I spoke to Gideon Futerman, founder of the international youth organisation Worldward, which advocates going beyond net zero carbon emissions to try to achieve climate restoration. They believe that climate restoration is the future of the movement, providing resources to the public about the potential of this approach to climate justice. I discussed with Gideon how this movement may be affected by Covid-19, and whether this period of social upheaval can be used to develop and implement new approaches to climate change.
What is climate restoration?
It’s the idea that we need to look beyond net zero carbon emissions – the main trend of the climate movement currently. Although net zero is a great aim, as we’ve already caused so much damage to our environment, achieving net zero emissions won’t eradicate the effects of global warming. Climate change is currently causing the suffering of millions of people every year, and net zero will stop it getting worse, but the awful effects of this crisis will remain with us for centuries to come. Yes, we need to stop adding carbon to our atmosphere, but restoration says that we need to go further than that – to not only stop our impact on the environment, but also to reverse the damage we’ve already done. Imagine the climate emergency as an overflowing bathtub – we not only need to stop the tap, but we also need to undo the plug to truly stop it from spilling over the sides.
Where was the climate restoration movement before coronavirus hit?
You have to look at the restoration movement as an offspring of the climate justice movement, for many of our goals are aligned. Both movements agree that in the short term we have to achieve net zero emissions. That goal was, in theory, growing in success before the pandemic. Governments all over the world were declaring climate emergencies, or aiming for net zero emissions. However, these promises weren’t being backed up by follow-through action. The restoration movement, however, was also focussed on developing technologies. A company called Stripe used $2m to buy carbon removal projects, investing in direct air capture and enhanced weathering. Another company, named Project Vesta, built green sand beaches to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. These technologies were undoubtedly in their early stages, but their development was speeding up.
Alongside these strides, the idea to remove CO2 from the atmosphere was gaining interest and respect from prominent activists, such as from Greta Thunberg, which helped to build the movement’s standing.
How has the climate restoration movement reacted to coronavirus?
On one hand, it’s been business as usual for developing technology – scientific development across the world may have slowed down but certainly has not ceased. However, most crucially, Coronavirus has affected the US presidential elections. Another term under Trump would have made the goal of restoration all the more difficult, but now, with Biden gaining percentage points, the movement has an opportunity to be reinstated by the US government.
What are our possible options for the future in regards to coronavirus and climate restoration?
As we have shut down the economy, its redevelopment can now be aimed towards achieving net zero emissions – investing in clean energy, clean industry, and clean transportation. This is our last best chance to stay under 1.5 degrees. So we have to take it now, or we will cause the suffering of millions more. We urge all the governments of the world to use this opportunity to build a better and cleaner economy that can be mobilised towards net zero, then restoration. However, I think we need to keep both zero emissions and climate restoration in mind.
The restoration movement sees net zero emissions as a stepping stone, for we also have to look at long term CO2 removal to restore the climate. Short-term, we need to invest and use nature to remove CO2. Long-term, we need to research and develop new technologies. Companies such as Microsoft and Stripe have already been investing in this but we still need to do more, including governments. We also need a statement of ambition, with governments and climate movements affirming that we need active climate restoration.
These technologies need to be available by 2050 at the latest, so unless we start investing in them now, they won’t be ready to work on the scale we need them to within our lifetimes.
What are the limitations of trying to use this unique time to further the climate restoration movement?
The common narrative is that you can’t have focus on the environment over the economy. But they can be compatible, and we need long term sustainable gain rather than short term economic success. One concern is that while we may use this time as a unique opportunity to achieve net zero emissions, that impetus may denigrate the research that needs to be done for climate restoration. And, just as we don’t have time to waste converting the economy, we also can’t kick the can of research down the road.
In addition, Coronavirus has pushed back global negotiations on climate change by six or seven months. The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, for example, has been moved to next year. This delay means that we have lost a year’s worth of work – a year which we needed to develop climate restoration technology and negotiate globally. The biggest worry is that large industries – such as those working with fossil fuels or air travel – will be excused from their environmental duties in a bid to rebuild the economy. For some, the pressure may be off to be climate conscious. So despite this being the most important time for the climate justice movement, we are way off target in many of our goals.
But whilst many are saying this is the time to focus on less ambitious goals, if COVID has taught us anything, it’s the frailty of humanity and of our global system. So now is not the time for lowering ambitions, but raising them, towards a better future for all.