Can really achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and what world would that would create?
We talk to Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, major figures in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement about the future: one where net-zero emissions is achieved, and one where it is not.
Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac were major figures in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Their book, The Future We Choose, reveals that we are on the precipice of two futures: one where net-zero emissions is achieved, and one where it is not.
We talk to them about whether we can really achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and the world that would create.
What was the Paris Climate agreement?
TOM RIVETT-CARNAC: The Paris Agreement was a real breakthrough. For a long time there had been this breakdown in negotiations around the issue of fairness.
Developing countries would say to developed countries, “You caused this problem, and what’s more, you said you’d sort it out in the early 1990s. So, go away and make real progress, and then we’ll talk about a global agreement.”
CHRISTIANA FIGUERES: And it is factually true.
TRC: It’s a logically consistent argument. And developed countries would say to developing countries, “Well, that’s all in the past, but in the future, most of the emissions might come from you, and so we need to do it together.”
You can defend that from a logical perspective, even though the issue of fairness is clearly still there. So, for years those two sides created a schism in negotiations.
That was ultimately resolved by a two-part agreement: one long-term goal to limit climate change to well under 2°C, and best efforts to 1.5°C, to get to net-zero by 2050. But there had to be successive, nationally determined steps towards that goal.
Your book turns to individual change. Can one person’s actions really make a difference?
TRC: It’s a good question. Look at other examples in history, right down to fighting needed conflicts, engaging in great, shared projects. If people said, “If I’m not able to personally solve this massive, systemic, global problem entirely on my own, then I’m not getting out of bed and having a go,” it would have been insane.
Our first task is to reduce emissions by at least 50 per cent in 10 years. That’s a 7.6 per cent reduction every year, which is unprecedented. It’s in excess of anything that humanity’s achieved. When you say it to people, they get this tightness in their chest and go, “We’re not going to do it! We’re not going to make it!”
Read more about achieving net-zero emissions:
- Christiana Figueres on climate change: “Net zero carbon is our only option”
- The road to net zero: how we could become carbon neutral
But the truth is that we overestimate what we can do in a year, and we underestimate what we can do in 10 years. That’s enough time to replace the capital-intensive items in your life that are causing most of the emissions. It’s even enough time to think, “What do I want to do in the world? Do I want to retrain in some way that can contribute more? How do I change my diet? Do I change my car?”
But it’s true that just engaging with our own emissions and footprint won’t solve the problem. We also have to engage with power, so, that means raising our voices, pushing corporations to go further and faster, and pushing governments at all levels.
[Christiana and I] completely reject the narrative that we’re powerless. We can no longer afford the luxury and the indulgence of feeling powerless.
What does that planet look like if we don’t reach our target of net-zero by 2050?
TRC: That’s where we start in the book, with an immersive journey to that world. We base it on the science of what the world will look like if we don’t make any more efforts to cut emissions. That takes us on the pathway to a world warmed by 3.8°C by the end of the century.
It’s entirely possible, with additional decades of burning fossil fuels, that masks will be common. Vector-borne diseases will expand their range, and more people will be subject to West Nile virus, dengue and malaria.
Writing that section of the book was actually a strangely cathartic exercise. Many of us have a dim sense of that world, but bringing it into sharp relief brought me a calm resolve. I was like, “Okay, well now I see it.” And I know that I will work the rest of my life to avoid my children living in that world.
There are two choices for our future. What is the alternative 2050?
CF: That is actually quite an exciting world, the world that we really want our children and grandchildren to live in. It’s a world where we have got control over air pollution in cities, so you walk out of your house and the air is moist and fresh.
We will have returned fertility to the soil, and life to the oceans. We’ll be living in buildings that are producing flowers or vegetables on their rooftop, or they have solar panels, or the sides will be covered in green vines to absorb CO2.
Read more about climate change:
All buildings will produce their own energy, recycle their own water. Cities will largely produce their own food. We will have far fewer cars. Much less congestion. A lot of the space that is currently dedicated to transit or parking of cars will be dedicated to either charging batteries or, even more exciting, to green spaces.
That’s a different world. To say nothing of the fact that many of the low-lying islands currently threatened with disappearing might have a chance of existing.
So, it’s a fairer world. It’s a healthier world. It’s definitely a more stable world, and overall, it’s a more prosperous world.
Is that world achievable?
TRC: Actually, both worlds are present now, which is what makes this moment in history amazing, right? At a certain point, we will set our path and it will be much more difficult to change it.
But at the moment, we stand at the fulcrum between those two worlds. It really is a question of choosing what future we want.
CF: That’s what makes the difference. Where do you set your attention? If you set your attention on the pollution and transportation, well then, that’s what you see.
Whereas if you set your attention on the progress, then you can see evidence of that world. That is why the main message in the book is: we have to choose. Both futures are possible now. It’s a matter of choice.
The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac is out now (£12.99, Manilla Press).
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.