An Earth we can live on

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An Earth we can live on

There’s still time to stop the worst effects of climate change. Can we do it? Hazel Healy shows how we can be a little optimistic.


In 14 March 2019, Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique. People were sleeping, the wind was almost 200 kilometres per hour; by morning, 90 per cent of the important port city of Beira was destroyed. A video showed someone taking bodies from a Catholic church. There was no chance for people to survive.

Climate change made the sea warmer and the rain heavier and this made Cyclone Idai stronger. We will see many more cyclones. And it is impossible for people here to protect themselves against them. And Africa only produces four per cent of the world’s carbon emissions.

We’ve known this would happen for at least 30 years and we have done nothing to stop it. But that story is starting to change. As the climate gets worse, things are changing in science, politics and economics. Also, we have new visions on how to keep the future earth for our children and what we should do.

Science has told us about the terrible things that can happen and science has given us a deadline.

The facts

Last October, we got the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, by 91 scientists. It tells us what will happen if the earth gets 1.5 degrees warmer, and 2 degrees warmer.

The report said that the Earth might get 1.5 degrees warmer as early as 2030. Then, 90 per cent of coral reefs could die; there will be many more heatwaves and wildfires every year; and floods, drought and disease will make it difficult for hundreds of millions of people to get food because the Earth will produce less. Everything will get a lot worse when the temperature rises more than 2 degrees C.

Most of these changes will start before 20 years’ time. The effects will stay with us for hundreds of years. If the temperature rises more than 3 degrees C, there will be a lot of destruction: people will not be able to live in many areas of Earth because of the heat or because cities on the coast and islands are under the sea.

A Danish climate scientist, Joeri Rogelj, worked on the part of the climate change report that looks at how we can cut carbon to try to avoid all the destruction. The important idea of the ‘carbon budget’ works out how much more carbon the world can produce before we cause the higher temperature rises. Carbon makes up 80 per cent of greenhouse gases, and it stays in the atmosphere because nature cannot take it all in. So even if we stopped burning oil, coal and gas today, temperatures will not drop.

Rogelj says the challenge is ‘extremely hard, but not impossible’. There is not much time: if we want a good chance of stopping the temperature rise at 1.5 degrees, CO2 emissions need to start falling in 2020, halve in the next 11 years, and be ‘net zero’ by 2050.

If we do less than this, the future will be very difficult. We will need to find ways to take billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it underground eg. by ‘carbon capture’ that has not proved it works yet. If we delay this, we will need to do more later. By setting a limit, we can imagine possible ways of achieving this.

If we split this carbon budget equally between the countries of the world, we need a 10-20 per cent drop in carbon emissions every year in industrialized countries (according to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research).

In Britain this means a 75-per-cent cut in emissions by 2025 and an energy system with no carbon emissions at all by 2040. Countries outside the OECD (the rich countries) would have a little longer but they still need to cut a lot in the next 15 years.

We already know what won’t work. After 28 years of climate negotiations, we now know that solutions like carbon-trading schemes, carbon off-setting, and subsidizing less-polluting coal-fired power stations are failures. They allow countries and companies to say one thing, but do another, for example, the UK opening a new deep-sea oil platform at the same time they say they are a climate leader.

Many cities and regions and businesses have agreed on zero-carbon targets, but this has made no difference. Almost no-one who signed the 2015 Paris Agreement (185 countries) - to keep the global average temperature rise to below 2 degrees but try hard to stay at 1.5 degrees – will achieve this. The fossil-fuel industry is cleverer than scientists and civil society – they didn’t include any emissions from shipping and aviation in the Paris targets. ‘I don’t know who’s responsible for them,’ says one climate scientist. ‘It must be God.’


Source: Climate Action Tracker

So small changes are not enough. We need ‘system change’ – big changes in economics, politics and society. We need to transform our energy systems to cut fossil fuel. We need to use less energy, produce a lot more energy from renewable sources (now only 10 per cent of energy in the world), and change our buildings. Electricity is the only sustainable zero-carbon power source, so we must make heat and transport electric as fast as we can. And change life on the land and in cities.

We are not slowing down carbon emissions. We are producing more. CO2 emissions went up last year, and the prediction is that they will rise in 2019 too. If we continue like this, we will burn all of Rogelj’s ‘carbon budget’ in 10-15 years.

Leaders in the South

Diego Arguedas Ortiz, a climate reporter in Costa Rica says that the best idea is to set the best goal and see how we can get back to present levels of emissions.

Costa Rica is one developing country that is different from many others in the North. It only produces 1.8 tonnes of CO2 per person (compared to 17 tonnes per Australian and 16 tonnes in the US). But it shows how all countries could change.

In February 2019, this tiny but ambitious Central American country started a plan to be carbon neutral by 2050 – this means it will emit only what its forests can absorb. Because of geography and a history of protecting the environment, Costa Rica already gets nearly 100 per cent of its electricity from renewables – mostly hydropower, wind and some geothermal energy from volcanos. But it is using more fossil fuel because it needs to import oil for fuel. So, its decarbonization plan focuses on transport, as this produces 40 per cent of its emissions.

They are modernizing public transport: building an electric trainline to connect the capital San José, electrifying 70 per cent of buses by 2035, and cutting in half the number of old petrol cars in cities. RECOPE, the state-owned company that imports and refines fuel, is researching alternatives such as hydrogen. Also they are looking at how to get new jobs in clean energy for fossil fuel workers. A ban on looking for new fossil fuel will now continue to 2050.

Ortiz says they can achieve the plan over eight months. ‘We have the money to do this because now we’re spending $1.2 billion importing oil every year.’ But there will be problems. Costa Rica has beautiful beaches, but is not perfect. The economy is not strong and they will need everyone (companies, mayor and the Ministry of Transport) to support the plan.

But if they succeed, the Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez says by 2035 his grandchildren will have the same carbon footprint as their grandparents in the 1940s. By 2050, they will be producing no carbon at all.

‘It’s easier to imagine if you break it into smaller bits,’ says Ortiz. ‘It’s impossible to achieve what you cannot imagine.’

How to cut carbon

You need to think of alternatives to fossil fuels. But there are already many easy plans the big polluters can follow. (See:

US energy analyst Hal Harvey makes it sound easy. He tries to influence the people who make decisions that can cut most carbon the fastest. He now has 10 low-carbon policies for the top 20 most polluting countries, that produce 80 per cent of greenhouse gases. These include things like setting minimum kilometres per gallon per car, and minimum energy standards for building codes.

Here are two examples. In 2015, the EU made a law that we had to stop using hydrofluorocarbons. This is a powerful greenhouse gas that air conditioners and fridges use. Now, it is 1 per cent of global emissions, but this would rise to 20 per cent by 2050 if we didn’t stop it. Another example is deciding on the percentage of renewables on the electricity grid. The states of California and New York have decided that all utilities must get all their electricity from energy that produces no carbon by 2050.

Carbon emissions are related to money - the 10 per cent of richest people are responsible for 45 per cent of the world’s CO2. If you could cut these people’s carbon footprint to the level of the average European, you could cut global emissions by a third.

If we do all this quickly, we can get a zero-carbon energy system. We have the technology – don’t delay, just do it now.

Power owned by the poor

The West is trying to stop producing carbon, but in countries that don’t yet have cheap energy, it’s different. ‘Everyone wants big systems and quick results,’ says South African climate activist Yvette Abrahams. ‘But people have to like the solutions too.’

Abrahams spent three years working with communities across South Africa – low-income, squatter camps, remote rural places – with Project90 for 2050, an NGO that is working for a low-carbon future. By her second workshop, she says, a shop owner had bought a solar panel and people were charging their phones from it. ‘This is about working-class energy – without the support of the law,’ she says.

South Africa is a middle-income country. Its coal industry produces a lot of pollution. So the focus is on making big institutions cut carbon. Abrahams wants to see this money go to developing clean alternatives eg. ‘solar mini-grids’ for the 15 per cent of South Africans without power. (The Paris Agreement already requires the Global North to support poorer countries to develop clean energy with $100 billion per year by 2020, but Oxfam calculated that they only gave $16-21 billion in 2015 and 2016.)

Abrahams thinks the simpler technology is best. ‘Bio-gas’ is good – when you turn sewage into energy (the microbes produce methane) and then burn it to get electricity. She’s had her own biodigester in her back garden for eight years. But it’s too simple to become popular.

If we also tell people about the benefits, renewable energy can be successful. If people can see that insulation keeps their children warm and saves them money, they will get it. It’s easy for richer people to talk about extinction in ten years – but ten years is hard to imagine. In South Africa, 49 per cent of people don’t have secure food supplies and seven million have HIV. They want to feed their children now. They need to see immediate benefits.

But cheap energy alone won’t be enough. We need to learn from indigenous people about traditional farming to protect biodiversity and land rights. Large scale farming to make big money now produces 20 per cent of greenhouse gases (mostly methane and nitrous oxide).

Vaishali Patil, from India, says economics is central to the problem. ‘Climate change goes with development,’ she says. In the Western Ghats mountain range she works with tribal peoples who are fighting against all the big projects like coal power stations, dams and nuclear power plants.

They are all bad for the land, sea and rivers that people rely on for survival. We need to remember that we cannot have solutions to climate change that could destroy another ecosystem or people who protect it.

History shows us that governments and people can do a lot quickly when they want to:

World War Two: Britain needed to save a lot of energy. Rationing food and was quicker and fairer than taxation. ‘Dig for Victory’ made more people grow their own food and raise rabbits and pigs to eat; food imports were halved. Food rationing was difficult, but the food was healthy. People ate 11 per cent less, but child mortality improved. Household energy use also dropped a lot, with coal cut 25 per cent. When petrol was cut completely in 1942, the use of cars fell by 95 per cent.

Post-Soviet Cuba: When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Cuba’s oil imports suddenly dropped by half. Suddenly, Cubans had to eat a third less calories. They walked and cycled more. Obesity and death from diabetes halved. There was a lot of agriculture in cities, where they grew 60 per cent of salad vegetables. The country moved to a more efficient, decentralized energy system; inefficient light bulbs were banned by law and people saved energy.

Global Financial Crisis 2007-08: When they thought the world financial system could collapse, countries and banks suddenly found a huge amount of money. Between autumn 2008 and the beginning of 2009, the richer countries agreed to give 50.4 per cent of the world’s GDP to the banks in different ways.

Adapted from ‘How did we do that? The possibility of rapid transition’, 2019, Andrew Sims and Peter Newell.

Simple economics

In India, clean energy is the least polluting, and also the cheapest, because production costs have fallen. 10 years ago, it cost $400 per megawatt hour to generate solar energy, now it’s $30.

If this growth continues, renewables will be 100 per cent of the market in four years. They will push fossil fuels out of the system.

The market is on our side, but time is not. We need to stop using fossil fuels quickly. To reach the Paris agreement, we need to close one coal-fired power station every day until 2040.

But people are still building new coal-fired power stations now and coal is the most polluting fossil fuel. Banks like HSBC will still finance coal projects if it’s a little cheaper (until the early 2020s). When the power stations are built, it’s difficult to close them.

China is building a lot of new power stations, mostly in Asia. But China is also bringing down the price of renewable energy and cheaper electric buses. The economic growth is slowing and bad air quality has closed down coal plants. The other southeast Asian countries need to force Beijing to stop using coal by protests against every coal plant, education about pollution, and pressure on companies.

There are other hopeful changes. An experiment with a carbon tax in places like British Columbia might help. There are new laws to keep fossil fuels in the ground, for example in Germany. And New Zealand/Aotearoa will not give any new permission for oil exploration.

These changes are not enough alone. And they do nothing to stop the estimated $775 billion in fossil fuel subsidies. But they are starting to change what is normal. It should soon be possible for countries to want to be energy independent.


A world to win

On 15 March 2019, the day after Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, over a million students around the world walked out of school in protest against governments’ failure to do something about climate change.

In Oxford climate strikes, a teenager’s sign predicted that her children will ‘die from climate change’. Scientists were there too.

Ideas move fast. The global school strikes movement started with one Swedish schoolgirl in August 2018 and is now in over 2,200 cities and towns, in 128 countries. The Green New Deal (GND) movement has started in the US, powered by Sunrise, a movement led by young people. 29-year-old socialist Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supports them. Their radical plan is to stop all carbon emissions in the US economy and also help improve social inequality and support repairing indigenous communities. People love the plan and it has changed the US climate debate. 100 Democrats have now agreed to co-sponsor the GND resolution, and 10 presidential runners support it.

Another new movement, Extinction Rebellion, has also appeared since October 2018. They have blocked London bridges, protested at government ministries and got lots of activist supporters. Also, there is the ‘climate emergency’ movement, which has spread from Australia. Many thousands were already fighting for change around the world.

People wanting to build a better society is changing the shape of politics. We can now start to tell new stories about the future. We have to see where the opportunities are and take them. We still have a small chance – we can choose to succeed or fail. In 2050, we may look back to now and ask, ‘How did we do that?’


Climate science: Best source of data on CO2 emissions Tracks progress of countries News and analysis UN climate science body Land use, agriculture and climate change

Transition policy Scenarios for a zero-emissions society Text of the US Green New Deal resolution Global manifesto for climate justice Network of cities ramping up ambition

Action Organizing to keep fossil fuels in the ground Extinction Rebellion, civil disobedience Action at local authority level Kickstart your own transition Commit your firm to 100% renewables Canadians tackle climate, inequality and racism


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)