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30 years to go

1990 was 30 years ago. For some of us that only seems like yesterday, but for others, it's a lifetime. There were no smartphones in 1990, news feeds only existed in paper form, and Tim Berners-Lee had only just submitted his proposal for a 'world wide web'. From a political standpoint, the Soviet Union was still intact, Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years in prison, and the reunification of Germany had only just happened on 3rd October that year.

It was also the year the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released its first assessment of 'climate change and the potential of its economic and social impacts'. At the time, this assessment, endorsed by the UN, would go on to inform 'a possible international convention on climate change'. The concept of an existential threat coming from the predicted outcomes of an enhanced greenhouse effect did not play on the minds of policy makers, business leaders, or the general public until at least a decade later.

The population in 1990 was 5.2 billion. Renewable energy (excluding hydro) as we know it today (wind, solar, biomass etc) was barely over 1% of the current output. Energy consumption as a whole had only just hit 100 petawatt hours (100,000 Twh). Populations have grown and livelihoods have changed considerably since then. See below in the graphs how this picture has changed:

Since that first IPCC report in 1990, there has been a paradigm shift in climate action. 197 countries worldwide have endorsed the 5 IPCC assessments at 25 different conferences. There have been over 1,300 multilateral environmental agreements since then, and over 90,000 individual country 'membership actions'. Today, there are over 250 non-governmental organisations worldwide specifically focused on climate change, the majority of which were established after 1990.

The point is, the world was very different in 1990, and it had a very different set of priorities. Climate change was already happening, we just hadn't gained a consensus that it was human made fossil fuels that was causing it.

Pop culture and cinema often led us to believe the next threat would be in alien form, or at least something from outer space. Never did it predict that the biggest challenge the global community would face would be the rapidly changing climate (okay, The Day After Tomorrow did, and it was before an Inconvenient Truth by 2 years, but you get my point).

As we go into the ring against the enhanced greenhouse effect, a planetary version of Frankenstein's monster, we do so equipped with an abundance of knowledge about our opponent. We also go in knowing what its weak points are: renewable and carbon sequestration technology, driven by international and national policy, enhanced by a collective push for more efficient livelihoods. However, the EGE (enhanced greenhouse effect) has a head start by well over a century. Well, in actual fact, CO2 emissions today are higher than at any point in the last 800,000 years, at 402ppm. The highest previous concentration was 300,000 years ago, and even then it was still only 300ppm.

The reality we face is that humanity will not stop emitting over night. In fact, if we did, there would be complete and utter chaos. We rely (as seen on the graph above) on hydrocarbons and their resulting fossil fuel emissions by more than 80%. So the 402ppm will increase further still, but at what point can we reasonably curtail emissions and not forgo a major tipping point in the warming scenario? That remains to be seen, but sequestration (taking CO2 out of the atmosphere) will have to run alongside net zero policies in order to bring greenhouse gas emissions to manageable levels.

At the end of 2019, the UK government wrote into law a net zero target by 2050. That's 30 years to produce a societal shift large enough that coal, oil, and to a large extent gas (without carbon offsets or CCS tech) will no longer be a part of the energy mix. That's not just in the electricity sector, that's agriculture, transport, and industry. It is a mammoth task. And if it's taken 30 years for just a small fraction of the power sector to become renewable, the next 30 years must be decades of immense change in every sector.

If anything, writing this article has made me ponder the time frame of 30 years and the staggering amount that must be done in order to meet a net zero target. Electric vehicles must become the norm, what powers electric vehicles must be renewable energy, storage must grow exponentially as a technology, and from an economic perspective these technologies must drop in price so that everyone can have access to them.

2050 will come around sooner than we think. Will we be ready for a net zero world in 30 years time? We cannot afford to wait to find out, taking action today is our best bet to ensure we will be.

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