Seven years to save the planet? That discourse hinders effective climate policy

“We still have seven years to save the planet,” said Groen’s co-chair recently The last news (08/04). He could not resist emphasizing that it is science that states this, in order to reinforce his position. Anyone who does not meekly follow this seven-year-to-save-the-planet discourse is rather quickly dismissed as a climate retarder who does not see the need for urgent and far-reaching climate measures.

The original statement dates back to 2018, when we had 12 more years to save the planet. After all, in 2018 the UN climate panel IPCC published the special report on a global warming of 1.5°C, following the stricter temperature target of the Paris Agreement in 2015, namely 1.5°C warming in 2100. To keep the chances of meeting this temperature target intact, the IPCC’s scenarios showed global zero emissions in 2050 and a halving of global emissions by 2030. And yes, 2030 is twelve years away from 2018.

Such a sloganesque statement sounds good, of course, but I wonder whether those who use this statement inappropriately to point out the seriousness of the matter are aware of what that statement actually means. This means an annual global emission reduction of around 20 percent, and this for about thirty consecutive years (until 2050). If you know that in the covid year 2020, when the entire world went into lockdown, a global emission reduction of barely 6 percent was achieved, then it is legitimate to ask questions about a hoped-for emission reduction of 20 percent.

This also means that in 2030 we may emit as much annually as in 1973. Only then there were ‘only’ 3.5 billion people on the planet, while in 2030 we will most likely be 8.5 billion on this planet. So emit the same amount with more than twice as many people. Or even more concretely: in 2030, you, I and all the other 8 billion citizens of the world would produce only 1 ton of CO2 annually.2 allowed to emit. That is approximately the emissions per person of a single flight from Brussels to New York. Let this sink in for a while.

The seven-year-to-save-the-planet adepts are the true climate retards, simply because they dare not face reality, because they look away from the uncomfortable reality. They stand in the way of real, sustainable climate solutions.

Because yes, to save the planet within seven years there is indeed only one solution: an extremely drastic reduction in emissions, whatever it takesignoring all other societal needs worldwide, including the urgent need for the global South to adapt to the rapidly warming world. Then we are indeed left with a story of ‘less, less, less’, of outgrowth, of a transformative system change, which many climate activists advocate. In fact, they are calling for a complete collapse of the current world order. And then let’s hope that all 8 billion citizens of the world will meekly undergo this.

Isn’t it urgent to leave behind this short-sighted discourse, which increasingly forms an obstacle to effective climate policy, and to shift the focus to the long term, starting from the real world in which we live? The starting point should be that it’s an uncomfortable reality that we’re in, probably by the end of this decade overshoot go.

Worldwide, we are indeed going to exceed the global carbon budget for 1.5°C or even 2°C of warming. This inevitable overshoot also implies that, certainly in the second half of this century, we will actively and massively store CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere. Investments in negative emission technologies, now often in the experimental phase or still on the drawing board, are therefore literally vital if we wish to “save the planet”. And the global North, with its ‘climate debt’, must take the lead here.

With no negative emissions, we move towards the ultimate goal of net zero never realized in the second half of this century. We must eventually go carbon negative globally to approach the 1.5°C temperature target by the end of the century ‘from above’.

This is certainly no excuse not to focus on an accelerated, but realistic, reduction in emissions. Rather, it’s about flatten the curve, known to all of us since the corona crisis. Globally, we need to ensure that the overshoot limited as much as possible by investing massively in carbon-free technological innovations, in order to free global society from its fossil addiction as quickly as possible.

Climate stabilization – call it saving the planet – is not a sprint we will be running for the next seven years. It is a marathon, which will mainly be run by our children and grandchildren, well into the 22nd century. It will be they who realize the transformation to a sustainable world on a healthy planet. A challenging prospect, isn’t it?

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