We will need, globally, more than 100 million new jobs, each year for 20 years. It will not be cheap.
The world leaders at COP26 must focus immediately on a global reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases. This is now a matter of existential urgency. Our central task as a global community is to stop the burning of fossil fuels. And we can do that.
Read Part I: After COP
Read Part III: Why world leaders won't act tomorrow.
Download Jonathan Neale's book Fight the Fire for free.
The reason this matters so much is that we have already put so much CO2 into the air. As two recent IPCC reports have reminded us, humanity cannot put much more into the atmosphere without temperature increases of two or three or four degrees centigrade.
I discuss the consequences of such an increase in a later section. For the moment, the main message is, don’t go there. That means we need all possible cuts in fossil fuel emissions.
The alternative is a concerted push to stop all burning of fossil fuels. For that to happen, we need massive programs to provide the jobs we need to replace all fossil fuel use with renewable energy.
We need to cut emissions of all greenhouse gases by at least 80 percent. Total global emissions in 2019 were the equivalent of 55 billion tons of ‘CO2 equivalent’. Let’s take cuts in emissions from burning fossil fuels first.
We can’t cut absolutely all the emissions from burning fossil fuels. We can substitute rail journeys for most flights, but the remaining planes will still need some oil. And we probably cannot eliminate all oil for shipping across oceans. But still, we can cut emissions from burning fossil fuels from 37 billion tons to 2 billion tons.
We need to cut everything else too. Some sectors could be quick and straightforward. We can ban deforestation – all cutting down of old forests. And we can ban all use of F-gases in cooling and refrigeration – there are alternatives. Those two measures will reduce these emissions from 6.5 billion tons a year to zero.
We will need, globally, more than 100 million new jobs, each year for 20 years. It will not be cheap.
In other sectors we can cut emissions by between a quarter and a half in twenty years. These include sewage systems, processing waste, rice cultivation, livestock, fertilizers and manure. Overall, my estimate is that we can cut these emissions from 11.5 billion tons a year to 5 billion tons.
In other words, fossil fuels account for two-thirds of total emissions, 37 out of 55 billion tons.
A massive program of jobs can reduce emissions from fossil fuels by 35 billion tons. It can reduce other emissions by 12 billion tons. Reductions in burning fossil fuels will have three times the impact of everything else.
This makes fossil fuels the overwhelming priority. That means a concerted push to stop burning fossil fuels. For that to happen we need massive programmes to provide the jobs we need to replace all fossil fuel use with renewable energy.
To cut those emissions, four things will make almost all the difference.
First, stop burning coal, oil or gas to make electricity. Instead, cover the world with renewable energy.
Most of that will be wind power and solar PV. But we will need other sources to balance that energy, like wave and tidal power, geothermal and concentrated solar power.
We will need several different ways to store electricity. And we will need large new supergrids to connect all the renewable energy and storage to supply all our current electricity needs.
Workers can get those jobs done in fifteen to twenty years, everywhere. We already have all the technology we need.
Second, we need to stop burning oil for transportation. To do that, we will have to change all cars, vans, trucks, buses and trains so they run on renewable electricity. And we need to replace most air flights with rail travel. Again, we have the technology. And for this we need to build more renewable energy to supply that electricity.
Third, we need new laws to insist that all new homes and buildings use far less energy for heating and cooling, and all of it is done by renewable electricity. And we need to insulate and convert all existing homes and buildings so they use far less energy and all heating comes from renewable electricity. Here too, we have to build more renewables.
Finally, we need to transform industry. One part of this is to stop making cement, because the process creates so much CO2 as a byproduct.
But the main emissions in industry come from burning coal and gas to heat materials. We can replace all that with heating from renewable electricity. Again, we have almost all the technology we need to do that, and we can find the rest over the next 20 years.
Nobody is saying this will be easy. It is an immense task. We will need, globally, more than 100 million new jobs, each year for 20 years. It will not be cheap. But we can cut at least 35 out of 37 billion tons a year.
Only governments can raise and spend money on that scale.
We cannot expect the market to do it. There are many theoretical arguments we could make about capitalism here. But we don’t have to. Just look at the facts.
We have been waiting 30 years for the markets and capitalism to rewire the world. Emissions are still rising. That’s long enough. Some that maybe private corporations could still do it, but they can’t possibly do it in time.
And crucially, governments have to pass laws. We need new building regulations, and lanes and roads reserved for buses. We need to require electric engines in all new vehicles, now.
We will need governments to ban the production and sale of fossil fuels, except for a few tightly controlled uses. Some long haul airline flights, for instance, perhaps some shipping and backup generators for hospitals. Otherwise, we ban fossil fuels like we ban anthrax.
There is no reason to force renewables to out-compete fossil fuels, to be cheaper or easier. There is no reason to wait for that.
Building a fully renewable economy is the solution. But it’s also where our troubles start. Because Thunberg is right. None of our governments have done what needs to be done. And fixing that is a daunting task, for reasons I will come to later.
The Limits of Natural Solutions
Planting new forests on a large scale will be important. But that process will take roughly another 5 billion tons a year out of the air for 20 years. But when that is done, it will be done. The effect will balance about four years of global greenhouse gas emissions. That will buy time in the short term. And we need that time. But it will not be decisive in the long term.
You may find my estimates of the possible reduction in emissions through ‘natural’ means surprising. If beg you not to be outraged. I provide long discussions of these estimates in Fight the Fire. There are also many references to scientific articles you can explore.
Any Green New Deal, or national Climate Jobs service, or whatever you want to call it, will have to try to cut all these emissions too. Cutting fossil fuels alone will not be enough. But it will be by far the most important thing we can do.
The Net Zero Con
The idea of Net Zero emissions has become mainstream. Here’s why it’s a con.
Most Net Zero proposals rely on the idea that corporations or rich countries will pay for governments or companies in the Global South to cut fossil fuel emissions or plant trees. Then the rich countries or their corporations will be allowed to keep burning fossil fuels.
But 62% of the CO2 emissions in the world now come from the Global South. We have to get as close as we can to Zero Fossil Fuel emissions South and North. We have to stop deforestation and plant new forests anyway, South and North.
That would make Northern corporations paying offsets so they can continue to burn fossil fuels pointless. No one would be burning fossil fuels.
The other meaning of a Net Zero is that governments would promise to remove enormous amounts of CO2 from the air at some future unspecified date. This would be done using a technology that does not work to scale, without anything like enough space to store the CO2.
This is instead of stopping fossil fuels now. Net Zero is a stall, a lie and an idea that leads to inaction.
BARRIERS TO A RENEWABLE WORLD?
I have argued that we will be lost without an almost 100% renewable global energy system. But some environmentalists now argue that a fully renewable world is impossible.
In my experience, these arguments come from three sorts of people.
First, there are the people who understandably despair at the possibility of forcing governments to rewire the world. So they are open to any arguments that provide an alternative.
Second, there is a strand of people in environmental politics who don’t want a technical solution and insist that the main answer must be reduced consumption.
Third, there are the corporations, media and parties who want to defend inaction by arguing that action is impossible.
These arguments come in many different forms. I will take three examples here. There are many more in Fight the Fire.
There is a growing global push towards electric vehicles. Norway, for example, has banned the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2025. Biden has ‘pledged’ that half of cars in America will be electric by 2050. Many other countries are moving to do the same.
In Fight the Fire I argue that much more than is technically possible, and almost immediately. We could have all new cars, vans, buses, trucks and trains fully electric, and very quickly.
Some people then say, no, we have to concentrate on public transport instead. That is cleaner, more socialist, fairer and uses less energy. All these things are true. The only problem is that many of these people mean that we should have public transport instead of all electric vehicles.
The mistake here is one of arithmetic. First, globally about half of emissions from road travel come from cars. The rest are mostly from buses and trucks. In the richer countries, cars are the main problem. In the poorer countries, it’s trucks and then buses.
But the deep problem is this. Let’s say everyone switches from cars to buses and trains. Then global emissions from passenger transport fall by about half, if we are very lucky. Truck and van emissions do not change. Total road transport emissions may fall by 50 percent.
Alternatively, let’s say the balance of cars and buses remains the same as now. But all new cars, vans, trucks and buses have to run on electricity. That’s perfectly possible, and governments can begin buying up old vehicles and retiring them.
Of course, we have to build enough renewable energy to produce electricity for all these vehicles, no mean feat. But the result is almost 100 percent cuts in road transport emissions.
I am not making an argument against public transport here. In Fight the Fire I spend a lot of time arguing what a much expanded system of public transport could look like.
I’m making a different point. I want more public transport. But I want 100 percent electrical vehicles now, and as much public transport as possible. Buses and electric cars and trucks, not buses instead of electric cars and trucks.
Here is another example, again from cars. Most car batteries today contain lithium. Lithium mining in the global south is poisonous and destroys communities. And, many people say, there is not enough lithium in the world for anything like the number of vehicles we will need.
These things are all true. But then some people make a leap to say that we can’t have electric vehicles because of the problems with lithium. And that’s not true.
As I argue in Fight the Fire, there are other ways of producing lithium. We can mine sea water for lithium all over the world. It’s just more expensive. There are many kinds of batteries that don’t use lithium. Indeed, until 1995 none of the batteries in the world used lithium. The other kinds of batteries are just more expensive, that’s all.
If we are limited by the market, and the companies who make the cars are run for profit, then we are stuck. But if governments can pass laws to control companies, then we are all right. And if Climate Jobs projects run by governments are building cars, then they can decide to spend more.
In this example, the arguments about poisoning the environment are not wrong. People are pointing to a real and pressing problem. The problem arises when this is made into an argument against transport run on renewable electricity. It becomes an argument about stopping fossil fuels.
Many people now argue for reducing consumption to reduce emissions. They are right. That’s why we need more public transport for that reason, and insulation of all buildings, and strict codes for all new buildings.
We need, as George Monbiot has argued eloquently, to reduce the consumption of the rich. We need to reduce the consumption of fertilizers and plastics and ban the manufacture of cement.
All that will make a difference. But as Monbiot has also argued, personal decisions to reduce some consumption make almost no difference. And there are several billion people in the world who do not consume enough.
But let’s perform a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that we can reduce total global consumption by 50 percent. I don’t think that will happen, but let’s imagine it.
Now imagine that we only rely on reducing consumption to reduce emissions. We have reduced emissions by 50 percent. But we know we are ruined if we cannot reduce fossil fuel emissions by 90 percent. So in this experiment, we are on the road to six degrees of temperature increase, but a bit more slowly.
The moral of this tale is that reducing consumption is not an alternative to replacing all fossil fuels with renewables. We have to both conserve energy where possible and ban fossil fuels. And any way you slice it, that will mean a massive increase in renewables.
These are only three examples. There are many more in Fight the Fire, and more detail. In each case, the objectors point to a real problem or a partial solution, or both. But the objection also feeds to a larger argument that we cannot stop fossil fuels, and so cannot stop climate change.
Here we need to be careful. The resistance of corporate leaders and politicians is shifting all the time. They used to say climate change was not proved.
Then came climate change is real, but we are doing something about it. Then we have not done anything yet, but we promise that we will.
There was climate action will destroy jobs. There was, depending on the country, blame the Chinese, or blame the Indians or the Americans or the Global North or the Global South. They won’t do anything, so we can’t.
Now they are saying we really ought to have a 100 percent renewable system, but tragically the environmentalists are saying that is not sustainable.
This is not the only area of life where the corporations and the right wing produce talking points that sound radical and appeal to people who want to change the world.
So we have to keep a clear distinction in mind. The problems that face renewables are real. But the answer is not to burn coal. The answer is to find a solution to the problem. In almost all cases, the alternative is there, but it is more expensive.
So in most cases, the solution that will work means moving beyond the rule of the market and the tyranny of profit. It means government action for human need, not corporate greed.
THE ROAD TO HELL
Sometimes revolutionaries say to me that the important task is to persuade people that climate change, like all our troubles, is caused by capitalism, and cannot be stopped until we have a revolution. And I listen and think, you simply do not understand what is coming.
And sometimes environmentalists tell me that there is no point in just stopping climate change. It is just as important to defend water and all the other resources on Earth. And I think, you simply do not understand what is coming.
Sometimes trade unionists tell me that what really matters is jobs for working people. Sometimes vegetarians tell me that what really matters is food and diet. Other people tell me that only non-violent direct action will stop climate change. And I think, you simply do not understand.
I share those longings for revolution, for a green planet, for jobs and direct action and kindness to animals. My problem is when people say that something else is more important than stopping climate change.
When I hear them saying this, I also hear them saying that they do not want to stop climate change unless they get what they really want.
I can hear those sentiments clearly, because I was like that once. And I am often judgmental, because I judge myself.
I originally got into climate politics in 2004 because I was a freelance writer and a socialist, and I wanted to write to write a book to show how Marxists could explain climate change better than environmentalists. God forgive me, for both the arrogance and the emotional distance.
But then I spent several months organising in the Campaign against Climate Change in Britain, learning from a brilliant environmentalist named Phil Thornhill.
And I read the science like crazy. And after a certain point, I understood what climate change would mean. And with that I understood what Phil had been telling me: the point is to stop climate change. Period. That is what has to be done. I have been a climate activist ever since.
But I also understand that the people I am listening to are on the same sort of journey as me. They are grappling with how to marry the politics they bring to the struggle with the politics the reality of climate change requires.
So it’s worth setting out here what I think runaway climate change will mean. I have done that at much greater length in The Ecologist before. But the key thing to grasp is that the future will not be like it is in Hollywood and dystopian science fiction.
Those models show small groups of cold and hungry people with a few old tools and weapons. They are wary of the other small groups of savages, and they move among the wreckage of an industrial civilisation.
It won’t be like that at all.
The Physical Effects
Let’s begin with the main physical effects of climate change. The first is that the rains will change. In some places there will be more crops. In most places, the rains will dry up.
When they do come, the rains will be at the wrong time of year for the crops. They will often fall in torrential downpours the soil cannot absorb. One result will be floods that wash away the soil, and another will be droughts that kill half or more of the crop.
In the long term, those droughts will grow worse and worse.
Those droughts will happen in the capitalist societies we all live in now. Those societies will turn natural disasters into social catastrophes. In this case, the droughts will push the price of bread or rice beyond what ordinary people can afford. Many small farmers and herders, and their children and old people, will die of hunger and disease.
We know all that from scientific models. But also because we have seen it in Sudan and Chad and Afghanistan since the 1960s, and in many other areas in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.
There have been serious droughts too in richer countries, in Australia and the United States, with floods and fires. But only a small proportion of people in those countries make a living in agriculture. The wider society can, to some extent, carry the farmers.
Then there is simple heat, which is beginning to make life unlivable around the Persian Gulf, and in parts of Iran, Iraq and Arabia. In the coming decades, heat will drive humans out of much more of the world. And remember, almost a thousand people died in a heatwave in Chicago back in 1995. Chicago is far from the Persian Gulf. The heatwaves to come there will kill many thousands and will come thick and fast.
Tropical storms too are growing in intensity. They are moving north in the Northern hemisphere and south in the Southern hemisphere. They produce hurricane surges, great waves like tsunamis that can reach ten meters high. These will combine with smaller rises in sea level to threaten the large proportion of the world’s population lives along the shore, often in great cities.
Those cities, like Shanghai, New York, Mumbai, Durban, Kolkota, Rio, the Mekong Delta and many more, will become death traps without exits, full of poisoned water.
The droughts, the floods, the storms will create hundreds of millions of refugees. Those refugees will come up against borders and machine guns. Camps of tents will house a million hungry people here, more there, and hundreds of millions world wide. The walls will rise, as they are rising now on many borders.
On the safer side of the wall, racism will increase against the people who look or talk like the people on the other side of the wall. That racism will justify keeping the other people out.
Leaders and populists will blame the foreigners and call for war. And when the balance of geographic power changes, the great powers and the small powers, will go to war to restore the balance. This too we have begun, just begun, to see.
With Covid we have also seen how natural disasters become economic disasters. The physical effects of climate change will create enormous destruction of actual value, of things that are owned, homes and factories and refineries and transportation. Wall Street itself will literally go under water.
That destruction will ripple through the whole financial system. Those who keep their riches will try to hoard their wealth and not share it with the sick, the hungry and the homeless.
These are the first order effects of climate change. The second order effects will kick in because of feedbacks in the our planet’s climate system. Scientists know that the climate has often changed abruptly in the past, in years rather than thousands of years.
They know also that feedbacks produced those abrupt changes. They know feedbacks will be important again, because human action has been adding so much C02 to the air so quickly.
The level of CO2 in the air is measured in parts per million. At the end of the ice ages, the amount of CO2 in the air rose by 100 parts per million. In the last 65 years the CO2 level has risen by another 100 parts per million.
However, the scientists do not know which feedback effects will be important, or when. We are in new territory here. We probably have at least twenty years. We may have thirty or forty years.
But when the feedbacks do kick in, then the disasters I have outlined will happen not one at a time, but all together, in the same year, in different parts of a country, in different countries and across the world. The economic stress, the stress of heat and fear and hunger, the deep rage of populations at the rich and the leaders will combine in a terrible pressure cooker.
At this point, somewhere in the process, there will be an unbearable general feeling that something must be done. And the ruling classes will move. The tanks will come onto the streets.
And the generals and race supremacists will come to us talking in the language that deep greens use now. But the words will have new meanings. They will tell us that humanity has failed, and our greed has brought disaster upon us all. We must now make sacrifices. And we will.
But the generals and the rich will not sacrifice. We will live in societies far poorer and far more unequal than before. And it will require great terror, many prisons, much torture and bombing to keep those inequalities in place.
The danger will not be other little bands of savages on the road. It will be police, the army and the full power of the state.
After the horrors of World War One, the German communist leader Rosa Luxemburg said that the world faced a choice between socialism or barbarism.
Luxemburg was a Jew, a Pole and a woman, and a lifetime enemy to colonialism and imperialism. But her choice or words was misleading. Barbarism is the word the old empires used for the colonised, and the savages beyond the empire. And that is not who we have to fear.
What we have to fear is civilisation. Look at the great killings of the last century – World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward famine in China, all the other famines and the Indochina War. These were the work of states, empires, armies and political parties.
We must fear not the collapse of civilisation, but the intensification of every inequality and cruelty we see now.
Look at that, and you also have to revise what we say about climate change. Yes, the people in poor countries, who are least responsible for the change, will suffer most. And everywhere in the world, the oppressed, the working people, the poor and minorities will suffer more than the rich.
All that is true, but even in the rich countries the police states that enforce poverty and inequality will restructure and degrade all human relationships. We have seen that before, in many places.
Cruelty begets callousness. I have seen enough of how trauma snakes down through the generations, blighting the lives of the children and grandchildren of the traumatised. And I know too how inflicting trauma is itself another form of trauma.
Cruel and unequal societies also produce cruel and unequal relationships of gender and sexuality. Where there is torture, rape also flourishes. In men like Trump, Putin, Modi and Duterte we get some hints of the sort of rulers we will face, and the sort of societies they will create.
But it will not be the end of humanity. We are the dominant species. There is no reason to believe that we will all perish, though many other forms of life will.
We must not exaggerate. For if we do, we create a fantasy apocalypse which is hard to believe. Several hundred million will die, a far worse loss than in the twentieth century. Perhaps even a billion.
But the greater damage will be to the survivors, to what they must see and do and enable to survive. The greater damage is what we could become.
It is not hard to imagine that world, is it? Because we can hear the rustle and whispers of that future already, gathering all around us.
However, there will not be one moment of runaway feedback, after which all is lost. Increasing emissions will produce a cascade of feedbacks.
Moreover, if and when we do enter the gates of hell, that will not be the end of history. Cruelty and greed will try to rule.
But love, caring and solidarity will not disappear from the human heart. The struggle between the two sides will blaze everywhere. One of the reasons we fight to stop climate change now is so that, if we have to, we can fight for another better world then.
Jonathan Neale is a climate activist, novelist and nonfiction writer, on twitter @JonathanNealeA1. Fight the Fire is also available in paperback from Resistance Books. Jonathan also blogs on climate, politics and gender with Nancy Lindisfarne at Anne Bonny Pirate.
Read Part I: After COP
Read Part III: Why world leaders won't act tomorrow.
Download Jonathan Neale's book Fight the Fire for free.