What climate goals and going to Mars have in common
Climate change is an emotional topic, and understandably so – it affects us all. But we will not get to a net-zero carbon world by 2050 on pure emotions. It is time to be rational, to put human ingenuity to work, and to come up with a concerted action plan.
A lot gets written and said about climate change, yet it seems that 90% of this material focuses on the problem itself and only 10% on concrete, feasible solutions. Of these, most revolve around pricing carbon. Pricing externalities has led to good results in other situations in the past: for example, the cap-and-trade market established in the US in 1990 as part of the Clean Air programme was very successful in reducing sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. But when faced with a challenge as consequential and monumental as climate change, it would be a risky gamble to place all our bets on the idea that a carbon price will bring about the large-scale transformation needed to put us on the path to a low carbon future.
Carbon pricing – although it certainly provides the right incentives – is the equivalent of saying that we will tax everyone who doesn't get to Mars and hoping that we all rather magically figure out how to build our rockets, what type of fuel we would need and everything in between.
What our climate goals and going to Mars have in common is the need for a viable action plan, one that is adaptable, agile and backed by a multi-stakeholder effort. For every sector and every carbon-emitting source, we need to assess what technologies are available to bring down emissions, what gaps need addressing and how to channel investments in the most impactful way.
We cannot wait for the governments to coordinate such a plan. For all the laudable commitments, the Paris climate agreement has achieved very little since its adoption four years ago. Most recently, the UN climate summit in Madrid again ended in a stalemate. The European Commission's Green Deal is one of the few bright signs and deserves a lot of credit. But even within the EU, not all countries are prepared to commit to the net zero emissions goal.
On the other hand, the World Economic Forum's Mission Possible Platform and the Energy Transition Commission, for example, are leading the way in establishing shared roadmaps for several carbon-intensive industry sectors, such as transportation or metallurgy. Their research shows that even for these "hard-to-abate" economic sectors the transition to net-zero emissions by mid-century is possible, and at a cost of less than 0.5% of global GDP. Such efforts deserve more support from the global business community, not least because our employees and shareholders expect this of us.
Politicians are not the sole makers of change; businesses have the power of capital to make significant steps in addressing the climate crisis. Many companies are already adopting more sustainable practices, but it is currently not the concerted effort it needs to be. Our entire system, including the functioning of most businesses and economies, and our way of life depend on sustaining a liveable environment. Increasingly companies realise that their very survival will depend on this.
The pressure from shareholders is rising and should provide enough of an incentive for change, even without a carbon tax. There will be leaders among companies, and our capitalist system will eventually persuade even the biggest sceptics of the necessity of change. But let's face it: getting to net-zero emissions in our own operations is a lot easier for a financial services company than for a cement maker or an airline.
That is why we need more "Mission Possible" alliances across all industries, and we need to channel our collective intellectual power from all areas of the economy to develop technologies we do not yet have. For example, the path towards a net-zero carbon world will need to include measures to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This sector is still in its nascent stage, and we will need the best brains of the planet to come up with truly scalable solutions.
Charting a course out of the climate crisis will require steadfastness and perseverance. I'm optimistic we can make the shift, but we need to act now before it is too late. Together we have the knowledge, technology and capabilities to develop a workable plan to fight the climate crisis and make sure that humanity does not need to look for salvation on Mars.