Forget Net Zero – let’s have a ‘Fossil Freedom Day’ | Marc Lynas


The important thing in any agenda is not so much what is in it, but what is missing. The same goes for the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop26) in Glasgow. There are critical issues to discuss and negotiate: the $ 100 billion funding pledge, target 1.5C and how to increase the global mitigation ambition to achieve it. But I have a proposal for something that is still not on the agenda, although it would arguably do more than anything to address the climate emergency.

The problem with cops – and I’ve been to a few – is that activity tends to substitute for action. The atmosphere is frenetic: people come and go, from meeting to meeting, from negotiation to negotiation, grabbing wads of paper, telephones, laptops and (if they’re lucky) a soft sandwich and grabbed at haste. Some negotiators crawl around with rolling suitcases, stuffed with printed materials from all previous cops – so they should never miss an opportunity to refer directly to the Bali Declaration or the Berlin Mandate.

It’s heaven for lawyers, but hell for everyone else. It all depends on the wording: whether the square brackets contain “shall” or “should”, “may” or “must” becomes a consuming obsession. The details are so small they’re almost fractal: Immerse yourself in and find yourself in a parallel universe of ever-expanding detail, with heated arguments over incomprehensibly obscure subclauses that last for weeks, if not years. Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, whom I advise on climate issues, has a joke about baby cops – which negotiators have been doing for so long that some of them have even married and had children. It’s funny because it’s true.

The only thing that tends to get lost is the big picture – actually solving the climate emergency. It’s on the agenda, of course, because that’s the subject of the meeting, but at the same time, it’s not really on the agenda. We could get agreement on finance, on loss and damage, on carbon markets, on “nationally determined contributions” – the Paris pledges to meet the 1.5C target – which would be great. . I’ll be the first to party and dance at the cops tables at five in the morning on the last weekend.

But even 1.5C is a slippery target: it’s not something that anyone can actually deliver, even collectively. The fact that the planet’s temperature crosses the threshold of 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial temperatures is a product of the Earth system’s response to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, which can only be known with precision. retrospectively. This is why it is framed in a probabilistic manner by scientists; for example, there is a one in six chance that we have already exceeded the budget by 1.5C as of this writing today.

So what could be a climate emergency goal in Glasgow that we could actually achieve? My suggestion is extremely simple: we set a date for the global exit from fossil fuels, a kind of carbon independence day. Like all ideas that eventually become mainstream, at first glance it seems absurd. You mean we have to stop burning oil? More gasoline? Gone are the LNG carriers that ply the world’s oceans? No more giant coal machines scraping carboniferous forests under medieval villages in eastern Germany?

Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. A fossil fuel exit date forces us to deal with what net zero doesn’t – that we actually need to stop burning carbon altogether. (We also need to find ways to remove the excess carbon already in the atmosphere and get everyone on a largely plant-based diet, but one thing at a time.) That means that there must be no more exploration for fossil fuels long before that. date, because all this would only create unwanted reservoirs of hydrocarbons. This means that there must be no more construction of fossil infrastructure – coal-fired power plants, LNG terminals, oil refineries, etc. – at least 30 years before that date, as this would only create stranded assets.

There will of course be objections from carbon addicts, citing the “methadone” option of carbon capture and storage. This – which is as physically and thermodynamically implausible as the never-ending fantasy of nuclear fusion – has been touted for decades as a way to keep burning our carbon cake and eating it. Yet it is still a long way from a large-scale deployment anywhere in the world, and never will be. I’m sorry friends, but Fossil Fuel Freedom Day means we have to leave things unburned in the ground where the dinosaurs left them.

Of course, the date is crucial. If we set it at 2150, as Saudi Arabia would undoubtedly immediately volunteer, then we will be on track to turn Earth into Venus by then. I propose 2047, far enough out that a rapid transition to zero-carbon economies is achievable worldwide with minimal economic damage, but close enough to still give us a decent chance – probably 50:50 – of preventing Earth to warm beyond 1.5 C. Fittingly, 2047 is also exactly a century after the year of India’s independence in 1947, when the world’s largest democracy came into being after more than a century of British colonial exploitation. As Jawaharlal Nehru then said in his rendezvous with destiny: “At the stroke of midnight, when the world goes to sleep, India will awaken to life and freedom.

In Glasgow, we could make our own date with fate, one that could save our civilization from the carbon catastrophe that threatens us all. Imagine that evening, in August 2047, as the clock ticks around midnight: we could all wake up, as the sun pierces the smoky ruins of the Industrial Revolution, to life and the freedom of independence vis- towards fossil fuels.

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