On the one hand, you have to feel a little sorry for Greta Thunberg. She doesn’t seem to realise that she’s not at Davos because the kinds of people who go to Davos are very eager to tackle climate change. She’s there because the kinds of people who go to Davos are very eager to be seen to be interested in tackling climate change. And what better way to send that message than sitting in a room, being lectured to by Greta Thunberg? It’s basically the global elite’s version of Ash Wednesday: A very public sign of penitence and the beginning of lent, but safe in the knowledge that you can stuff your face with all the Easter eggs you want in just a few weeks’ time.
For Greta, though, a platform is a platform, and this time she used it to go further than she has ever gone before, with an apparent exhortation to her attendees that they should all just, well, die, if that’s what it takes to save the Climate. The New York Times helpfully provides her full text:
“We are not telling you to keep talking about reaching “net zero emissions” or “carbon neutrality” by cheating and fiddling around with numbers. We are not telling you to “offset your emissions” by just paying someone else to plant trees in places like Africa while at the same time forests like the Amazon are being slaughtered at an infinitely higher rate.
Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what is needed and it cannot replace real mitigation and rewilding nature.
Let’s be clear. We don’t need a “low carbon economy.” We don’t need to “lower emissions.” Our emissions have to stop if we are to have a chance to stay below the 1.5-degree target. And, until we have the technologies that at scale can put our emissions to minus, then we must forget about net zero. We need real zero.”
What’s the difference between net zero, and real zero? Easy enough to understand, actually. Net Zero means that for all the carbon we put into the atmosphere, we must work to remove an equal amount. Sort of like those people who plant a tree to offset their flights. The thinking is that if you fly 10,000 miles a year, you are putting X tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. So by planting a bunch of trees that remove carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into Oxygen, your flights make no difference at all. “Net zero” is the idea that we can eventually offset everything we do and get to a point where the overall carbon levels in the atmosphere do not increase.
That will be exceedingly hard. In fact, it’s virtually guaranteed not to be achievable in our lifetimes. Even a 50% reduction in current emissions levels, as planned by the British Government by the year 2050, would require an extraordinary change to the way we live. To put it in context, Ireland’s carbon emissions were last at about half their current level in about 1959, as you can see by this graph:
Don’t be fooled by the sharp fall in recent years, either, into thinking that we’re on the right track and a further 50% reduction will be easy. A good chunk of that fall can be explained by the collapse of the economy in the 2010s. A general rule with emissions is that they are correlated very strongly with economic output – the more economic activity, the more emissions you’ll have. The chart tracks very strongly, from 1960 onwards, with the growth of the Irish economy. Getting back to 1959 in a short time frame will require, well, a return to the economy of 1959.
But, that says Greta, is not enough. We need absolute zero. What’s absolute zero? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. To reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere over time, we do not just need to increase our de-carbonisation activities, like tree planting. We need to stop emitting carbon altogether. And the problem there, very simply, is that every breath you take turns oxygen into carbon dioxide. So, if Greta is to be taken literally, well, it’s been nice knowing you all. Or most of you, anyway.
Assuming that she is not talking about eradicating all respiratory life, and is simply talking about ending all synthetic carbon dioxide emissions, then she’s gone mad, not bad. It is simply not possible. Hospitals, for example, could not function without some processes that emit carbon. Homes could not be built. Food could not be produced. Even if she’s not talking about the deliberate extinction of all human life, she’s talking about putting us on a path to it.
She is, of course, still a teenager, so some rhetorical excesses are to be expected, and should be forgiven. But it’s unlikely too that she wrote this speech, or developed this idea, alone. It is not a personal attack on her to note that the idea is crazy, and dangerous, and it’s a great pity that her audience at Davos is so invested in pretending to agree with her that nobody, apparently, challenged her on it.
Anyway, here’s the full speech, if you can bear it: