Climate change - behind the headlines

Are we really on the road towards a carbon-neutral future, and what’s it going to take to get there?
06 December 2019

Interview with 

Eric Wolff, University of Cambridge; Eliot Whittington, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership


The Earth sinking in water.


This week the UN’s Annual Climate Change Conference - COP 25 - has been taking place in Madrid. The conference’s aim is to take the next crucial steps in implementing the global carbon-cutting proposals agreed 4 years ago in Paris. But are we really on the road towards a carbon-neutral future, and if not, what’s it going to take to get there? Chris Smith sat down with to untangle the headlines with climate experts Eric Woolf and Eliot Whittington...

Eric - My name is Eric Wolff, I'm a professor in the department of Earth Sciences in Cambridge.

Eliot - My name is Eliot Whittington. I lead the work for the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership around engagement between policy and business, which has a strong focus on climate change.

Chris - We heard a few years ago people saying, look, we're in trouble. If we carry on the way we're going, we will have irreversible climate change and everyone said, this is ghastly. We must do something about this. Governments all around the world signed up and said, yep, we're right behind this. We're going to accept these targets. We're going to make a difference. I'm not seeing much action.

Eliot - We haven't seen action that is coherent with the scale of the problem, but we have definitely seen action. Before the Paris agreement people were sort of saying, we're on track for four and a half degrees. After the Paris agreement, if the agreement is implemented fully, went down to about three and a half degrees. We are bending the curve. Practical things like the number of coal fired power stations in Europe, the US, China, are far less than people predicted were going to be. So action is taking place. What we really need to do is vastly accelerate it.

Chris - What will be the consequences if we do carry on, on the present trajectory, what do models predict?

Eric - If we carry on, on literally the present trajectory. In other words, if people don't even meet the commitments that are made in Paris, then we'll end up with a global warming of about four degrees. If they meet the Paris commitments, it's more like three degrees.

Chris - By when?

Eric - By 2100, and if people go and meet the Paris agreement, then 2 degrees, maybe 1.5 degrees. The difference between those numbers is a lot. So at four degrees, the Arctic sea ice is definitely gone. The whole of the Greenland ice sheet, which contains six metres of sea level roughly, is certainly vulnerable and part of the West Antarctic ice sheet as well. So then potentially, with that four degrees, we're talking about committing ourselves to sea level rises of 5 to 10 metres. Well, there are Island nations that have been talking a lot this week, whose average height above sea level is two metres.

Chris - If one considers the impact it'll have on the average person's lifestyle in order to achieve the kinds of reduction in emissions that we're striving for, can you put that into practical terms for me Eliot, in terms of what would I have to give up in order to do my bit?

Eliot - A net zero economy could be a much more pleasant place to live than our current economy. Better designed towns, cleaner air, better diets. There are more and more people who are thinking about their diet and they're thinking about their health. They're thinking about animal welfare, other concerns and so we are shifting. We are realising that actually our current diet is probably a bit too much sugar, a bit too much processed stuff and a bit too much meat, and it's good to reduce that. We just carry on that trend and we will be on a good track. It is not the case that we should see a net zero economy as inherently hair shirted and punitive. How we travel and how we eat are the things that will change most, but we can still travel places maybe not quite as quickly or quite as far all the time.

Chris - You optimistic, Eric?

Eric - I'm reasonably optimistic in the sense that I can now see how it can be done. I'm a little less optimistic because obviously there are some countries that just aren't engaging with the process properly at the moment.

Chris - Like?

Eric - We can't deny that the United States is saying that it's going to pull out of the UN climate agreement. That's a worry that there's a country that for at least the next few years is not going to engage with the process because we don't have a few years. We can't afford to wait 10 years and then stop the process because otherwise we won't make it.

Listen to a longer version of the interview on the In Short podcast episode "Climate change: what does net zero look like?"


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