared with its previous ambition of 26 per cent, and net zero by 2050;
  • the US, now aiming for a 50 per cent cut below 2005 levels by 2030;
  • Canada, aiming for a 45 per cent cut below 2005 levels by 2030;
  • the UK, aiming for a 78 per cent cut below 1990 levels by 2035 compared with an earlier target of 68 per cent by 2030.

The inevitable reality check: individual countries can enshrine these goals in law, but COP has no power to make them binding. Global carbon emissions from power generation alone are expected to shoot up by 5 per cent this year as the world comes blinking back from Covid (the biggest annual increase since 2010 and the second biggest in history). And there is no mention of carbon pricing in Biden’s current plan, even though no serious climate economist thinks the steep cuts needed are possible without it. 

As Oxford’s Dieter Helm writes in his book Net Zero: “It is hard to imagine any coherent decarbonisation strategy without a price of carbon at its core. If something is not priced, the pollution it causes is not taken seriously in everyday decisions by governments, companies and individuals. If the price is zero, or too low to represent the damage being done, there will be overconsumption of the things within which carbon is embedded.”

But, chin up: carbon pricing schemes based on traded carbon credits are bedded in and starting to reflect the true cost of emissions in the EU and California, and John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, says his boss will grasp this nettle in due course (i.e. if he ever senses an opening in Congress). 

And finally, there was one surprise above all last week that the world should cherish on the glide slope to COP26, as proof of the positive power of peer pressure and a possible model for future climate action: Jair Bolsonaro, renegade president of Brazil, U-turned on climate change after four years of Trumpist denialism, and said he would:

  • commit Brazil to achieving net zero by 2050;
  • cut deforestation in the Amazon by 40 per cent on payment of $1 billion from foreign donors by way of compensation;
  • end illegal deforestation altogether by 2030.

Bolsonaro’s word may not be his bond, but this is progress. It has been obvious for decades that the Amazon is a global good whose preservation we must all pay for (and $1 billion is peanuts in this debate). 

We’ll talk about trees tomorrow, too, at the Tortoise Climate Summit. Come and have your say.

New things technology, science, engineering

Battery boosters and shorters
We are not there yet, technologically, with EVs. The cars are cool and sales are up but battery packs are still way too expensive and if you’re on a long trip they take too long to charge. A new battery that genuinely matches a petrol tank for range and recharge time is still the holy grail. QuantumScape, based in San Jose but in bed with VW, hinted last year that it solved the problem. Then sceptics piled in, called it a scam and shorted its stock. Now its founder and CEO has told Bloomberg he might be willing to let an independent lab give his cells a once-over. If that happens and they do what is claimed, the revolution is truly nigh. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Von der vaccine
Like old elastic, the EU is slowly bouncing back from its vaccine debacle. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president who’s taken most of the blame for the botched start, is talking up a whopping deal ($) for up to 1.8 billion Pfizer/BioNTech doses that she seems to have personally negotiated via text and calls with the Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. Two thoughts: if this happens it will allow every European to be vaccinated without troubling the AstraZeneca sales team ever again. And there will be plenty left over for vaccine diplomacy. The only question is why the deal has been trailed for nearly a week and not yet signed. Why the hold-up?

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Last Lotus
Those of my younger colleagues who weren’t sure who Ernst Stavro Blofeld was when the subject last came up probably won’t know, either, that the car that flies off a Mediterranean quayside and turns into a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me is a Lotus Esprit Turbo, fantasy object for generations of wannabe superspies, with Ferrari performance at a fraction of the price. Now Lotus is making its last pure petrol car ever. It’s called the Emira and is billed by its maker as “one last hurrah” for internal combustion. It may be a muted hurrah, since the first electric Lotus has already been unveiled, does 200 mph+ and is hogging all the attention.   

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Legal shoplifting
A Portuguese start-up has raised $6.5 million to compete with Amazon in the race to reinvent retail. Amazon pioneered the till-free shop in the US and now has two in London. You just take what you want and walk out, and a combination of cameras and scanners bills you automatically. Now Sensei, based in Lisbon, is pushing a package of software and hardware that can turn any shop into a grab-and-go shop. Vasco Portugal, Sensei’s founder, says “there’ll be a day when we look at pictures of people waiting in line to pay and we’ll probably laugh”. In the meantime we are apparently spending up to two years of our lives in queues. Sifted has the story.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Publish and be damned
Hundreds of employees at Simon & Schuster have signed a petition demanding that the company drop ex-vice president Mike Pence’s book because he promoted racist, sexist and homophobic policies. Thousands of outside voices have signed too, including prominent authors. The thrust of the argument is that you cannot normalise the Trump presidency by engaging in the ritual of the post-presidential memoir. It certainly wasn’t normal, but an insider’s view might help people judge to what extent it was abnormal. Also, if you are the Mike Pence who stood up for the constitution when the Capitol was under siege, you are going to get a big old book deal somewhere, come what may. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images

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