By Michael Shank
This commentary is by Michael Shank of Brandon, communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
There’s been a lot of postponing on the climate front of late.
Some postponing has been understandable: The annual United Nations-facilitated climate talks, for example — known as the Conference of Parties — were postponed due to Covid travel concerns and will resume, pandemic-dependent, of course, later this year in Glasgow.
Some postponing has been inexcusable: The previous U.S. administration not only withdrew from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement but rolled back myriad critical environmental protections aimed at slowing the rise of greenhouse gas emissions.
Throughout this process, unfortunately, the planet did not postpone its rising temperatures, its disproportionate impacts on under-resourced communities, or its absorption of our greenhouse gas emissions. That continued. In fact, last year tied for the hottest year on record, and we just broke another record: Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at a record high.
What is needed now, in response, is a radical ramp-up and ratcheting of emissions reductions goals. We don’t use the word “radical” lightly. We were supposed to do that ratcheting last year, five years after the Paris climate agreement, yet most nations missed the deadline.
The more deadlines we miss, the more we put everyone at risk. At current pace, according to the UN Environment Programme’s latest findings, we’re headed for a “temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century — far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C”.
Three degrees would spell chaos for life as we know it. More extreme droughts and heat waves and more wars over water. More extreme precipitation, more flooding and more intense hurricanes. More vector-borne diseases and more food insecurity.
In short, degrees matter a lot. That’s why radical must be our guiding principle going forward. No baby steps, no slow transition, no gentle steering away from the status quo or business as usual, and no more investments in dangerous, polluting fossil fuels.
This is when we need bold and big moves — across systems and behaviors. Both must change. Anything short of that just brings the chaos closer to our current reality and more capable of undermining our economies, our ability to thrive, and our security this decade and the next.
That’s why many countries’ commitment to “carbon neutrality” by 2050 is too late. We’ll have missed the window by then. That kind of commitment was needed decades ago. Now, we need carbon neutrality commitments by 2030, and “climate positive” commitments by 2050 or sooner.
Yes, this decade, not 2050, not 2060.
Cities are already doing it this decade. The city of Glasgow already committed to carbon neutrality by 2030, and another Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance member, Copenhagen, is committed to it by 2025. Ambitious and necessary? Yes. Realistic? Absolutely. In fact, carbon neutrality is a floor — not a ceiling — that we set as an organization years ago.
Where we’re headed now is above and beyond “neutrality.” We must take a more proactive and positive stance when protecting people and the planet. So, here’s what we’re doing:
First, we’re actively getting carbon out of our buildings, transport, energy systems and more. That lift is harder and more long-term but absolutely critical if we want to keep those 3 degrees of warming down to 1.5 degrees.
Second, we’re putting carbon back into where it belongs, into nature, trees and soil. Despite technology-heavy efforts like Elon Musk’s recent $100 million prize for the best carbon-capture technology, we don’t need a big technological lift to make significant progress here. Nature’s got the answers on this one, and trees, soils and oceans stand ready to sequester, re-store and make use of our spent carbon.
Third, we’re redesigning our systems, so they reuse and regenerate resources rather than exploiting, extracting or exhausting them. It’s a pretty simple metric, and one that another Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance member — Amsterdam — is quickly rolling out across its city departments. Its reach is wide-ranging, as no consumption-related emissions — of food or fashion, for example — are exempt.
This is what radical looks like. Going above “neutrality” to 100% decarbonization, restoration and regeneration. No carbon left behind.
National leaders have finally come around to talking about the need for carbon neutrality. Now they should follow the example set by global climate vanguard cities and focus on the action required to get there — and quickly — before 2021 breaks another “hottest year” record.
This year — if any — is our litmus test. By the time we meet in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties, if we don’t see more nations reaching — yes, radically — for the ceiling instead of the floor, as our cities are doing, we will unquestionably tip the scales in favor of climate chaos.
It’s long past time to be neutral. It’s time for radical ratcheting.