The Race to Zero Emissions: Are we at a tipping point?

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It’s climate action week, and I’ve been asked this one question many times: Are we at a tipping point?

The pessimist would answer with a further question: “Have you looked at the global emissions chart?” In 2018, the world hit a new record, adding yet another data point to the upward trend. “The history of energy transitions is one of energy additions,” says Jason Bordoff of Columbia University. “We’ve never used less of anything. We’re using more wood, more oil, more coal.”

The pessimist would show you the paltry new targets set by the leaders of countries allowed to speak at the UN’s climate summit. Those leaders did not raise their ambitions all that much. India pushed only a little higher—adding more renewables but saying nothing about cutting coal use. China made no new commitments. The EU did not set a net-zero emissions goal. The US, Japan, and Australia were absent from the discussion altogether.

If all countries achieved their stated goals, we would still be on course for a global average temperature rise of closer to 4°C, compared to pre-industrial times. It will make parts of the world uninhabitable, destabilize many countries, and create hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

The doleful pessimist would also point to the rise of nationalism. It’s creating leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Scott Morrison…who portray the rollback of environmental regulations as patriotism.

But the optimist would answer the original question rather more brightly: “Look, we are in between two climate protests.” Last Friday (Sept. 20), some 4 million children and adults took to the streets in 170 countries in what’s probably the largest single-day environmental protest in history. This Friday’s protests may not be much bigger, or even as big,  but the symbolism still counts. It will be right at the end of the UN’s Climate Action Summit, and the high-level week of discussions at the UN General Assembly.

The optimist would ask you to consider several hopeful developments. Christiana Figueres, former UN chief negotiator who’s considered one of the architects of the Paris climate agreement, compares this moment to September 2014, before yet another UN climate summit. Then too, there had been a protest. “There’s much more outrage now on the streets,” she says, and the tent is much bigger.

What Figueres means is that people who didn’t think climate change was an issue before now feel passionate about it. Awareness of its likely impact and much-needed solutions has never been higher. Rich countries, which are likely to suffer the effects of climate change much less than poor ones, and which have historically contributed more to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, have higher levels of passionate activism. Greta Thunberg is from Sweden. Extinction Rebellion was born in the UK. Every US democratic presidential candidate is competing to advance an ambitious climate plan.

The optimist would also point to the falling costs of low-carbon technologies. The world is deploying record levels of solar panels, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries, and electric cars. And poorer countries aren’t hanging back. India and China are already well ahead of climate commitments that many thought were too ambitious just five years ago—creating room for greater ambition.

Both points of view are right. The world hasn’t done enough, but we’ve not been sitting still either. We’re in that middle space where the pressure continues to build, even though it hasn’t yet crossed the threshold that helps overcome inertia and liberates the system.

You can think of the first UN climate change meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 as the start of a tug of war. Ranged on one side are environmentalists, who have science on their side. At the other end are powerful governments and corporations, who want to maintain the status quo. Slowly but surely, the balance is shifting, with many people, some corporations, and a few governments changing sides. Once we hit that social tipping point, the global emissions chart will start to bend downwards.

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