Climate change is real and a growing problem, evolving into an existential crisis for the world if we do not act fast. I am deeply worried about the way we treat our planet and atmosphere. It simply is the most urgent topic of our time. This is why my new book is all about climate change, in two ways. I am ringing the alarm bell as loud as I can. But I also explain how we, through collective action of consumers, governments and businesses, can actually solve the climate crisis and make the world a better place to live.
As the book is in Dutch only (for the moment), let me give you a brief overview of the main points.
What is going wrong
First, let’s zoom in on the crisis. Things are going completely in the wrong direction right now. Despite the fact that we have been talking about climate change for decades, the problem is getting bigger every day. In the past 30 years, we have emitted more greenhouse gases than in the previous 200 years:
As a result, global temperatures and sea levels are rising faster and faster at the moment. If we do not intervene strongly in the next ten years, humanity is toast. This sounds dramatic, but it is. Climate change is an undeniable fact. We are truly beyond the pointless debate as to whether or not global warming is caused by humans. We must not close our eyes to a world which (sometimes literally) is on fire.
On the other hand, rescue is near due to exciting technological developments and the changing behavior of citizens. Almost all solutions are now within reach and they are affordable. That was not the case five years ago. Renewable energy is now often cheaper than energy from fossil fuels. In ten years’ time Airbus will come with planes that fly on clean hydrogen. McDonald’s has started to sell meatless burgers. And also in recent news: one in five new cars in Europe are fully or partially electric.
But the question is whether all of this good news will be enough (the answer: it isn’t). The temperature on Earth has already risen by more than one degree and we are now experiencing the first dramatic consequences. It’s a disaster that happens in slow motion. Humanity’s eight hottest years were the past ten years, as we can see from this graph. 2020 was the hottest year ever, together with 2016.
A few examples will make the consequences concrete. In the summer of 2018, it became thirty degrees in Northern Finland (we are talking about the Arctic Circle, mind you). Reindeer and Finns jointly took refreshing baths in rivers and lakes.
In Australia, just before the corona crisis broke out early 2020, scorching wildfires of an apocalyptic scale left billions of animals dead and vast areas devastated. The images of charred koalas and tourists fleeing into the sea will not easily be forgotten.
East Africa, meanwhile, was ravaged by a period of prolonged drought and a plague of locusts of biblical proportions, both with a clear link to climate change. Billions of locusts destroyed huge agricultural areas in a matter of weeks. The last time such a plague occurred was 25 years ago, but scientists predict that this will happen more often due to climate change.
And this is just the beginning of a huge crisis unfolding. If we do not act now, we will end up in a similar situation as that of the corona crisis: we take measures, but every time too late, and then we can only do damage control. The evidence is staring us in the face. All relevant graphs and statistics are deep in the red, like this one for the amount of CO2 over the past 800,000 years. Do you see that dotted line on the far right, which is way above average? Humanity alone is responsible for a very scary jump of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
This is today. But what will the future bring? In a world that warms by two degrees, a point that we will reach within the next three decades, the amount of extreme weather events will increase significantly. Some land regions and parts of the ocean are warming so much that entire ecosystems can be destroyed. Coral reefs will die all over the world, which is disastrous for biodiversity as a quarter of marine life resides there. Hundreds of millions of people will experience heat waves above 60 (!) degrees every year. Water and food supplies are coming under enormous pressure. And so on.
That is why at the all-important Paris Climate Summit in 2015, the world agreed to limit global warming to two degrees (with an extra effort to limit to 1.5 degrees if possible). I was there because at that time I worked for a group of climate NGOs, Climate Action Network Europe. It was a truly special moment.
But since then, we have not started to bend the emissions curves downward, on the contrary – emissions have only gone up. They only went down in 2020 because of the coronacrisis, which paralysed half of the world economy and that still only resulted in around seven percent less emissions.
Even if all the Paris pledges of countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions were fulfilled, global temperatures will rise three to four degrees by the end of the century. If that happens, climate experts warn that we are entering uncharted territory.
The earth has not been so warm in the last three million years. Back then, in the Pliocene Epoch, trees were growing on Antarctica and worldwide sea levels were 25 meters higher. That in itself is already a worrying prospect. But if global warming goes beyond two degrees, the self-regulating system of the world’s biosphere and climate will run wild. Lots of ‘positive feedback loops’ will then exacerbate climate change, for example because most ice on Earth melts and the poles and glaciers no longer reflect sunlight back into space. Together with other feedback loops, our planet could be getting five, six, eight degrees hotter. That’s end of our story, for humankind as well as for our nature as we know it. It’s that simple.
What we can do to solve the climate crisis
Do not worry: it doesn’t have to come that far. However, drastic collective action in the next few years is needed, which goes further than installing more windmills, recycling plastics and planting trees. The actions are sometimes big, sometimes small, but together they will solve the climate crisis – and ultimately make our lives and our existence better.
As we can see on the graph, emissions have to go down very quickly, for both scenarios (1.5 and 2 degrees warming). In my book, I outline the path to a climate-neutral world by 2050, in which we halve emissions every ten years. It is a path that is technically and politically feasible, especially because of the revolution that is currently taking place in the field of renewable energy. The costs of electricity from solar and wind have fallen so much in the past few years that it is now cheaper than fossil fuels. In the future, this energy will become almost free.
Three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of oil, coal and gas. The diagram makes this clear: energy-consuming applications such as industry, transport, heating buildings and the production of electricity result in tens of gigatons of CO2 and methane emissions every year. The other quarter, and many people don’t know, is from agriculture. Livestock farming in particular is very bad for the environment and the climate.
I will explain all of this in my book, but of course I will also discuss how the world’s energy system can be made sustainable, how we can clean up heavy pollutants such as aviation and shipping, as well as the steel and cement industry. But the focus is on climate actions that we can take now.
Thirty climate actions to save the world
I have identified thirty concrete, useful and sometimes inspiring climate actions: ten of these are for consumers, ten for governments and finally ten for business. Some actions have a small impact, others are bigger, but my main point is that everyone has a role to play, including you and me.
From the consumer perspective, the central idea is that we are going to live, travel, consume and eat in a different way. But we will also need to show citizenship and invest in the future. The actions include switching to renewable energy, renovating your home, limiting your stuff and clothes, buying an electric car (or even better, get rid of the car altogether), avoiding meat and dairy (including cheese), setting a personal flying budget, investing in green companies, limiting the amount of children and engaging with friends and family on climate action.
Governments and political parties need to act too, more than ever. They can intervene in several ways, mainly by intervening in markets and prohibiting certain goods and technologies. Measures include setting a high carbon tax, introducing a flying and meat tax, banning internal combustion engines from 2030 and ending fossil fuel subsidies. But the state can do more, for instance to create a hydrogen economy by structurally overproduce renewable electricity, renovating all houses and buildings and limiting livestock farms.
Finally, businesses have a very important role to play. Hundreds of the world’s largest companies are already committing to become carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050, including for their supply chain as well as switching to 100% renewable energy. They can also greatly reduce energy consumption by energy efficiency measures, help electrify most applications that people and industries use, and further digitalise products and services, make their transport sustainable and encourage homeworking.
I hope that this brief description of the climate crisis – and the way out of it – will stimulate and inspire readers. I explain all actions in my book thoroughly and give more concrete tips. But it should also make people aware of the seriousness of the matter: man-made global warming has the potential to spiral out of control and will make life on Earth dangerous, if not impossible.
Not all is lost. We can save the world as long as we act now. Christiana Figueres, who led the Paris climate negotiations in 2015, said it well: “In the face of climate change, we all have to be optimistic, not because success is guaranteed but because failure is unthinkable.” Let’s put her words into practice.