Nature and Biodiversity

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can lead us to a zero-carbon future - if we act now

'At the moment the compass direction for this transformation is unclear'

Johan Rockström
Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

I can’t give you a precise date, but some time in the past two years the world crossed a threshold and incremental action on climate change was off the menu. To keep temperatures below 2°C, we now need exponential action.

Earth is now 1.1℃ warmer owing to our emissions of greenhouse gases, and the latest scientific assessment, presented in Geophysical Research Letters, suggests that if we would get rid of all life-threatening air pollution, like black carbon, sulphates and nitrates, some of which lower temperatures, we would very likely bump up global temperatures another 0.5–1.1°C. The message is dire. One global bad - global warming – is camouflaged by another global bad – air pollution. This is a reminder that we are really, very late arrivals to the solution space.

The 2018 World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report makes this crystal clear. Three global environmental risks now dominate the report both for likelihood and impact: extreme weather, natural disasters and failure to act at the necessary speed to mitigate climate change. This message was reinforced recently by Mark Carney, chair of the G20 Financial Stability Board, who said: “Once climate change becomes a clear and present danger to financial stability it may already be too late to stabilize the atmosphere at two degrees.”

How fast do we need to act? As a general rule of thumb, staying below 2°C above pre-industrial levels means halving emissions of greenhouse gases every decade if we want a high probability of success. We call this exponential pathway the Global Carbon Law, inspired by Moore’s Law in the IT industry – the observation that computers double in speed about every two years.

The Global Carbon Law framing is a useful way to look at the Paris Agreement. It turns a distant goal of reaching carbon neutrality sometime beyond 2050 into a short-term target for the next decade. In this way, it works on timescales relevant to businesses and politicians. It also means that anyone following this pathway, from countries, businesses and organizations, to households and individuals, is automatically “in” the Paris Agreement. This could be useful to cities and states in the US who want to remain “in” if the US president follows through on his decision to exit the agreement.

More importantly, the Global Carbon Law pathway is achievable. In many sectors, businesses can halve their emissions every decade. Indeed, companies like Apple, Google and Intel are cutting emissions much faster and the ICT sector has peaked emissions while driving up value and prosperity. Since we published this Carbon Law roadmap last year, a Swedish network of leading businesses, the Haga Initiative, has shown that even companies outside of ICT can beat the Carbon Law. And now Sweden’s WWF is adopting a similarly ambitious pathway for its science-based targets for businesses.

We now need Carbon Law thinking to go exponential. The solution is on the horizon. Later this year, San Francisco will host the most important event since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015: the Global Climate Action Summit. Our aim for the summit is to move from incremental action to exponential and harness the power of the most innovative, disruptive part of the global economy – the digital sector.

At this year’s World Economic Forum, former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and myself will have an open dialogue with leaders of the tech community to drive this level of ambition. Together with the most disruptive industry in the world, we will explore pathways to expedite and amplify a global transformation to a decarbonized future that follows the Global Carbon Law.

The rationale is simple: in the next three decades, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things, will transform everyone’s lives. At the moment the compass direction for this transformation is unclear. We need to ensure this transformation is towards a prosperous and resilient zero-carbon future.

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Rapid innovation cycles ensure the tech sector stays on its phenomenal and exponential Moore’s Law trajectory. This is what we now need for the Global Carbon Law and, for this, the industry needs a roadmap to coordinate as a sector to deliver on these innovation cycles.

With Davos 2018 as the launchpad, we will bring together a coalition of the leading tech companies to launch a disruptive roadmap in San Francisco to change the course of history. Our goal is to turn 10 million entrepreneurs and engineers and others working in the tech sector into planetary stewards. Whatever these great minds are working on, the stability and resilience of our climate for future generations must be the compass course.

Steve Jobs once said he wanted to put a dent in the universe. He did just that. Right now, we need to put a dent in our world. The world needs nothing less.

On 24 January 2018, Johan Rockström will speak at a breakfast event at the Forum to shape the vision for the Fourth Industrial Revolution with Christiana Figueres, (Mission2020 and former head of UNFCCC), Anne Finucane (Bank of America) and tech leaders.

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Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityClimate ActionFourth Industrial Revolution
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