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Introducing the Net Zero Sensemaker

Introducing the Net Zero Sensemaker

Your weekly update on what we’re doing – and what more we can do – to build an agenda for COP26 that makes a difference

Welcome to this new newsletter, the Accelerating Net Zero Sensemaker. It’s members’ weekly update on what we’re doing – and what more we can do – to build an agenda for COP26 that makes a difference.

Enjoy today’s edition, the readout from last week’s Tortoise Climate Summit, and for the latest data, analysis and ThinkIns we’re doing visit our Accelerating Net Zero hub page here.

Faster, faster!

In seven months the world meets in Glasgow to prove it’s serious about the Paris climate goals. There’s little sign of it yet. To be on course for net zero by 2050, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global emissions need to fall by 45 per cent relative to 2010 within the next ten years. In reality they’re on course to fall by 1 per cent.

So are we cutting fast enough? “Unequivocally, no,” says Nigel Topping, the UK’s High Level Climate Action Champion. That’s why the theme of Glasgow and of Tortoise’s climate coverage between now and then is accelerating net zero. Forget the warm afterglow of Paris. As a species we need to get much busier on the self-preservation front. We need to be 45 times more ambitious.

Topping isn’t panicking, but he has a plea for us, the press. When covering the story that will decide our planetary fate, he says, “if it bleeds it leads” won’t do. He assumes we’ll be sceptical but asks us also to be alive to rays of hope (like one airline group’s pledge to expand its use of sustainable jet fuel 1,000-fold over the next ten years). 

That was the mix of urgency and optimism at our Accelerating Net Zero Summit last week. 

This is the readout. It’s also our first Accelerating Net Zero Sensemaker, and there‘ll be one a week from now on for anyone who wants to join our effort to understand what really matters in the most important debate of the past three billion years.

It was a summit of numbers and mantras. First, some of the numbers:

  • 29,000,000,000 – the amount of CO2 equivalent that still needs to be cut from global annual emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, in tons. That’s 3.5 times more than China, the US and Europe plan to cut between them. 
  • 5 – factor by which the UK needs to expand current renewable power capacity for the mix to be all renewable.
  • 2 – factor by which it will have to be expanded again to meet increased demand by 2050. 
  • 2,500,000,000,000 – investment required to fund the global transition to clean energy, annually for 30 years, in dollars. That’s more than eight times the current level.

Now the mantras:

  • We know what to do. “The technology is here, the price is right,” said Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, which sells all-green power to about 200,000 UK homes and generates about a fifth of it itself. Smart grids, EVs, hydrogen electrolysers and carbon credits are ready to go, off the shelf. Pathways through the energy transition have been mapped out for every economic sector. CapGemini has identified 55 clean energy technologies that already pay for themselves
  • Momentum matters. The 2015 Paris conference was criticised for leaving targets voluntary. But what mattered if you were there was the sense of possibility, said Tom Rivett-Carnac, who helped get the agreement signed. Preserving that sense is more important than any single policy goal at Glasgow, because the alternative is that the international community simply quits. By the same token…
  • Perfectionism is a problem. “We don’t need it,” said Rebekah Braswell of the Land Life Company, which plants trees on degraded land for carbon sequestration and offsetting. Scientists like Tom Crowther say nearly a billion hectares are available for reforestation. Not true, according to Braswell, but that’s no reason not to reforest the 200 million that in her experience are available and accessible.  

All of which is irrelevant if citizens don’t care. And there is a risk that the generation on which the real burden of climate change will fall feels shut out of the debate on what to do about it, even when invited in. “How do we make sure all these conversations actually become something that has impact?” asked Jouja Maamri, UK youth delegate to the 2021 G7 Youth Summit. “As a young person, to be brought into a room and finally feel you have a voice, and then to realise it goes no further than the room, is incredibly demoralising.”

Having said that: Greta Thunberg is still only 18 and the Greta effect was unquestionably a factor behind a sea change in business attitudes to climate change in the past year and half, says Matthew Hay of Forest Carbon, which sells forest and peatland carbon credits in Scotland. His business is booming.

Maybe what’s said of trees in China can also be said of activists the world over: the best time to plant one is 20 years ago. The second best is today.

Science and Tech

Jet zero 

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is anything not made from fossils that can get you in the air. It can be made from refined waste cooking oil, and that’s the version the oil majors and IAG are talking up as 70 per cent less carbon-intensive than kerosene. Earlier this month IAG, which owns BA and Iberia, pledged to boost its use of SAF from powering 0.01 per cent of long-haul flights to 10 per cent by 2030. For now, supplies are limited. It’s expensive, and you need to mix it with kerosene. The 10 per cent pledge could raise prices and reduce demand, making it 10 per cent of a smaller number. Another reason to suspect that long haul business travel may have peaked? 


Conservation costs

Ten days ago Jair Bolsonaro said he would cut deforestation in the Amazon by 40 per cent if paid $1 billion by overseas donors. That would be cheap at the price. Bolsonaro is not a remotely trustworthy custodian of the world’s biggest carbon sink. He may have been embarrassed into this offer when invited to take the mic at Biden’s Earth Day summit with nothing to say. But the principle that everyone should pay to keep the Amazon alive is well established. One note from Isabel Hilton: Brazil suffers first and worst from the destruction of its forests, not least because they make its rain.

Separately, the Tortoise Responsibility 100 Index found that Just Eat doesn’t report even scope 1 or 2 carbon emissions. It uses a loophole in the law to try to justify this – it’s domiciled in the Netherlands. But there is no justification.

Engagement and Activism

Sea law

A group of Pacific Island students is seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on whether climate change violates their human rights by depriving them of a place to live. The campaign has been going since 2019. Its first hurdle, not cleared yet, is a UN vote asking the court to hear the case. Last week Germany’s Constitutional Court found local law wanting for putting too much of the burden of climate change on future generations. Might that help?


Money for new hope

ESG sounds like a food additive. In reality it’s become a) the default acronym for new ways of measuring corporate performance – and investment priorities – that aren’t to do with money; and b) in many cases a byword for greenwash. It stands for environmental, social and governance principles, and it wouldn’t have become an industry in itself without influential supporters. “I wish people were less sceptical and more engaged in what works,” said Dambisa Moyo, who sits on Chevron’s board. One reason it doesn’t work better is there’s no standard way of measuring it. But standardisation is happening and $45 trillion has been earmarked by businesses for ESG investments. That’s trillion with t, and even Berkshire Hathaway is under pressure to demand better ESG reporting from its subsidiaries. With money like that, accelerating net zero might actually be possible. 

Do share this around and let us know what you think of it.

Giles Whittell