Going for Zero

This is a repost from Uneven Earth, a conversation about environmental justice.


The current approach to COP21 is not realist or moderate, but quite extremist as it postpones effective action. If we consider the real facts of climate change, moderation means fighting the fossil fuel economy on every level, everywhere, now.

by Sam Gardner

The multilateral approach to climate change: denial and delay

The intergovernmental process to fight climate change leads up to COP 21, the upcoming meeting in Paris. This time, unlike all the last times, hopes are high that an agreement will be reached. It should limit the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to an amount that would cause a global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. Nobody knows if this is a safe level, but the intergovernmental process concluded it might be safe enough.

The negotiations follow a pattern you might expect in a negotiation game where everybody wants to bargain a good deal for themselves: poor countries want to maximize support, the rich want commitments from all the others, and there’s as little commitment on funding as possible.

National Contributions would only start in 2020. Another 5 years lost. Most participants agree with what is in the documents of the International Panel on Climate Change. Yet this knowledge does not translate into drastic measures. Action is limited to long-term negotiations on the international level and prudent changes on the national policy level. In the day-to-day choices we make to frame our lives, the urgency isn’t there – it’s not even on the radar. Roads for diesel or gasoline cars are still being built, public transport suffers from budget cuts, and coal power plant construction permits are still legal. Investments in sustainable energy and alternative transport are not guided by the climate change imperative but by economic, strategic, and political arguments. Fossil fuel is still subsidized in most countries. Natural gas is a midway investment to make the shift to fossil free more gradual. These investments will be guzzling gas for the next 30 years.

The current approach is seen as the reasonable and moderate pathway. Everything else is deemed unrealistic. As a result, emissions will continue rising above current levels for some time to come. But the total level of emissions required to stop heating the climate is less than zero.

Redefining moderation

If we keep going along this route, we will be in crisis mode within decades. The situation will be so urgent that all use of fossil fuel will have to be taxed at prohibitive levels or banned. Denial will be impossible. Major powers will consider climate change as an existential, military threat, and may be ready to respond to it militarily if need be. After all, a country’s carbon footprint goes down after being bombed.

In an environment of strict rationing, massive use of private fossil fuel-powered cars will be unacceptable. The new highways that are planned now will be redundant before they are fully operational. Even those that are built right now will depreciate faster than calculated. Coal power plants and buildings needing heating or air conditioning will be considered extravagant in a strictly rationed world. Waiting until the crisis is acute is irresponsible. We need to redefine what is realistic. Realistic planning is to go as quickly as possible – right now – to zero emissions. Every delay is irresponsible. In every part of the society, on every level of the administration, there are already people who fully realize what the crisis entails and have internalized it in their actions. However in general they are marginal: their “moderate”colleagues implore them to be “reasonable”. What we need is a mainstream acceptance that “There Is No Alternative” . Remember the Thatcherite revolution? Her – ruinous – thinking on economics was accepted as mainstream and labelled as the only option in only a couple of years. The same must happen with “going for zero” climate change thinking. Unfortunately, this time there really is no viable alternative to going for zero asap. It is at this point that we should redefine “moderation” and “realism”:

Moderation is to accept reality and what has to be done to avoid a global humanitarian crisis. Realism is to accept that any additional investment in a carbon world is a waste and a crime, and act accordingly.

The course we’re on now is the true extremism.

All current long-term fossil fuel-based investments (power plants, roads, ships, house heating) should be considered unacceptable, and should not happen. There are millions of options of how we could get to zero carbon, but There Is No Alternative to the fact that we need to go to zero now.

So we should redefine “moderation” and “reasonable” as: going to zero now.

Turning the tables

Are the engineers who design, the bosses who approve, the politicians supporting policy changes, the person buying a car, the family buying a house in the suburbs, consciously choosing to make the wrong decision? Greenhouse gas emission growth is not the fruit of a big evil master plan. It involves millions of individual decisions, an environment of decisions. To roll back emissions it will be these decisions that make the difference. The current approach to climate change is a negotiation where individual countries try to limit change for themselves and maximize it for the others. The incentive structure of these negotiations encourages minimizing change, rather than maximizing it. It does not create an environment that leads to exponential change beyond the agreed-upon indicators. The complicated interrelations of the economy, the climate, political power and society cannot be managed simply with top-down international agreements. Under the new definition of moderation, this is an extremist tactic, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. These are incapable of the imagination and flexibility needed to go to zero fast enough. The real change will be the result of the political economy at the local level.

The strategy: going for zero

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. (Churchill)

Every single decision matters. Like in wartime, the theater is everywhere. The battle against a coal power plant investment is never lost: construction could be planned, but the municipal permit can be revoked. The permit is given but the imminent domain procedure is not successful, it can be started and never finished as investors disinvest. It can be built and never used over environmental concerns. It can be taken out of production early. As every investment is composed of a chain of decisions that need to be taken one after the other, by tackling the individual decisions, accumulatively, change can happen faster, as changes are exponential rather than linear. Within a moral and long-term economical timeframe, every person anywhere must stop any investment in fossil fuel-heavy products now. Realism makes every person who has internalised climate change an ally. Office workers, like myself, will have to find alliances with politicians, communities, and action groups. Like-minded groups will need to work together bringing down the traditional barriers and creating a new normal. The objective is to stop every single individual investment in fossil fuel use. Most struggles will initially be lost. It is the war that counts. With every resistance it becomes more difficult to present business as usual as an option, as “moderation”.

Individuals will need the backing of a mass movement to find the strength to resist and to have access to the knowledge to make a case. As the powers that be in the energy sector will resist, other instruments, like manifestations, petitions, civil disobedience and boycotts will be necessary.

Every decision already taken can still be stopped, overturned, or postponed at every level. Losing a struggle is only a step in winning the war, and losing the war is beyond imagination.

Every person who is asked to sign, to design, to propose, to make concrete, to breathe the air, will need to act on the knowledge that it is not worth it to continue with the old model. Recognize that for the world, the children, votes and for their career, it is better not to do this.

The action plan for the Paris Agreement

Chances are there will be binding agreement concluded at COP 21. The agreement will confirm the climate crisis, and the commitment to keep the temperature rise to only 1.5-2 degrees. Attached to the agreement there will be Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) that will be insufficient. These NDCs will be irresponsible and amount to climate terrorism. The proposed measures should happen now, not in 2020.

The going for zero strategy should be the legitimate implementation of the Paris agreement. The agreed principles in the agreement should be strong and binding enough to form the legal basis to reject every unacceptable investment and go directly for zero. If the going for zero strategy is implemented, investments in alternatives have a future and fossil fuel-based infrastructure has none.

‘Going now for zero on every decision possible, will lead fast to tipping points where fossil fuel investments become less attractive economically, environmentally, and politically. An exponential change happens.


As emissions plummet immediately, every cap and trade system would implode too.

Sam Gardner is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.

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