The world is really and truly flattening the curve of climate change. Although we can't stop global warming entirely, we still have a chance to mitigate its effects.
Have we already screwed up the planet beyond all hope?
If you go by the headlines, you might think it’s too late to stop climate change. So much environmental news is doom and gloom: vanishing glaciers, melting permafrost, devastating droughts, coast-smashing hurricanes. It’s no wonder people feel tempted to throw up their hands and despair.
But if you look closer, you might notice a few glimmers of optimism—like seedlings poking up through the earth. Although people who are accustomed to pessimism may not believe it, there are real signs that humanity is turning the tide on climate change. Just in time for Earth Day, a new study in Nature offers an especially bright spark of hope.
A 2-degree world is within reach
The study’s authors find that if nations keep their existing climate pledges under the Paris Agreement—both the near-term goals for 2030, and the more ambitious goals for mid-century—we can limit global warming to 2° Celsius. This is the first time that this goal is within reach.
To be clear, a 2° warmer world isn’t what we want. It exceeds the 1.5° threshold that’s widely considered the upper bound to head off severe impacts of climate change. A 2° world will be more chaotic, with more droughts and heat waves, more extreme weather and rising seas, and more coral reefs dying and other extinction events. It will stress both civilization and nature in untold ways.
Even so, this is a gigantic stride over what seemed achievable just a few years ago. As the authors note:
“For the first time we can possibly keep warming below the symbolic 2-degree mark with the promises on the table. That assumes of course that the countries follow through on the promises,” said study lead author Malte Meinshausen, a University of Melbourne climate scientist.“There’s still a way to reach global goal on climate change.” Seth Borenstein, Phys.org, 13 April 2022.
…Mostly, he said, limiting warming to 2 degrees is still a big improvement compared to just five or ten years ago, when “everybody laughed like ‘ha we’ll never see targets on the table that bring us closer to 2 degrees’,” Meinshausen said. “Targets and implemented policies actually can turn the needle on future temperatures. I think that optimism is important for countries to see. Yes, there is hope.”
Author and green-energy advocate Ramez Naam agrees. He says that ten years ago, the idea that we could avoid a truly apocalyptic 4-6° warming scenario seemed like foolish naivete:
Of course, this only holds true if every nation hits its Paris climate target—and that’s a gigantic if. Political leaders may make pledges with the best of intentions, but find them impossible to keep. Or an election may bring a new party to power that rejects the commitments of its predecessors (which indeed happened in the United States in 2016).
However, the Paris pledges aren’t empty promises. They’re already bringing about real, sustained action towards a low-carbon future.
Renewable energy is rising rapidly. In 2021, wind and solar generated a record 10% of all electricity in the world, according to the environmental think tank Ember. That share has more than doubled just since 2015, when the Paris Agreement was signed. When you add in nuclear, hydro, and other carbon-neutral power sources, they add up to 38% of the world’s total electricity needs, surpassing coal at 36%.
Over the last ten years, renewable capacity has grown at an astounding 20% compounded rate (i.e., doubling roughly every four years). Ember’s analysis finds that if it continues to grow at that trajectory, it’s possible for the power sector to meet its 1.5 degree goal by 2030.
What’s more, as this thread by Daniel Firger points out, the Paris Agreement is a compact between nations. It doesn’t encompass any smaller entities. Cities, states, corporations, universities, and NGOs: all are invisible as far as the Paris Agreement is concerned. But many of them have their own climate goals that are independent of national leadership. This creates potential for steeper reductions beyond what the 2° paper predicts.
For example, the state of California has a GDP of $3.35 trillion. If California were its own country, it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world. And it’s consistently beating its own clean-energy goals. The same goes for New York state (10th-largest economy in the world), which has its own aggressive net-zero target.
The era of cleanup
Unfortunately, if we want to stabilize the planet’s thermostat, reducing our emissions won’t be enough—not anymore. We’ve already overshot the safe limits of the climate. We need to clean up the accumulated damage from two hundred years of careless burning, which means removing carbon pollution from the air and oceans.
An alliance of tech companies led by the payment processor Stripe has announced a $1 billion fund called Frontier to do just that:
This technology, called direct air capture, is a cutting-edge field of research. The obvious, proven way to remove carbon is to plant more trees. However, reforestation will take decades to bear fruit. In the meantime, it’s worth investigating to see if it’s possible to improve on nature. Frontier is aiming to test out a variety of carbon-capture technologies to see which are most efficient, most scalable, and best at permanently locking CO2 away from the atmosphere. President Biden’s infrastructure bill includes another $3.5 billion for direct air capture.
Unfortunately, trapping enough carbon to cool the planet is a gigantic proposition. To make a dent in the problem, we’ll need to remove gigatons of CO2 pollution. This funding is a drop in the bucket by comparison. But it will be valuable experience in figuring out what works. Hopefully, it will be the gateway into larger and more ambitious efforts.
Carbon capture on a planetary scale is a staggering task. It could take centuries. But although it won’t be easy, it’s worth doing. If we aspire to become wise custodians of the planet, we have to start by taking responsibility for our mistakes and repairing the harm we’ve done.
And after we’ve done that, we can do better still. There may come a day when we steer the climate with understanding, rather than blundering about changing it accidentally. We can use geoengineering for good, making the world a paradise where we live together with nature and not at its expense.