Don't use 'climate emergency' in vain! (target setting in the climate emergency)
As climate emergency talking and thinking shifts further towards climate emergency action, it is imperative that ‘climate emergency’ is not co-opted to mean something ‘convenient’ or ‘pragmatic’ (ie. weak goals and slow action). Climate emergency has to stand for safe climate principles: for restoring a safe climate.
Where are we today in the climate emergency campaign?
In the space of 5 months, the phrase climate emergency has become household. Several months ago, the hashtag #climateemergency resulted two tweets a week from a handful of the usual suspects. A snap count now shows 80 odd tweets in the past 30 minutes, including from mainstream voices.
For the last few weeks, 1000s with Extinction Rebellion are blocking central streets and bridges in London, demanding that their government implement a climate emergency response.
Just a few weeks ago, the Australia Institute released findings from a nationwide survey that the majority of Australians believe we face a climate emergency and want to see a ‘climate emergency’ response including the type of ‘mobilisation of resources undertaken in WWII’. The fact that we are hearing this language from any mainstream institution is a paradigm shift. These majority findings were found across different party persuasions.
As of today, the phrase, climate emergency’ is used by:
- The UK, which passed a non-binding opposition motion at the beginning of May. Wales and the Scottish National Party declared earlier in the week.
- Over 500 councils across seven countries having declared a climate emergency (Aust, US, UK, Canada, Switzerland, Italy and Germany) with many more councils in the pipeline.
- Universities; the University of Bristol recently declared
- School Strikers
- The Club of Rome, an international organisation with members including eminent scientists, business leaders, ex-politicians or retired heads of state.
- 14 MPs in Australia of different stripes
- Political parties, including the UK Labor Party and Scottish National Party
- Wales, which has declared a climate emergency
- Large eNGOs, which have just now adopted the term.
What does climate emergency actually mean?
Climate emergency is a call for the necessary urgent action to be taken to restore a safe climate, understanding that:
- We are too hot now. Our inaction over decades has set off positive feedback loops that speed up global warming. This means targets decades out are suicidal; we need to start now and we need to do it as fast as is humanly possible.
- At current emissions levels (400+ppm CO2 / 470ppm+ CO2 equivalents) we have already built in 25m+ of sea level rise. All atolls are estimated to unliveable by 2050, not to mention other coastal areas where millions - a billion live or grow food.
- A Google search provides sweeping evidence of ecological collapse across numerous systems; too many to name here.
As such, we need to go to negative emissions to restore safe (pre-industrial) greenhouse gas concentrations (safe at about 280-300ppm) and restore a safe climate. Getting to negative emissions ASAP means:
- Zero emissions across all sectors as fast as possible
- To begin drawing down excess greenhouse gas emissions on an industrial scale using available strategies and investigating new strategies. We don’t know how long it will take but given using current land based tech (revegetation, soil carbon, biochar), it may take over 100 years.
- Create an immediate cooling. At present with all that pollution, we are currently geo-engineering almost 1 degree of shade (solar reflection). If the world went to zero emissions today, the global average temperature would jump almost 1 degree celsius.
If we are not very clear with our expectations, it will not happen:
- If we don’t demand emergency speed transition to zero emissions across each sector, it will not happen.
- If we don’t demand industrial scale drawdown, it will not happen.
- If we don’t demand economic restructuring toward a safe climate, this response will not happen.
Where did the term ‘climate emergency come from?
Dedicated grass-roots climate campaigners started using the term to represent what was needed to restore a safe climate. In Australia, it was probably formalised in 2016 with the ‘Climate Emergency Declaration’, which translated in the US by ‘Climate Mobilization’.
The thinking for what climate emergency in action looked like was based on earlier work or organisations such as that of Beyond Zero Emissions.
More detail on the history of climate emergency is captured here.
Does everyone talking climate emergency understand what climate emergency means?
Is everyone talking climate emergency prepared to act climate emergency? No! For example, there are councils passing climate emergency declarations that are aiming for net zero by 2050; this includes large councils such as the London Assembly and Vancouver.
After declaring, London quickly went on to approve another runway and Gatwick. Although the UK made a ‘resolution’ for a climate emergency, Labor and Tory Councillors in Cumbria went on to back a new coal mine.
The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (the CCC), an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008, has recommended just ‘zero by 2050’ for the UK’s emergency response. The CCC is similar to Australia’s Climate Council, which recommends the same target for Australia.
It shouldn’t be surprising that soft targets are defeatist. Soft targets set us up to fail.
What is the role of targets?
Governments usually set targets before the full suite of how they will be achieved is known. As such, they tend to set targets for complex work far into the future. But decades-out targets can be easily ignored because any one government can’t be easily held to account on them.
A target ideally works as a slogan of 3 to 5 words, and needs to communicate ‘what we need to do and how fast should it be done’. The target can also include more detail, such as interim targets, which can hold any single government to account.
Given the scope of work for a climate emergency response, once adopted, a climate emergency target should drive policy development, governance and performance measurement across all of government’s work. The target implicitly communicates the degree of priority the work will need, which in this case is maximum priority.
There are good arguments for not providing a target deadline in case it is too ambitious and stakeholders expect failure, but this is outweighed by the benefits of having a timeframe (or the cons of not having one). And with the right governance, more will be achieved with an ambitious target than with a less ambitious one.
A recent example of a target at work is Oxfordshire Council (UK). At the time of writing this, Oxfordshire Council is trying to weaken the target they set with their climate emergency declaration (zero by 2030). The council is worried they won’t meet the target. Perhaps not but having such an ambitious target means the council will have to go above and beyond to try to meet it.
When setting goals for safe climate restoration, it is implicit that these goals will require:
- Immediate implementation of current solutions and seeking other solutions via R&D
- A restructure of governance and the economy to achieve those goals.
A brief history of climate target setting
We are currently grappling with a very climate-confused public not only due to years of misinformation from hard climate deniers, but also misinformation from the soft climate deniers, generally the large eNGOs, who are supposedly representing a safe climate but present weak targets for governments.
People trust in these eNGOs so they trust the targets of ‘zero by 2050’ that they promote. Hence the general confusion around what a safe target is. Ask a random person whether zero by 2050 is safe climate policy and they’ll probably say yes.
If we are too hot now, how can net zero by 2050 save us?
Why have eNGOs set weak targets?
ENGOs set weak goals because they wanted to be taken seriously be government, but in addition they have:
- lacked imagination in what can be achieved
- misread what the public is ready for.
The eNGOs should have been asking themselves, ‘how do we get the public on board to drive an effective campaign with government?’, not ‘what will government accept?’.
In private conversations, staff from these eNGOs confide that the goals they are setting ‘couldn’t save us’ but they ‘don’t want to frighten people away’. These eNGOs have effectively given up and have created havoc in their wake.
This eNGO campaigning logic was a bit like trying encourage locals to stay and fight an oncoming bushfire by lying that the fire is 200km away, when in fact the fire is already throwing embers and all roads out are closed. Which would you imagine to be more effective at motivating to stay and fight the fire? The eNGOs chose the 200km option. Jane Moreton’s booklet, ‘Don’t Mention the Emergency?’ examines this campaigning dissonance in detail.
If the eNGOs had been campaigning on safe climate goals for the past few decades, we would be in a very different place today with regard to public understanding and what they demanded from government. Yes, the hard deniers would still be around but we wouldn’t be dealing with such a high degree of public confusion on what we need to do.
What are the risks if we couple climate emergency with suicidal targets now?
Just in the past week, two large eNGOs finally woken up to the fact that ‘fear’ is in fact a necessary tool for climate campaigning and have declared a climate emergency. These same eNGOs had refused to use ‘fear’ in climate campaigning for years. ‘Climate emergency’ as a term was officially blacklisted by professionals campaigning for climate action.
As with the past so with the future. If the organisations with the biggest profiles and deepest pockets couple the ‘climate emergency’ headline with soft targets, nothing will have changed other than the word ‘emergency’ and the broader public will believe they are in good hands.
eNGOs’ inability to shift into emergency mode has just been confirmed by WWF. WWF has jumped on the ‘emergency’ bandwagon with their declaration last week but only moved their ‘net zero’ target forward five years from 2050 to 2045.
And these decades-out targets are what governments will adopt, regardless of what is actually possibly under a mobilisation response with technical breakthroughs that mobilising economies can drive ahead of the deadline.
Governments will do all they can to compromise emissions targets. Climate campaigners supposedly representing a safe climate don’t need to do it for them.
Reject suicidal targets from any group speaking on behalf of the planet and promote safe climate targets!
Climate-emergency target setting
We need to set targets based on what can be achieved under ideal circumstances (ie emergency action), not business as usual or or supposedly pragmatic view on what our current political landscape can deliver.
Don't pick up the IPCC report for directions on target setting. Depressing as IPCC's assessment is, it is overly optimistic. The models don’t incorporate major positive feedback loops so the IPCC findings ignore the loops. Also, the chances for success for courses of action proposed are not good enough. Would you take a plane with a 50% chance of crashing? A dense analysis of the IPCC shortcomings are available in Breakthrough’s ‘What Lies Beneath’.
Beyond Zero Emissions have shown that 10 year transition to zero across most sectors is possible in their collection of sector ten-year transition plans but we can probably do much of it faster than 10 years if we really tried, and given how far the tech has moved since most of the reports were released.
High level targets for Central governments
What we need to capture in a high level target is three main components:
- Zero emissions by 2025-2030, or 5-10 years from announcement, plus
- Begin industrial scale drawdown of excess greenhouse gas emissions e.g. Drawdown of large scale emissions annually
- Investigate the best options to create an immediate cooling (a global not necessarily national issue).
But how to turn this 3-part target a slogan of 5 words or less? These could include:
- Zero and drawdown by 2025, or
- Negative emissions by 2025, or
- Zero and drawdown by 2030, zero by 2025
If implemented globally it could be ‘A cooler planet by 2025’ or ‘a safe climate by 2030’
‘Negative emissions yesterday’ is great as a slogan for communicating the urgency.
Targets for Councils
A council target is more complicated because many councils lack regulatory and economic levers to achieve net zero or net negative emissions.
Councils should acknowledge:
- the central government target above (whether or not the central government has set it as a target or is working to achieve it), plus
- a target that reflects the the council’s community wide goals across the council and community portfolio. This could still be ‘the largest possible negative emissions as soon as possible’. and set the anticipated reduction in community emissions.
In addition, the council can state what they will do or achieve across each sector that is within their control. In the declaration, these targets could be captured as, for example:
- Restoring healthy tree canopies and wetlands across all available green spaces within 10 years
- Zero or negative emissions in council waste management within 5 years
- 300% increase in the capacity of private solar PV across the community in four years.
It is amazing what can be accomplished in emergency mode (Eg UK in WWII) when government realigns to achieve something ambitious, when the public is properly informed, when vested interests are forced to stand down.
If this is our last ditch effort at saving the planet, why would we comprise safe climate principles before we’ve even sat at the government negotiating table? Compromising on safe climate principles is how we got here in the first place.