Is the world about to agree on net zero carbon emissions?

Home » Is the world about to agree on net zero carbon emissions?

Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message”- “Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”

UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, attending what he described as an “historic” report launch earlier this month. 

This week the United Nations has released the most important assessment of global warming yet and warns carbon emissions must be cut sharply and quickly. The report also makes it clear that rather than falling, carbon emissions, mainly from burning coal, oil and gas, are currently rising to new record levels. It is the first IPCC report since 2007 to bring together all aspects of tackling climate change and for the first time states: that carbon emissions will ultimately have to fall to net-zero – a theme which CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research has been exploring since 2007.

We marched for Zero Carbon Britain in October 2014, as we has before in December 2011

As the 2015 UN climate negotiations in Paris draw closer it is vital we have access to models for how each country can reach net zero emissions. Although the time allowed to reach net zero will vary between countries depending on their historic contribution to global emissions, the IPCC report makes it clear that getting to zero is a task facing us all.

However the IPCC report also makes it crystal clear that the solutions are both available and affordable and that quick, decisive action would build a better and sustainable future, while inaction would be more costly. “We have the means to limit climate change,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC. “The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change.”

Finding this ‘will to change’ has been another core aspect of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. Air flights, cars, high meat diets, conspicuous consumption shifting fashion and ‘constantly wanting the newest’ are powerful addictive social norms. Underpinned by abundant cheap fossil fuels they have taken a firm, yet sub-conscious hold on contemporary society, making it hard to question all that underpins them. But this is not a matter of moralising or inflicting guilt. We all awake to find ourselves having been deliberately, unwillingly led to place a burden on the earth, those in other places and those in future times.

member speaking
CAT members discussing Zero Carbon Britain

We do know we must change, we just can’t admit that we know. Even when presented with overwhelming scientific evidence by the UN’s IPCC, we still find that we can deliberately ignore it – even while being entirely aware that we are doing it. To make such a rapid emissions descent more ‘thinkable’ for those of us who have grown up in the industrialised west, it is necessary to help society see that the way we live our lives today is not “normal” but rather an energy extreme lifestyle. Such lifestyles have been deliberately designed for us, not only in terms of re-shaping the external physical landscape of transport systems and buildings but also in terms of the internal landscape of conspicuous consumption based social norms. Once this is revealed people can make their own leap and moving from today’s lifestyle is no longer seen as ‘a strange eco-challenge’ but a perfectly logical move to a more rational way of doing things.

But the vital thing to remember is that once we are equipped with the right tools, the way ahead can be a wonderful and exciting journey. From my perspective, renouncing consumerism gives me more time to do the things I love; spending much more time with community and spending quality time in nature – all directly replacing time, money and energy spent on conspicuous consumerism. Creative practice has shown how we can break through our prejudice, apathy and blind spots to catalyse a transformation of culture, attitudes and behaviours. Over just a few decades, our creativity has improved the lives of millions. It has helped to radically transform entrenched attitudes to gender, race, religion, class, employment law, exploitation and equity. Once a cultural shift is catalysed, legal & political frameworks quickly follow suit. To help society explore this leap I have been part of a group researching these ideas and we launched the report of our findings in Cardiff last week.

Young people work on their own vision for Zero Carbon Britain

Developing a path to net-zero as quickly as possible for Britain is necessary to show we can bring the impacts of our western excesses back down to our fair share – so we can look our brothers and sisters from across the globe in the eye and negotiate an equitable agreement at the next major UN climate summit in Paris in 2015. The UN calling for zero emissions is a hugely significant moment. At the moment, Zero Carbon Britain remains the only net zero emissions scenario for the UK. I hope, and expect, that won’t be the case for much longer