Building back better: The path to net zero

While much of the world’s focus continues to be on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis also requires urgent attention. The number of countries and companies supporting the move to a lower-carbon world is growing, but practical challenges remain. How can we build back better after COVID, and navigate to a cleaner, safer and sustainable world?

Out of the gloom surrounding COVID-19, there have been calls for a radical change of direction. “Going back to ‘normal’ is problematic, if ‘normal’ got us to where we are,” said Professor Mariana Mazzucato, founder of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London, speaking during the first UK lockdown.1 Her analysis, that the factors precipitating the pandemic, the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and the climate emergency are all interrelated, suggests it is time to do things differently.

“We have to reimagine what kind of society we want to be living in, and be bolder and more ambitious in constructing the remedies,” Mazzucato said.

Decarbonisation: An epic challenge
The call for action on the climate is timely, as the first wave of COVID lockdowns brought an unprecedented slump in global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The cleaner air and a resurgence of wildlife revealed a different world, as workplaces closed, travel was reduced, and people stayed at home.

“The immediate impact of COVID-19 was a seven to eight per cent reduction in CO2 emissions versus 2019,” says Richard Howard, research director at the energy analytics group, Aurora Energy Research. “The challenge now is how we reboot the economy and move forward. Remember that we need to reduce emissions by around that amount each year from now on for decades if we are to stay on a trajectory to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees [the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement]. It is a very, very difficult thing to do.”

Dieter Helm, professor of energy and economics at the University of Oxford, describes it as the largest industrial undertaking attempted in peacetime; a change that will impact the way people live and every sector of the economy. Limiting emissions to cap warming above pre-industrial levels and ensuring human activity no longer adds to atmospheric carbon stock means weaning society off fossil fuels, as well as certain chemicals and plastics. It also means maintaining “a laser focus”2 on carbon consumption and becoming more thoughtful custodians of the natural world.

“[Climate] mitigation is as much about stopping the damage to key parts of the natural environment which inhibit the take-up of carbon, and enhancing that through policies to increase trees, grasslands, the take-up of carbon in the soils, and the protection and enhancement of peat bogs,” Helm says.3

Ultimately, achieving net zero may also require industrial solutions, using new technologies to suck CO2 from the ambient air (direct air capture) or compressing it and storing it underground in rock strata (carbon capture, utilisation and storage). But despite the Paris Agreement, there is no agreed route map, and no global consensus on accounting techniques to keep the score.

The issues are urgent, as signals from the natural world are cause for alarm. Record atmospheric CO24 levels despite COVID shutdowns, temperatures reaching 38 degrees Celsius in the Arctic in June 20205 and gigantic wildfires on the US West Coast show the climate system is evolving fast.

“2020 was the year when we were supposed to see CO2 emissions peak,” says Rick Stathers, senior environment, social and governance (ESG) analyst and climate specialist at Aviva Investors. “But it is alarming to see the responses in the natural environment. Worryingly, we may have underestimated the feedback loops, like those associated with the methane surges from melting permafrost.”

The climate progress report: Must do better
A quick glance at progress from co-ordinated climate action is not encouraging. “It is not going well,” is Professor Helm’s succinct analysis in the first line of his new book, Net Zero: How we stop causing climate change.6 “If the objective set in 1990 was to reduce emissions and reduce global warming, it has been an utter failure,” he says.

Aside from the reductions associated with the global financial crisis and COVID-19 lockdowns, the trajectory for global emissions has been up. And there is already enough carbon-fuelled plant in place to propel the world over the damage-limiting target agreed in Paris in 2015.

“We have not seen radical action on climate prior to now, because climate has always been trumped by what were perceived to be more acute crises,” says Jill Rutter, senior fellow at UK think tank the Institute for Government. “When I was Director of Strategy and Sustainable Development at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we wrote a short note comparing climate change with terrorism after the Chief Scientific Adviser suggested climate was the greater threat. But every action by government seemed to signal the reverse. Climate change only got a look in when every other policy priority had been pursued. It was ‘back of the line.’”

Moving climate issues forward in the policy queue
Climate action is no longer ‘back of the line’ on the international stage. Extreme climate events have been focusing minds, and the calls to build back better after COVID-19 have intensified. Importantly, public attitudes also seem to be shifting decisively. “Now is not the time for scoring party political points,” the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate change concluded, calling for cross-party action.7

Initially, only Europe was heavily invested politically in emissions reduction, but momentum is accelerating elsewhere. Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Chile, Japan, South Korea and South Africa are all part of the growing club taking steps to legislate for net zero, setting out in law the ambition to balance the output of greenhouse gases with their removal from the atmosphere.

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1. ‘Mariana Mazzucato on new economic approaches’, RSA, May 7, 2020

2. ‘The Economist: The pros and cons of carbon taxes’, Aviva Investors, February 28, 2020

3. ‘Net zero: How we stop causing climate change’, Dieter Helm, 2020

4. Rebecca Lindsey, ‘Climate change: Atmospheric carbon dioxide’, NOAA, August 14, 2020

5. ‘June sees more global heat, especially in Arctic Siberia’, World Meteorological Organisation, July 8, 2020

6. ‘Net Zero: How we stop causing climate change’, Dieter Helm, 2020

7. ‘UK path to net zero must be underpinned by education, choice, fairness and political consensus, urges Climate Assembly’, Climate Assembly UK, September 10, 2020

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