Net zero emissions: bracing for impact

by | May 4, 2022 | Newsletter Subscribers


In his recent article in The Hill, Yale Professor and Climate Intervention researcher Wake Smith suggests Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a reminder of how difficult it may prove to tether every nation in the world to the difficult goal of achieving net zero emissions. WineLand asked him about the progress, obstacles and what success – or failure – would mean for future generations.


Prof Wake Smith

Prof Wake Smith, lecturer and climate intervention researcher.

What picture does the recent IPCC report paint regarding the trajectory of climate change and the urgency for drastic measures (especially from agriculture)?

While the Paris Agreement goals aspire to limit climate change to 1,5 °C or 2 °C above the preindustrial baseline (we’re already at +1,1 °C), the IPCC’s latest report is increasingly socialising the prospect of a 3 °C change by the end of this century.

This is not a firm prediction, but it’s a “middle of the road” scenario among many. A rise of 3 °C would mean profound changes to the climate all over the world – South Africa included.

For perspective, a 5-6 °C temperature change in the opposite direction accompanied the peak of the last ice age, so +3 °C is a big deal. That said, a global increase of 3 °C would not spell that amount of warming in every locale. Both atmospheric and oceanic currents would change in such a world, redistributing in unpredictable ways where temperature, weather and moisture are distributed around the world. This will spell disaster for some agricultural regions, but which ones are by no means clear.

How has the pandemic and subsequent invasion of Ukraine complicated progress towards climate goals?

The pandemic has been a huge distraction, but it’s not clear that it changes the climate picture much in the long run. The Ukraine invasion on the other hand will increase the priority that nations will put on energy security and reduce the immediate emphasis on carbon reduction.

The energy security sword cuts both ways. Nations that import oil and gas will be all the more eager to ramp up wind and solar. But those with domestic coal resources will be much less eager to switch to lower emitting natural gas if that means importing that gas from hostile or politically unreliable countries.

It also likely means that securing Russia’s cooperation on climate issues will be very difficult indeed.

Which other obstacles hamper the transition to net zero emissions, and why is this a problem?

The fundamental problem is that we’re asking people alive today to make substantial economic sacrifices for the benefit of people who will be alive 100 years from now, and people today are balking and will continue to do so.

In some sense, this problem is too slow to solve easily. When people are likely to act is when doing so is nearly free, and technology hasn’t yet made that the case.

Is the failure to reach net zero more costly than the price of success?

Likely so, but the problem is – costly to whom? The cost of reaching net zero will fall to the living. The cost of failing to reach net zero will fall to the unborn. And every time we take a vote as to who should bear the costs, the living vote that the costs should fall to the unborn, and the unborn abstain.

Thus the can is kicked down the road.

What challenges will remain after the world reaches net zero and what kind of tools will we need to address them?

Now you’re talking my language. The aspect of the climate problem which is almost entirely unknown to the general public is that when we reach net zero, temperatures simply stabilize – for centuries.

If we stop emitting while the climate is still acceptable, then no problem. But if we only stop our emissions after we have more or less ruined the climate, then future generations will have to live in that ruined climate for many, many generations.

To thrive in that environment, they will first need a lot of adaptation – so more air conditioners, sea walls, and drought resistant crops. But they may also need to intervene in the climate system itself in two ways. One would be to repair the ruined climate by sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and burying it underground, back where we got it from when we drilled for oil.

But that process may take a few centuries. So in those interim centuries, they may also deflect out a little bit of the incoming sunlight and cool the earth that way.

Can smaller economies with expertise such as South Africa play an appreciable role in achieving net zero and developing these tools?

Absolutely, but how do you convince South Africans to virtuously undertake local cost for global benefit?

Net Zero only works globally. If you stop emitting but your neighbour doesn’t, the globe still warms. It’s a massive collective action problem. Hats off to various European countries for volunteering to be moral leaders in this arena.

Should agribusinesses in Africa be bracing themselves for failure to meet climate targets?

Likely yes, although I worry more about marginally dry areas like the Sahel than I do about relatively lush South Africa.

However, if people can no longer survive where they currently live, they will starve in small numbers and migrate in huge numbers. Thus, Namibia’s drought may nonetheless become South Africa’s problem.

What is our most urgent priority for governance and ethics, locally and globally?

Making Paris work. It’s currently a merely voluntary agreement, and it isn’t yet restraining or reducing emissions. In fact, before we focus on hitting net zero emissions, we first have to hit peak emissions. That likely has not yet happened, so we are still on our way up rather than on our way down.

Future generations are likely to look very dimly upon us.

Prof Smith has published a book based on the syllabus of his course at Yale, Pandora’s Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention.



Net Zero

“An accessible and authoritative introduction to both the hopes and hazards of some of humanity’s most controversial technologies, which may nevertheless provide the key to saving our world.”




Professor Wake Smith teaches on climate intervention at Yale University and is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School, specialising in solar geoengineering.

He has served in the commercial aviation industry, including as President of flight training at Boeing and COO of Atlas Air. He graduated from Yale College and Harvard Business School.

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