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COP26: a letter to school strikers from ‘the physicist behind net zero’

Dear school striker,

Well done on all you are doing – you seem to have made more impact on the climate issue in the past couple of years than I’ve managed in the previous three decades working away on it, and I’ve been described as the physicist behind net zero. Good luck on the demonstrations.

I have one suggestion. You are calling for climate action now, which of course we need – we needed it 20 years ago. But you will find the climate establishment gathered in Glasgow will, weirdly and frustratingly, clap enthusiastically when you shout at them, and then assure you they are listening and taking action.

Here’s why you should be sceptical. So far, at COP26, we’ve had a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30%, which will cut global temperatures by about one tenth of a degree, pretty much the warming we’ve seen since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Leaders have pledged to stop deforestation by 2030 – again. And some countries that were planning to stop using coal anyway have said they are going to stop using coal.

“Yes,” they will tell you with just a hint of condescension, “but every little helps and the climate issue is very complicated”.

This is the point where you should get angry. It isn’t complicated at all. We need to stop fossil fuels from causing global warming. All fossil fuels.

Girl holds up sign in front of monument
Climate strikers in London, 2019. Ink Drop / shutterstock

There are only two ways to do this: we either ban fossil fuels altogether, and enforce that ban, everywhere in the world, or we require anyone selling or using fossil fuels to ensure that the carbon dioxide they generate is safely and permanently disposed of and not just dumped into the atmosphere.

Now, you’ll find most people in the climate establishment, particularly the green movement who claim to be on your side, come down on the side of a ban. But that’s because they aren’t the ones who are going to have to implement it. You are.

When they say “we need to just stop using fossil fuels”, what they mean is “you (the school-striker generation) need to stop using fossil fuels”. And if you don’t, you’ll end up with catastrophic warming. They are like the first world war generals who used to send 19-year-olds up in balsa wood aeroplanes without parachutes so as to not “impair the fighting spirit”.

Listen to Myles Allen on Climate Fight, a podcast series from The Anthill, talking about the path to net zero.

Make the producers pay

There is another way, which would require the present generation of climate leaders doing a bit more, and make your lives massively easier in 30 years’ time. Which is, no doubt, why they don’t want to talk about it. This is to require anyone who wants to continue extracting and selling fossil fuels to dispose of the carbon dioxide generated by their activities and the fuels they sell. It needn’t be the same carbon dioxide, of course, but it needs to be disposed of safely and permanently, which, these days, means reinjecting it back underground. Unfortunately, until we get deforestation under control, storing carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in trees is neither safe nor permanent.

A message from the author.

This would stop global warming, but no-one is even talking about it at COP26. Why not? Well, perhaps because paying for all that carbon dioxide disposal might affect the profits of oil and gas companies – and the lucrative royalties and taxes that governments cream off the fossil fuel industry. But before you start to feel too sorry for them, they are doing rather well right now, with oil and gas prices sky-rocketing. British prime minister Boris Johnson kicked off the conference invoking James Bond – well, if I were an oil and gas industry lobbyist, I’d be stroking my cat at how well things are going.

In the longer term, safe disposal of CO₂ will make fossil fuels more expensive, and no-one wants to admit this. But we don’t let water companies just dump our sewage in the rivers even though it would make our water bills smaller – and they could argue “the water was clean when we supplied it”. Why do we let fossil fuel companies fly-tip CO₂ into the atmosphere, claiming “the petrol wasn’t causing global warming when we sold it to you.”

You can change this. Reclaim net zero. The only net zero that matters for fossil fuels is what goes in and out of the earth’s crust. If the industry insists on continuing to dig fossil fuels up, it has to put the CO₂ back. This is the principle of carbon takeback, and it’s the only fair way to stop fossil fuels from causing global warming. Here’s something to shout at Friday’s protests:

Keep our skies blue, take back your CO₂.

Good luck,

Myles Allen, Director of Oxford Net Zero, University of Oxford

COP26: the world's biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.
Amid a rising tide of climate news and stories, The Conversation is here to clear the air and make sure you get information you can trust. More.

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