Climate change: A vision of a net-zero world in 2050 and how we got there – Ian Johnston

As global warming continues, the images keep getting more and more apocalyptic (Picture: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images)
As global warming continues, the images keep getting more and more apocalyptic (Picture: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s December 31, 2050, and the world is in uproar. All over the globe, people have come out onto the streets, cheering, banging pans, hugging, dancing... For possibly the first time since humans learned the secret of fire, our contribution to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has just hit ‘net zero’, with minutes to spare before the stroke of midnight. The New Year will bring new hope.

While the celebratory mood is tempered by warnings that major sea level rise is inevitable as long-term melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets is now locked in, raging wildfires that wreaked havoc, sending clouds of smoke across continents, devastating floods that destroyed huge areas of farmland, droughts that took famine to levels never previously known, and ferocious storms that laid waste to several great cities will all now, slowly, start to recede.

Somehow, after a monumental effort, humanity has managed to keep global warming to just below two degrees Celsius. A worldwide drive to bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, using carbon capture and storage, is set to continue to cool the planet.

The Great Climate Panic gripped the world in the early months of 2024, as the El Nino weather phenomenon boosted global temperatures, turning the southern hemisphere’s summer into a taste of the horrors to come, leaving no doubt about the need for action. Towards the end of 2023, the COP28 climate summit had been held in oil-rich Dubai, chaired by an oil company chief executive. Some had feared the negotiations would be “captured” by the in-denial fossil fuel industry, who would use their power to block meaningful progress. The opposite was true.

One by one, the world’s biggest oil companies laid out their plans to gradually reduce fossil fuel production while steadily increasing investment in renewable energy with a timeline of targets. Warnings from investors, who feared long-term projects would become stranded assets, bought for billions but worth nothing, made the decisive impact.

Many doubted their sincerity. Protesters took to the streets to decry the historic deal. But if some oil executives had gone along with it all because they thought this was just the latest bout of “greenwashing”, things soon became very serious.

In South America, 2023’s ‘winter’ had seen temperatures as much as 20C higher than normal, with an extraordinary 39C recorded in Rivadavia, Argentina in August. That same month, average daily ocean temperatures outside of the polar regions had broken free from their historic pattern of gradual increases and, instead of cooling from a spring peak, set a new record temperature of more than 21C. And, in the Antarctic, scientists had recorded an “almost mind-blowing” new low in levels of sea ice.

All this, however, was just a prelude to the disastrous southern summer of 23/24. The unbearable heat prompted many to declare they were living in “Hell on Earth”. Some emigrated, others cranked up the air conditioning, a few decided to become nocturnal. Amid weather unlike anyone had ever seen, those politicians who continued to try to downplay climate change lost all credibility.

Facing another quarter of a century of further warming – if politicians lived up to promises they had collectively been failing to keep for years – people started to get scared. Even dictators found they could not ignore public opinion. The autocratic rulers of Middle East petro-states were ousted in a new wave of pro-democracy ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. China’s Xi Jinping was forced to abandon his hopes of conquering Taiwan to focus on shoring up support (although, in 2051, the 97-year-old “president for life” would quietly instruct his generals to start drawing up new invasion plans).

This imagined future is unlikely to happen. COP28 will probably see much-needed action watered down once again, as happened at Glasgow’s COP26 when an agreement calling for the “phase out” of coal-fired power stations was replaced with the vaguer “phase down”. Wise investors are moving away from long-term fossil fuel projects, but there are still enough willing to provide finances well into the future.

And the currently growing El Nino may not provide the world with a grim, but timely warning about its direction of travel. However, eventually, something like this will happen. An extreme weather event will make the effects of climate change impossible for anyone to ignore. The world will get the message and countries with stranded assets and stranded jobs will pay a heavy economic price.

Each year that goes by, the task gets harder. According to accountancy giant PwC’s recently published Net Zero Economy Index, the world needs a decarbonisation rate of 17.2 per cent a year until 2050 if global warming is to be limited to 1.5C. Last year, the world had needed an annual rate of 15.2 per cent. What it actually achieved was 2.5 per cent.

PwC said 2023 could be the year “that finally unlocks the true power of business, the capital markets and competition to spur breakthrough innovation, accelerated emission reductions and mass behavioural change. But it needs diplomacy and policy to align – both between and within countries – to deliver clarity for private investment to scale”. It added: “There is hope, but we risk doing too little, too late. We no longer question whether urgent transition to the net-zero economy is necessary, but this might be our last year to answer whether we will act fast enough.”

After Rishi Sunak’s decision to delay climate-related targets – angering carmakers at the forefront of the electric transition and possibly threatening future investments – hopes that the UK will be a driver of progress at the COP28 summit have diminished. However, if 2050 is to be a year of celebration, and not woe, the world must radically increase its efforts to stop global warming. The sooner it does so, the easier the process will be. Acting in panic, after a great storm, fire or flood, may be too late.