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There is not currently enough public pressure to force the economy to decarbonize by 2050

“The main frontier for deep decarbonization right now is social and political—it is a question of power,” says the author of a new study that finds there isn’t enough public momentum to force companies and governments to transition fast enough.

There is not currently enough public pressure to force the economy to decarbonize by 2050
[Photos: Kyle Johnston/Unsplash, Goh Rhy Yan/Unsplash, frankipeti/iStock, OllgaP/iStock]
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In 2019, more than four million people across the world participated in a strike for climate action. As of 2021, more than 1,300 institutions, from universities to pension funds, have committed to divest from fossil fuels. According to a survey covering half the world’s population, 64% of people believe climate change is a global emergency. Everyday it seems there are more social pressures to address the climate crisis—but these are just baby steps, according to new research, that likely won’t get us to deep decarbonization by 2050. To truly decarbonize by 2050, we need to ramp up these social factors even more.

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Most reports that assess the viability of a 1.5 degree future by 2050 look at the technical aspects of achieving that goal—the pathways to building the infrastructure required to lower emissions and the practical requirements needed to keep countries aligned to their Paris Agreement goals. The Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook, published by the Cluster of Excellence Climate, Climatic Change, and Society (CLICCS) at the University of Hamburg, looks at something different: the social drivers that will motivate all that technological and tangible change.

“These social drivers of decarbonization create the grounds on which technologies can be implemented globally in the first place,” Anita Engels, a social scientist at the University of Hamburg and co-chair of CLICCS, says via email. “Although technologies are already available in many high emitting sectors, the main frontier for deep decarbonization right now is social and political—it is a question of power. … Without assessing social drivers, the plausibility of low carbon climate futures cannot be understood.”

And that plausibility isn’t looking good. By assessing 10 social drivers—United Nations climate governance, transnational initiatives, climate-related regulation, climate litigation, fossil fuel divestment, knowledge production (which includes reports and climate models), climate protests and social movements, journalism, consumption patterns, and corporate responses—the Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook concluded that deep decarbonization by 2050 is not currently plausible. 

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While none of these 10 social drivers showed “sufficient movement toward deep decarbonization,” they’re not all equal. Six, including the UN governance, climate litigation, and fossil fuel divestment, do support that net-zero goal, but still don’t have enough momentum to get there by 2050; right now, they’re fostering a more gradual decarbonization. (One example of momentum is the U.S. rejoining the Paris Agreement, which the report classifies as a “climate policy” driver.)

Protests and journalism aren’t inhibiting decarbonization, but it isn’t clear if they’re sufficient to push the world to deep decarbonization by 2050, according to the report. And lastly, two social drivers—consumption and corporate responses—are actually moving the opposite way, obstructing decarbonization. Consumption could be worsened by a post-pandemic rebounding of energy use and “transport-related oil use,” and the push for sustainable shopping and eco-labels “lead at best to a green consumerism and still do not support structural transformations toward low-carbon consumption patterns,” per the report. 

Looking at events like Greta Thunberg’s school climate strikes or divestment announcement after divestment announcement, it might seem like the momentum toward change might be accelerating. But those are just a few isolated moments. A deeper, systematic assessment shows that universities and pension funds saying they’ll divest “have not created enough momentum so far to really interrupt the global flow of investments into fossil fuel engagements,” Engels says. “And the political protests will have to increase substantially and need to provide solid political majorities to enforce the implementation—not just the announcement!—of ambitious mitigation programs.”

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 Getting to net-zero by 2050 isn’t only about what technology is available or what goals companies and countries will announce. These social drivers have to motivate those changes—and hold those commitments to account. “For deep decarbonization by 2050 to become plausible,” Engels says, “much will depend on public pressure via protests, organized action, and climate litigation.”