The world’s carbon budget—the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that humans can still pump into the atmosphere before we no longer have a chance of keeping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius—is almost used up.
In a landmark report last year, the UN’s climate body, the IPCC, said that we need to essentially halve emissions by 2030 to have a 50% chance of staying under 1.5 degrees. That deadline is now only about 10 years away. But the actual situation is even more urgent because of the problem of “committed emissions,” all of the cars and power plants and furnaces and other things that already exist now and have years or decades left of use.
“The very concerning reality is that these things that exist today are already going to emit all of the carbon we have [left in the budget] in that 10- or 11-year period, by virtue of the fact that there’s already a billion cars in the world with internal combustion engines and people aren’t going to stop driving tomorrow,” says Saul Griffith, an inventor and serial entrepreneur who is advising current presidential candidates on climate policy and who recently spoke about the need to go beyond the Green New Deal at Verge, a conference focused on the clean economy. “They’re going to emit a lot. And the existing coal plants and existing natural gas plants will emit a lot. The consequence of that is this 10-year headline gives us a false sense of security. The reality is that we have zero years and we have to change all of our infrastructure.”
That means that it’s too late, he says, to rely on something like a carbon tax to incentivize a gradual shift to lower-carbon products. “If you’ve got a carbon tax and you slowly raise the carbon tax, then it slowly modifies our behavior, but to hit the climate target that the children want and the scientists want, it simply is not a fast enough acting mechanism,” he says.
There also isn’t time to wait for the usual rates of market adoption for new technology. “Because of committed emissions, we can’t wait for natural adoption curves, like if 2% of people buy a Tesla next year and 4% the year after that,” Griffith says. “At this point, basically, to hit any reasonable climate target, you need 100% adoption at everyone’s next purchase.”
He says that companies shouldn’t just be thinking about how to be more efficient, but how to completely substitute zero-carbon technologies for current practices; entire industries should commit to transformation. In the U.S., Griffith argues that we need to go even further than a Green New Deal, deploying an Apollo project-scale transformation of the agriculture industry to move to practices that sequester carbon and a Manhattan Project-like research effort to create a “material economy that absorbs carbon rather than emits it.” He suggests the idea of a “World War Zero” against climate change that has as much urgency as the last World War.
“If we were serious, and we treated this historical moment like we treated Hitler in 1939, industry would be figuring out how to scale up manufacture of the things that will win the war,” he says. “And so we wouldn’t be niggling about what year we will have a 100% electric cars by. It would be a large-scale discussion with the government about what it could take to transform the whole carmaking business on the shortest timeline to one that’s zero carbon. We would be drawing up emergency plans at the national level on how to decarbonize the grid and how to install new transmission lines. This is what the Green New Deal is sort of meant to be, but the plans are still mostly under-ambitious. And they’re not focusing enough on the timelines required.” A carbon tax may still be a small part of the mix—Griffith says that we need all possible solutions. But it can’t tackle the urgency of the situation.
Businesses, cities, and states can’t accomplish the work without the national government. “You should write off the coral reefs if Trump gets reelected,” he says. “We need a new idea that operates outside of normal economic rules. And that’s only ever happened from national governments declaring emergencies. I could write you a script where the Republicans realize that it’s in the best interest of American manufacturing to lead the world. Trump could wake up and have an epiphany tomorrow that his grandchildren are in trouble. There’s no reason it has to be a Democratic policy. We won World War II with largely a Republican approach to solving emergencies. Whether we do it or not is independent of the ideologies of left or right. But if Trump is elected and we do business as usual, we’ll get half a degree of warming in his tenure.”
As Griffith has advised some current presidential campaigns on climate policy, he says that the candidates still haven’t gone far enough—or recognized the full potential for the necessary transformation to spur the creation of new jobs, new wealth, and a better standard of living. “They fall short on the urgency, they fall short on the metaphors, and honestly, I don’t think they think we can do it,” he says. “The presidential candidates, they haven’t yet absorbed that it’s possible. And if we do it, that our lives will improve. I think they’re all playing defense on it and not offense. In reality, we could have this amazing American century driven by throwing technology and jobs at solving climate change and new economic models, and the American suburbs could bloom like they’ve never done before.”