Christiana Figueres on climate change: “Net zero carbon is our only option”
The former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change talks to us about what we need to do to save the planet.
This year’s Formula E season wound up in New York City this month. The event has grown in popularity since its launch in 2014, reaching more and more people with the message that electric vehicles can play a critical part in creating sustainable transportation and a key role in fighting climate change.
We visited the Envision Virgin Racing Formula E team and spoke to former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and head of the Formula E Global Advisory Board Christiana Figueres about how best to get to net zero carbon.
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What do the current scientific assessments of the climate say?
The science has been evolving over the past, let’s say, 30 to 40 years but took a very accelerated advance step last October when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which are the climate scientists of world, published a very unique report on the implications of global warming going beyond 1.5°C degrees.
That was the first time that climate science had actually gone into that level of granularity. Everything before had been much more general; this was the first time that they went into an extraordinary amount of granularity about the difference of the world that we will have if we allow the temperature to go to 1.5°C versus if we allowed temperature to go to 2°C.
Everybody should be taking note of that, because that is now incontrovertibly the only destination that we could allow is for a warming of 1.5°C, and we already have 1°C. So, we’re almost there.
Let me just explain that in a very easy to understand way. Pretend you’re in an old-fashioned bathroom, and that you have a bathtub. If the bathtub represents the global atmosphere, then we have been filling up that bathtub with the CO2 emissions that we have been producing, and we are just about to come up to the brim of the bathtub. We’re just barely almost there.
If we continue to fill the bathtub, we will go over the brim of the bathtub and it will be completely uncontrollable. It will flood over the brim, and it will flood into the adjoining rooms, and that flood is something that is very unpredictable and uncontrollable.
That is the best analogy I can think of of the point at which we are. We’re almost at the limit about how much greenhouse gas emissions we can continue to put into the global atmosphere without getting to tipping points that will be very difficult to manage.
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Say we do go past this tipping point, what would happen to the Earth?
Well, it is clear, in the worst of all cases, we would have melting of most of the ice caps, both in the North and in the South Poles. That would take us to extraordinary rise in sea level.
We would have the disappearance of all coral reefs, and in the worst of all cases, the temperature circulation that keeps the planet within a certain temperature would stop, so we would have some places that are very, very cold, some places that are very, very hot. Frankly, it would make the planet unliveable for us. That’s the worst case.
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Now, the fact is that we think we can stay just short of that, but still, we don’t know how much destruction we’re going to do. So, to put it into the gamut of 1.5°C versus 2°C, if we go to 2°C versus 1.5°C, we will have two to three times as much physical destruction of infrastructure because of floods, hurricanes etc.
We will have two to three times as much economic loss because of the destruction. We will have two to three times as many people affected by life-threatening heat and food uncertainty. And we will have two to three times as much biodiversity loss. So, it is a sizeable difference between 1.5°C and 2°C.
So, a lot of people might think that doesn’t sound like a very big figures, but if you put this into perspective, the last ice age was only a few degrees cooler than currently, right?
Yes, the reason why it sounds so small is because it is used as an average. But the fact is that there are places on the Earth that, even if we just go to 1.5°C, would actually warm up 5°C or 6°C, which is totally within the range of an ice age or not. So, that’s why it sounds so weird that half a degree makes a big difference.
But if half a degree means that we have two times as many people dying because of heat or food starvation, then that’s a sizeable difference.
What are the main offenders?
Well, there are two main offenders, or two families of offenders. One is the burning of fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas that we have depended on for 100 years. All our creature comforts now are basically are dependent on that. About 70 per cent of the emissions come from that.
And the other 30 per cent comes from irresponsible use of land, so deforesting or degrading land, agriculture, all of those land uses that are not responsible.
A lot of climate scientists and people discussing this talk about the significance of 2020. So, is that really a critical point at which we all have to be aiming for?
Yes, 2020 is a very important year, which is already next year. By 2020, we have to put ourselves in the position of beginning to descend greenhouse gasses. Right now, we’re still increasing greenhouse gases - we increased 1.7 per cent last year - and will likely increase this year.
By next year, we have to put ourselves in the position of beginning the descent. Because, from 2020 to 2030, we will have to cut greenhouse gas emissions to one half of what they are today.
And then for the next decade after that, another 50 per cent, and the next decade after that, another 50 per cent until we are net zero emissions by 2050. But that trajectory needs to start in 2020.
Is that because of the longevity of the infrastructures that we’ve put in place?
Exactly, so if we decide today to invest in a fossil fuel plant, let’s say, God forbid, a new coal plant, well, coal plants typically operate for 30, 40, some of them even 50 years, which is completely crazy because they’re inefficient by then.
So, that means that there will be those greenhouse gases emitted from that coal plant. So, there is what we call a lock-in effect: through investment and infrastructure decisions of today, you lock in emission levels of tomorrow, and that’s the danger. That’s why investment decisions today need to be low carbon.
Despite this, you’re still optimistic.
We think optimism is really key in addressing climate change. But let me define how we understand optimism. If you have a task ahead of you and you say, ‘Right, I’m going to train myself to run a marathon,’ and you do all the training and you run, well, at the end of the run, that is actually a huge achievement. You celebrate that achievement.
That celebration is not optimism. It’s a celebration because that is something that you have achieved, and it’s the result of your effort. That is not optimism.
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- In what ways are humans making the Earth less habitable?
For me, optimism is not the output or the result of an achievement, it’s actually the input to any challenge. So, I can see a challenge ahead of me and decide with what mindset I’m going to go at that challenge.
If I’m going to go with the defeatist attitude, you know, let’s go with the marathon, if I say, ‘Right, I’m going to train for a marathon, but actually I don’t think I really can.’ Well, guess what? You won’t. Because mindsets tend to fulfil themselves.
So, that’s why it’s important to be optimistic about climate change, because we have to be able to get into the mindset of the conviction that not individually, but working together, using all of this technology that is being brought to market, using the shifting capital, using the policies that we will actually be able to address climate change.
You have to remain optimistic so that you open the space of possibility rather than closing it in.
So, what are your thoughts for the future? Especially taking into account the recent swell in support for eco-activism among young people.
Yes, it’s really, really fantastic. And that’s why we launched a new podcast called Outrage and Optimism. Because I think outrage is fantastic.
The outrage and the anger that is on the streets is totally justified, because these people, young people in particular, understand the science, they understand the implications for their life, and they know that it is possible to address it. That’s why they’re angry. If they thought it’s not possible, they wouldn’t be angry.
They’re angry because they know it’s possible and that is what makes that movement so powerful. So, I am totally with the outrage and marry it with optimism, because I think the mindset that we have to have is: we know it’s possible, we’re angry that it’s not making it possible, and we’re going to commit ourselves to making it possible. So, those two things need to come together.
Listen to our Science Focus Podcast interview with Sir David Attenborough about how we'll tackle climate change
Do you think we’ll ever be able to reach a net, zero-carbon world?
Yes. Absolutely. We have to. There’s no option, we can’t even ask the question because we have to do that. Or the other option is we all get ready to leave the planet. I don’t know how I would do that, and I’m not even sure how younger people would do that. So, if we intend to stay here, and if we intend to live more or less the human life that we have been living, then we have to do it. Period. No other option.
What would your top tips for individuals be?
So, I have five things that every individual can do.
Point number one, what do you eat? If you’re still eating red meat seven days a week, cut down to six to five to four, because honestly, cutting out red meat is the easiest thing that you can do. Particularly because there is so much plant-based protein, there are even plant-based hamburgers on the market. Everything.
Number two is how do you transport yourself? If you’re transporting yourself in a huge gas guzzling car, and transporting yourselves individually that’s totally irresponsible. So, look to sharing mobility, look to electric mobility, look towards public transportation because we just cannot afford any more of these internal combustion engine cars that transport one person.
Thirdly, your home. Is your home and your office actually insulated to the point where you are not warming up the entire neighbourhood in the winter and cooling your neighbourhood in the summer. You have to be able to of course live a comfortable life inside your home, but without wasting energy, and that’s also good for your pocketbook anyway.
Fourthly, where is your money? If you’re in the age-category that you already have some disposable capital that you are investing, make sure that that investment is not into high-carbons. Frankly, because you’re going to lose that investment because the high-carbon assets are just losing value very, very quickly.
And fifthly, who do you vote for? You know, in countries in which democracy is the political system, and that’s not in all countries, but in democracies, it’s very important to choose both sub-national as well as national leaders who understand what is going on, what the opportunities are and are being responsible.
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.