“It’s time to swallow the alarm clock!” This was how former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres launched Mission2020 this week, a new campaign to ensure that 2020 is the year global emissions start to decline.
The launch event took place at Google’s glitzy London office and featured the likes of renowned climate economist Lord Nick Stern and Astro Teller of Google X, the mysterious ‘moonshot factory’ that comes up with the company’s more ambitious projects like Google Glass and driverless cars.
He spoke via video link up from, what I liked to imagine, was some top secret subterranean lab under the mountains of California.
However the star of the show was Figueres, the veteran Costa Rican diplomat who stepped down as Secretary General of the UN’s climate change secretariat following the successful Paris Agreement in 2015.
She has launched this new venture so that the good work of Paris is not lost and to ensure the sense of urgency about global decarbonisation is internalised – hence her clock-swallowing metaphor.
A big challenge – but an achievable one!
Mission2020 is a three-pronged call to arms: peaking global emissions within the next three years is “necessary, desirable and achievable”. It’s a daunting task. Scientists insist that we must start to bend this emission curve before the next Olympic Games. But Figueres, with the zeal of an evangelist, made the case that the challenge had to be confronted head on:
“Is this challenging? Absolutely it is. But we’re on our way. For the last three years we’ve seen flat global emissions while global economic growth has increased 2-3 % a year.”
She listed off some of the progress already made, such as the need for 30% of global grid electricity to be renewable by 2020 and how we’re already at 23.7%, as well as some of the intimidating tasks to overcome. She said we had to end deforestation by 2020 and cited plans by the Indian Government for the country to have 100% electric vehicles by 2030.
Such high ambitions sound unlikely, sitting where we do in the second quarter of 2017. But Astro Teller used history to shed some useful light on the kind of unlikely achievements we’ve already accomplished:
“When I was a child at the height of the Cold War, we were making nuclear weapons at a ferocious rate. The idea that in 35 years time, there would be one sixth of the nuclear weapons would have been laughable, but, as a species, we managed it.
“There was also the idea, back in the 19th Century, that we thought we would run out of fertiliser and run out food and that millions of people would starve. However in 1909 artificial fertiliser was created in a lab, and just four years later it was in mass production through the Haber-Bosch process. For every story about technology ruining our lives I see stories of how technology can save them.”
The low-carbon future that’s already happening
Teller pointed out that such expectation busting leaps were already been hinted at in the decarbonisation race. The first was the recent announcement that Deep Mind, the UK created machine learning system bought by Google in 2014, had found a way of saving 40% of the energy used in Google’s data centres. Likewise self-driving cars could be another boon for the climate:
“At the moment you build a car to keep the occupant safe by putting enough steel around them so that when you crash it into a wall the person survives. But if you could build cars that didn’t crash into walls, you could use a lot less steel.”
Not only would this reduce the carbon footprint of vehicle manufacture, it would also be lighter and so use less energy. And cars that drove themselves would also likely drive more efficiently with less sudden stops and starts, also reducing energy use.
If all this sounds like environmentalist sci-fi, economist Lord Stern, said this low carbon future was no fantasy: “This is the global growth story. This is the demand boost that the world needs. By 2030 we need to reduce emissions by 20% and in that time we will double the amount of infrastructure the world needs. If that new economy looks anything like the old economy then we won’t make it. It’s radical change but it’s extremely attractive change.”
Some of these attractive ‘co-benefits’ of decarbonisation include improvements to transportation systems, the preservation of natural resources, cities with cleaner air and better health.
I don’t care what people talk about, as long as they are decarbonising!
Concluding the session by answering a question from the audience, Figueres said that although she was grateful to be in the Google offices, the search engine, along with twitter and other social media channels meant we often end up reading things we already agree with and speaking to the green bubble.
“We need to get out of the bubble. Talking to ourselves is not going to get it done.” She added that it was important the climate change debate spoke to people’s real concerns:
“I don’t mind if people aren’t talking about climate change – people will be motivated by the things they care about. Like in China, the wonderful progress there has been due to concerns around health and air quality.
“I don’t care what people talk about, as long as they are decarbonising!”
Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid and a New Voices contributor to The Ecologist.