The following excerpt is adapted from Roger Hallam’s new book Common Sense for the 21st Century (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
The Great Transition
What does a real Climate Emergency action plan look like? The answer is defined by the science − by the physics and chemistry. Some find it hard to imagine this is actually happening. Some think it seems ‘unrealistic’. But ask yourself about the alternative of risking the collapse of civilisation, the death of billions of people and the extinction of much of life on earth? Is that ‘realistic’? No economy on a dead planet.
Delivering the Climate Emergency response
What do we need to achieve? Listed here are some of the processes and measures needed to deliver a credible Climate Emergency response.
We have drawn this from a series of expert analyses, studies and publications over the past decade, including ‘The One Degree War Plan’ by Prof Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding from 2010, which was perhaps the first analysis proposing a World War II-style mobilisation to return the earth to 1°C (33.8°F) of warming. We also draw on ‘The Victory Plan’ by Ezra Silk from The Climate Mobilization and a paper by Dave Roberts called ‘What Genuine, No-Bullshit Ambition On Climate Change Would Look Like’, amongst others.
It’s not intended as a precise plan. It is to show what needs to happen and to establish that it is clearly a path we can choose.
What we need to achieve
Stop the world warming
We need to stabilise the climate at between a 1°C and 1.5°C temperature increase above pre-industrial levels. We need to stabilise CO2 levels at about 350ppm. That’s the task. No further negotiations needed.
Doing so will require us to largely eliminate human created greenhouse gas emissions of all types within a decade or two and also take actions to cool the earth. The latter is required to reduce the risk of triggering runaway climate feedbacks or tipping points.
Eliminate fossil fuel use and close that industry down
We need to eliminate fossil fuels from the economy, and we need to do so within 20 years, with most of the work done in the next 10 years. That means immediately banning all new investment in fossil fuel exploration and development.
- Close down all coal-fired power stations – the dirtiest within 5 years, and the remainder within 10 years.
- Close down all gas-fired power stations, most in the next 10 years.
- Convert all transport to electricity, with the electricity generated by zero carbon energy sources.
- Manage this process with a massive reduction in energy use even if that means rationing.
This all means we will reduce the income of fossil fuel companies worth trillions of dollars, including all of the world’s oil, coal and gas companies. They had the chance over 30 years to transform and chose not to. Now they must work with a transition process and reinvest in renewables or go out of business. Governments will have to provide education and retraining programs to help people who lose their jobs and address the impact on the communities. The financial implications for the national and local authorities and the pension funds invested in fossil fuels will also need to be addressed.
If global fossil fuel combustion is rapidly eliminated, the earth will experience a surge of warming due to a reduction in the polluting aerosols (which in turn reduce the level of sunlight reaching the earth). To counter this, we will need parallel drastic cuts in short-lived climate pollutants such as methane, black carbon, hydrofluorocarbons, and ground-level ozone.
Drive massive energy efficiency including rationing and demand management
To close down power plants, even with rapid global expansion of renewables, will need a massive global drive for energy efficiency that will probably include energy rationing until we get there. It will, in most cases, be economically beneficial to drive such efficiency.
Restore forests and ecosystems
We need a massive global reforestation program, planting trillions of trees to absorb CO2 as proposed recently in the journal Science. This is one of the cheapest ways to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. It will take decades to start to absorb large quantities of CO2, but reforestation will then have a huge impact over the following decades and will help to restore the climate, refreeze the earth’s poles and be enormously beneficial to biodiversity.
Reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
We face tipping points that could trigger runaway climate change with the system spiralling out of our control and the likelihood of global collapse within a decade or two. We need to cool the planet as fast as possible. This means shifting from just focusing on ‘reducing emissions’ to also ‘reducing warming’ to give us the time for a parallel rapid reduction in CO2 emissions to have its long-term impact. There are a number of ways to slow and then reverse short-term warming. The cheapest, fastest and best understood action would be radical reductions in methane emissions. That means:
- We need to eliminate the use of gas as an energy source in less than 10 years.
- We need to lower consumption of animal products, especially industrially produced animal products.
Measures to achieve the above
These are the outcomes we need. But to get there we will need a series of measures including mobilising the community, policy to ban certain activities, the application of taxes, subsidies and mandates by government. Some examples include:
- Carbon taxes and dividends both to drive behaviour but also to compensate the poor.
- Just transition strategies to manage the social consequences of rapid change.
- Taxes on all virgin materials to encourage investment in recycling.
- Feed-in tariffs to drive distributed energy and storage in homes, schools and factories.
- A date for a total ban on fossil-fuel-powered transport of all types: land, air and sea.
- Suspend expansion of all airports and roads to send a clear signal as to society’s priorities.
- Electrify everything we can and ration the supply of fossil fuels including petrol for cars.
- Mandate a compound 10% per year reduction in plane travel for the first 5 years and achieve this through taxes, which can then be used to invest in alternatives including rail infrastructure.
- Incentivise soil carbon sequestration on a large scale by establishing a system to pay farmers and landowners for increasing soil carbon, which also enhances soil quality.
- Drive changes in diet that reduce emissions and enhance health through policy, including pricing and public education like successful World War II campaigns and Meat Free Monday.
- Scale up standards for the built environment with zero-carbon housing and transit-oriented development. Subsidise energy efficiency retrofits in low-income housing.
- Use demand management to match energy use with availability.
The economics: can we afford all this?
That’s such an odd question. We face the collapse of the global economy and civilisation with the potential for the extinction of much of life on earth, and we ask if we can afford to stop that? Do we think carrying on with collapse might be cheaper?
Yes, we can afford this, and it’s actually not that expensive. Government has considerable financing powers to make sufficient funds available. As argued in Randers and Gilding’s ‘One Degree War Plan’, a carbon tax of $20 per tonne, rising by $20 each year for 5 years to $100, would raise around $800 billion in the first year and around $4 trillion by year 5. This would be approximately 1–3% of GDP. That is just one of the many mechanisms available. Money raised should be used to fund the emergency response and to alleviate the resulting hardship – primarily among the poor.
Such an economic mobilisation has many potential benefits, including increased equality, higher employment and the integration and social cohesion of society.
A new transition movement: if governments don’t listen, then the people will act
Building on the existing Transition Network, a major people’s movement is needed to organise the mitigation of climate change, ecological restoration as well as preparation and adaptation to the coming changes. We need programmes like TransitionLab.earth that are focused on volunteerism at high levels such as engineering and actioning solutions rather than more policy ‘think tanks’. For instance, inventors could research and develop battery technology and give away the patents for free. In fact, all beneficial research needs to be part of the Commons – for free and unrestricted use.
An expert group of data scientists could develop artificial intelligence to help predict the worst affected areas of the UK, then engineers could design systems to mitigate the impact. Efforts like this are underway all over the world, but there need to be central platforms that citizens can engage with.
A Lab should be created, made up of scientists, engineers and other Earth-enhancing experts to advise and respond to questions and take direction from Citizens’ Assemblies. Based on this collaborative work, the Assemblies would then go on to organise people into a Citizen Voluntary Service. Critically, the Lab would not be government-funded or be a corporate entity. It would be a service for the people and by the people, rather than waiting for government to pass policy and commission agencies to work. The work starts now.
Rapid-transition working groups
Groups organised specifically to push urgent transition could focus on some of the following issues:
- The economy of change. Economists, in consultation with renewable energy specialists, transport experts, biologists, natural scientists and so on, will work on the cost of converting the world economy to avoid collapse. Where does that money come from? We could start with tax evaders, the reduction of military spending and fossil fuel subsidies.
- Preparing communities – the physicalities. Flood-prediction projects are an example of communities getting prepared; they are starting in India as awareness grows about the Himalayan glaciers melting and monsoons becoming chaotic and extreme. But there will be other adaptation techniques that apply more relevantly in different parts of the world. Independent scientists and experts in the Lab would be part of a Wikipedia-type model of open, public ownership of the Great Transition.
- Preparing communities for resilience in the Great Transition. The social implications of climate breakdown are immense. Work needs to be put in now to developing and maintaining sustainable communities; no one will survive alone. Our way of life will change not only from lack of the usual resources, but also from the inevitable growing climate refugee crisis.
- Food. How do we feed the world in the event of mass collapse of insects, ecosystems, and so on? Red meat consumption will need to decrease rapidly and great effort put into improving our ravaged soils. The whole population will need to become more familiar with growing their food wherever they can, in addition to new farming methods and eco-enhancing systems.
None of these issues are being addressed by any trustworthy entity. Global trust in the UN has reduced significantly, tech companies aren’t doing enough, and governments are reluctant communicators. However, we have models: Vox, Now This and The Years Project are great examples of using social media to spread critical information about important issues. In the mainstream media, David Attenborough and Brian Cox have captured the imagination of the world on the subjects of science and protecting nature. The transition movement needs to learn from these communicators.
Global voluntary service for transition
In the worst-case scenario, we may need to start building on the great work of the Transition Towns initiative on a massive scale. This could be part of the work of Citizens’ Assemblies which would organise a voluntary scheme for anyone who wishes to lend their skills towards some of the following:
- Flood defences
- Pre- and post-climate change planning
- Sustainable communities
- Renewable energy
- Disaster preparation, prevention and recovery
This is essentially the work of local councils and authorities. However, where gaps exist, a transition voluntary scheme would supplement and help.
The transition has to be imagined, visualised, planned and actualised. There is no time to lose. It will require new institutions – a parallel social revolution to the political revolution we need to transform the state. Again following ‘business-as-usual’ is no longer an option. We have to be realistic – everything has to change.
Roger Hallam is a leading climate change activist and co-founder of Extinction Rebellion. Hallam has been on successful hunger strikes, been arrested 10 times, and served a prison term, all in the service of preventing a climate catastrophe. He is the author of Common Sense for the 21st Century (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2019).