There are effective solutions to address the climate crisis and there is still time to avert a catastrophe. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change we must half carbon emissions by 2030 and zero them out by 2050. While we are seeing optimistic signs from governments, businesses, and civil society, it is not enough and time is running out. If we are to have any hope of succeeding we need an “all hands on deck” collaborative approach that includes science-based policies from all levels of government.
As reviewed in a study titled “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” urgent collective action is required to avoid triggering tipping points. A recent study titled World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021 calls for immediate “transformative change”. “We must now join together as a global community with a shared sense of urgency, cooperation, and equity” the report states. The authors made specific recommendations all of which have been incorporated into this summary along with a number of other key solutions. From energy production to strategic climate reserves, these 16 overlapping solutions are focused on slashing and sequestering emissions as well as the psycho-social changes required for coordinated global action.
Energy and efficiency
Energy is at the center of the climate crisis and serious climate action starts with eliminating emissions from fossil fuels, particularly those associated with coal-fired power generation. We need to see a rapid global phase-out and ultimately an international ban on fossil fuels. We must simultaneously build out renewable sources of power which is the energy end game. Deploying clean energy at the required scale will cost trillions (according to the OECD $6.9 trillion a year over 15 years). We cannot optimize our energy usage without also focusing on the need to reduce energy demand by becoming much more efficient (eg green buildings).
Replacing fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation with clean energy is only part of the picture we also need to rapidly electrify our economies. This includes developing smart city infrastructure and renewable energy-powered electrification of industry and the transportation sector (eg; electric vehicles and urban rapid transit). In addition to reducing climate change causing emissions electrification reduces smog and provides jobs. Local distributed renewable energy generation also benefits rural parts of the world by forging the need for expensive and resource-intensive transmission infrastructure.
Education is the key to combating climate change and improving science literacy can be a game-changer that offers multiple benefits. Schools and the media have important roles to play in helping to educate people. An educated electorate will make more informed decisions both personally and politically. “Governments always follow public opinion, everywhere in the world, sooner or later,” Guterres told Covering Climate Now. Education is also a bulwark against threats to democracy. As explained by a former prime minister of Portugal, “we need to keep telling the truth to people and be confident that the political system, especially democratic political systems, will in the end deliver.” This starts with integrating critical thinking into the core curriculums of schools. An educated electorate will also help to innoculate people against misinformation and disinformation.
Combating misinformation and disinformation
Disinformation has undermined collective support for science-based solutions to the climate crisis. Disinformation is also a significant impediment to both science and democracy. People need to understand the ways that disinformation popularized in digital media misdirects public opinion. Such disinformation confuses people making them unwitting pawns that serve selfish political interests. These individuals commonly undermine climate action and democratic institutions. We need to address disinformation with the same urgency that we need to tackle climate change. Combating disinformation requires governance arrangements and the widespread application of a range of tools, techniques, strategies, and resources.
Communications that drive behavior change
Climate education and combating disinformation are essential but we also need a better understanding of the ways that we can communicate the facts to augur behavioral change. To grow the necessary support for climate action we will need a new paradigm that transforms social values and drives behavioral change. We specifically need to deploy psycho-social approaches to climate communications that help to move us towards social tipping points. The science of storytelling can help us to communicate the facts in a more effective fashion. There is an art to effective communication that may even help us to bridge the political divides that separate us. However, we need more research to help us identify and develop best practices. As Robbie Kaiviti, GPEAA Science Committee Projects Leader explains, the physical sciences clearly show that global warming is the most urgent threat facing humankind, but from the perspective of the social sciences, the research is “sparse to say the least”. The importance of research into social tipping points to expand our understanding of technical and organizational capacity-building cannot be overstated. We also need approaches to help us combat paralysis, doomerism, and denial and part of the solution may come from helping people manage their ecological anxiety and grief. In representative democracies, effective communications can help galvanize public opinion in a way that will force politicians to summon the political will to act across party lines.
Education, combating disinformation, and communications that drive behavior change can help to make fact-based decisions regarding the elected officials they vote for. Anti-science politicians are what is preventing us from doing what needs to be done. Despite all the signs calling for urgent action, we have yet to see adequate global political will. “The fact we’re starting to see some of the impacts of climate change… really ought to be a wake-up call for global governments that this isn’t something they can ignore,” said Dr. Emily Shuckburgh, a University of Cambridge climate scientist. “We’re seeing the impacts here and now today, and the impacts are going to get worse unless we take immediate action,” she said at an online event. Prof Corinne Le Quere, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia and an author of the most recent IPCC assessment bluntly stated that our ability to address climate change at the required scale comes down to political will. Le Quere reiterates the thoughts of climate scientist Michael Mann who said: “The solution is already here. We just need to deploy it rapidly and at a massive scale. It all comes down to political will.”
Government policy and governance arrangements
Once we have the political will we will see government policies and specific governance arrangements that address the issue at the required scale. We need such arrangements at all levels of government. However, there is no avoiding the fact that the key to solving the climate crisis depends on high-level governance arrangements including international cooperation. This includes coordinated government support for clean energy and efficiency. The Coronavirus pandemic offers insight into the kind of changes we need to see. “We need to quickly change how we’re doing things, and new climate policies should be part of COVID-19 recovery plans wherever possible,” said William Ripple, a distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. At the top of the list is the need to regulate business and industry.
Business and industry
Companies must be forced to minimize their climate impacts. Sustainable production means that we must enforce stringent carbon budgets. The business community must engage beyond public relations ploys and they must be punished for failing to act. Integrating sustainability into corporate DNA must be more than a buzzword. This implies that they reexamine their immediate and future business activities and conduct strategic reviews. They need to carefully assess their supply chains and conduct scenario planning to determine their risk exposure. To address these vulnerabilities companies will need to innovate. Businesses and industries also need a clear long-term regulatory framework and that includes carbon pricing and formulas for carbon taxes.
Carbon pricing and carbon taxes
We need to put a price on emissions that will require polluters to pay for the true costs of their climate impacts. This includes carbon contingent taxes, tariffs, and fines. As reported by Al Jazeera, 40 countries and 20 cities, states and provinces already have enacted a direct form of carbon pricing. According to the World Bank, 13 percent of annual GHG emissions are already covered by carbon pricing schemes. We need to expand carbon pricing and apply it to every level of our economy (business and personal) Cross-border taxes such as those being proposed by Europe are an indispensable part of this mix that will prevent the offshoring of carbon-intensive activities. We also need ecological tax reform that goes beyond investment incentives and carbon taxes.
We need structural changes to the economy that reduce energy and material usage. A circular economy can address some of the problems embedded in the fundamental assumptions of capitalism and neoliberal economics. We need to expose the ignorance of our propensity towards short-term thinking and the fiduciary responsibility of publicly traded firms to deliver profits independent of the so-called externalities. We need to formally recognize the need to decarbonize our economies and spearhead an economy-wide transition to sustainability. Most importantly we need to end our obsession with economic growth. Such growth is untenable and premised on a fallacy that must be addressed if we are to ensure that our economies function within the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity. At the very least we must uncouple economic growth from emissions. As explained by Gaya Herrington, Sustainability and Dynamic System Analysis Lead at KPMG in the U.S., “continuing business as usual, that is, pursuing continuous growth, is not possible. Even when paired with unprecedented technological development and adoption”. We also need policies that contribute to equitable economic restructuring and encourage major lifestyle changes.
Individual actions are also important and this includes sustainable consumption. Kaiviti highlights the “folly of consumerism and greed”. “We are locked into a never-ending destructive cycle of producing more, consuming more, polluting more. We have no tendency at all to see these things as finite, but they are. We are fast outstripping our Earth’s resources, and have already outstripped her ability to quickly recover from the human filth we continuously cast upon her.” Kaiviti wrote. We need to change consumption habits by moving them away from energy and resource-intensive goods. Individuals can make a difference by choosing to be radically efficient on every level (energy, water, food, and resource demands). This includes switching to plant-based diets and consuming less meat and fish, buying local and seasonal food, planting trees, growing your own food, driving and flying less, not buying plastic or other disposable items, reducing waste, recycling, composting, reusing, exchanging, and repairing old items (rather than buying new). Perhaps most importantly people can vote for climate forward candidates, they can put pressure on their representatives, support or join a transition initiative or an activist movement, and boycott corporate brands and businesses that have a poor environmental record. Finally, individuals can communicate the reality of the climate threat and share solutions as widely as possible.
Green finance and investing
Climate change does not respect international boundaries so we need to support less-developed nations that do not have the resources to act on their own. We can do this through green finance including the Green Climate Fund as well as green banks that leverage private investments. We must also ensure that investments pass the climate test. We cannot afford to keep investing in projects that contribute to the climate crisis. This would preclude investments in fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure as well as other carbon-intensive products and services. It would also unleash investments that contribute to climate stability.
Carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture
Carbon capture can help us to prevent emissions from reaching the atmosphere but given the likelihood that we will overshoot the 1.5 C. upper threshold warming limit, we also need to find ways to reduce atmospheric carbon. We need to massively deploy carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies to siphon carbon from the atmosphere. This includes negative emission technologies (NETs) and enhancing biosphere carbon sinks known as natural climate solutions (NCS). These climate technologies can remove carbon at source (carbon capture) and in the atmosphere (direct air capture or DAC). We also need to explore innovative approaches to CDR and develop a CDR master plan that takes the form of a comprehensive strategy incorporating both NCS and NETs. Such a master plan would put together the pieces of this complex, interconnected jigsaw puzzle. It would also address concerns about land use with planning that maximizes efficient deployment of different CDR technologies. However, these technologies must not be construed as a replacement for mitigation efforts nor should they be used to keep extracting and burning fossil fuels.
In addition to CDR, we need a wide range of technological innovations in things like efficiency, energy storage, and renewable sources of power (eg artificial intelligence in energy systems). We need to make use of advanced materials like graphene and we also need technological solutions that reduce our reliance on rare earth minerals and other scarce resources. A study conducted by Herrington finds that technological progress could help to avert the risk of collapse.
We have seen the number of people on the planet grow exponentially in the past two thousand years. It is hard to refute the observation that population growth compounds emissions and drives climate change. “Policies to combat the climate crisis or any other symptoms should address their root cause: human overexploitation of the planet,” Ripple said. There is no escaping the realization that we need to stabilize population growth which currently far exceeds the earth’s carrying capacity. This is particularly important in areas where the carrying capacity of local environments is exceeded by demand. While many argue that population control is at the core of sustainability challenges, controlling population growth may not be the panacea that some suggest. One of the best ways to curb population growth is by ensuring that people have the ability to meet their basic requirements.
Ecosystem protection and restoration
We need to protect existing ecosystems and restore ecosystems that have been destroyed. There is a strong correlation between the health of ecosystems and the well-being of biodiversity both of which have implications for the fate of humanity. The initial focus should be on protecting or restoring biodiversity hot spots, however, to marshall popular support for these efforts we need to help people to understand the interconnected nature of climate change ecological degradation, and biodiversity loss.