For millions of people in poor and climate vulnerable countries, from Southern Africa to the Pacific islands, rising global temperatures are already an existential threat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these same countries have long been at the forefront of calls for urgent action to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the target enshrined within the Paris agreement, which 196 governments adopted in 2015.
Meeting the Paris target, and preventing runaway climate change, requires fundamental changes in how societies and economies are organised. Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs) must be cut close to zero, and this needs to happen quickly, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, mainly by oceans and forests. Net zero is the subject of intense discussion, and no small amount of pledging by countries and companies, with the UK the first major economy to put the target into law, in 2019. However, there is little agreement about how to achieve net zero. While some approaches have potential spill-over social and economic benefits, others have been widely criticized for their failure to address the root cause of the climate crisis, namely our current dependence on a carbon-intensive global economy.
A rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is key to stopping the climate crisis snowballing into a climate catastrophe. Any delay, even if it is followed by more dramatic cuts in the future, will result in bigger cumulative emissions, and an increased risk of extreme weather and of ‘tipping points’ being reached. It would be reckless to rely on as yet unproven technologies such as ‘negative emissions’ to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. These may also have unforeseen environmental consequences and risk creating incentives for continued wasteful investment in high carbon technologies and infrastructure, despite their in-built obsolescence. Similarly, and despite the extravagant claims often made for it by major polluters, offsetting can at best make only a marginal contribution to net zero, and according to evidence from Greenpeace, in practice often displaces rather than reduces GHGs. Offsetting also creates its own social and environmental problems, for example where large-scale monoculture tree-planting is at the cost of land rights and biodiversity. Genuine ‘nature-based solutions’ must prioritise ecosystem restoration and complement, rather than replace steps to reduce emissions across the economy.
Protect and Sustain
Any transition to net zero carries risks, especially for people who are already poor. Some industries will need to be phased out, as others are created. An unchecked resource rush for renewable energy could create its own set of negative environmental and social effects, including forced displacement. Governments must make active use of policies to create decent work and sustain communities that currently rely on carbon-intensive jobs. They must also take steps to protect the environment and enable access to affordable, sustainable and renewable energy, especially for the 940 million people in Africa and Asia who’ve no electricity supply. The quality of the transition matters most for those people, a majority of them women, whose survival as smallholder farmers, fisherfolk and pastoralists depends directly on a healthy ecosystem.
People’s voices and their ability to influence political decisions will be critical to ensuring that any transition to net zero is just and actually reduces poverty. Large hydroelectric dams have a dismal track record when it comes to human rights and local environmental impacts, and large wind or solar farms can have similar implications for land rights. Christian Aid is promoting more decentralised approaches, which are championed by local communities and appropriate for local conditions.
In our era of resource constraints and multiple crises, governments and policymakers need to respond to climate change in a way that addresses more than one problem at a time. Achieving net zero through approaches that have wider benefits for sustainable development is both the right thing to do, and the smart option. For those people and societies who have become rich on the basis of fossil fuel economies, there is a moral imperative to provide the financial and technological support needed to make a just transition possible.
By Patrick Watt
CEO, Christian Aid