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180: TED Countdown Dilemma Series: Is There a Role for Carbon Credits in the Transition to a Fair, Net-Zero Future?

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About this episode

Today, a special TED Countdown conversation for you!

In June 2022, TED’s climate initiative, Countdown, launched its Dilemma Series: events designed to look at some of the “knots” in the climate change space, where diverging positions have stalled progress and solidified into an inability to collaborate across differences. 

What we offer today is one of the conversations recorded as part of that event between Outrage + Optimism host Tom Rivett-Carnac, and academic, writer, and author Professor James Dyke. 

The event focused on the question: Is there a role for carbon credits in the transition to a fair, net-zero future?  We hope that Tom and James' ‘agreeable disagreement’ on this often divisive issue will be taken as an invitation to listen deeply, keep an open mind and get a little wiser on a complex topic.

Please follow the links below to view the fantastic film produced by the TED Countdown team, and gain a greater insight and understanding on the topic of carbon credits but also the process of holding space for such conversations to take place.  Carbon credits is a contentious subject that prompted some discomfort, disagreement and, ultimately, a renewed sense of possibility. Enjoy

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Full Transcript

Tom: [00:00:01] Hi, everyone. It's Tom here, once again having forgotten to record the intro that Clay and Sarah have asked me to. So I'm doing on my phone and hopefully the sound is okay, but apologies for that. Now, as listeners will know, we at Outrage + Optimism have recently joined TED's Audio Collective and we are super happy to be associated with TED and the wonderful work that they do. And you should check out all of the other TED Audio collective podcasts. There are so many available wherever you get your podcasts from. Over the last few years, Christiana and I have enjoyed a very close working relationship with TED Countdown, something that we helped launch a few years ago, and all of the incredible work going on to shift the conversation on climate change. And that has been very aligned with everything that we have done at Outrage + Optimism. Earlier this year, Countdown ran what's called a Dilemma series in New York, and the short episode that follows is the result of a conversation that took place there between myself and Professor James Dyke, an academic, a writer and author and associate professor of Earth System Science and assistant director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter. Now, James is a good friend and he is also someone who is skeptical that we are going to be able to keep global heating to 1.5 degrees. But he is somebody that I've always enjoyed talking to because the two of us can come at that from different perspectives and find creative ways to move forward.

Tom: [00:01:33] The subject overall of the Dilemma series was focused on the question 'Is there a role for carbon credits in the transition to a fair net zero future?', which, as many of you will know, has the potential to be incredibly divisive in the climate community? The idea behind the Dilemma series overall was to look at some of the knots in the climate change space, like carbon credits, where diverging positions mean that momentum is stalled as we struggle to collaborate with people who potentially have different points of view to ourselves. I hope you enjoy this agreeable disagreement that James and I had during our particular conversation and potentially could inspire you to think about how we can work towards a unified approach to some of the biggest challenges we face. Be sure to check out Ted Countdown's film, showcasing many of the conversations and events that happened, and also James's TEDx talk that he gave in New York. This is an invitation to listen deeply. Keep an open mind, and maybe get a little wiser on a complex topic. The links are in the show notes. See you back here on Thursday for a bumper US special edition with Ali Zaidi and Jennifer Granholm. As Christiana would say 'Bye!'

Interviewer: [00:02:46] James and Tom take one ABC Common Mark. So can we start by just having both of you say who you are and what you do? So, James, if you could start.

James Dyke: [00:02:58] My name is James Dyke and I'm an associate professor in Earth Systems Science at the University of Exeter.

Tom: [00:03:03] My name is Tom Rivett-Carnac. I'm a founding partner at Global Optimism.

Tom: [00:03:08] So, James, can you tell us your stance on net zero and carbon removals.

James Dyke: [00:03:15] Just like that?

Tom: [00:03:16] Yeah, like, like, like a summary of what you said before. We have we'll have your actual talk, but just a quick kind of quick position.

James Dyke: [00:03:23] There is a really interesting concept that is rapidly come to dominate the public discourse, the political discourse around climate change. And I think that's interesting. I think it's interesting because rather than talk about rapid decarbonisation, we might be holding out for a kind of technological salvation which will be delivered onto us via these kind of carbon removals. So whilst I completely agree that carbon removal is absolutely necessary and we should be spending more time, energy investment and money on scaling these systems up, I do think there is a serious risk that we missed opportunities to actually undertake acceleration of decarbonisation. How was that?

Interviewer: [00:04:01] That was great. I mean, Tom, do you agree or disagree with any of that?

Tom: [00:04:07] So I completely agree that net zero is a useful framework that has issues associated with it, and we need to be careful to ensure that it's well implemented so that some of the inevitable negative side effects aren't the result of the work that we do. I mean, we are at the most critical moment in human history, and the trick to solving this crisis is momentum and getting people together to actually deliver a shared outcome. And net zero is a useful tool. It has momentum, it can deliver outcomes, there's risks, but we can work with them.

Interviewer: [00:04:38] So how do we avoid the burn now, pay later pitfall that James brought up in his talk before Tom?

Tom: [00:04:46] Well, I feel like the burn now pay later pitfall which many people reference can be addressed with a few simple mechanisms. First of all, you need to be clear about what the reductions are and what the removals are and actually most of the methodologies that are out there right now require companies and countries to do precisely that. But what I would say is that if we try to introduce a methodology that requires perfection from anybody before they get going, then we kill the momentum out of the gate. I'm a big believer that the way you change the world is not a perfect plan. It's getting, moving and getting collaboration towards a shared outcome that can build itself into a wave of momentum that ultimately carries you forward. The risk right now is that if we undermine net zero, we do not have time to construct another concept to build that momentum back up to get us to where we need to go.

Interviewer: [00:05:39] James, thoughts?

James Dyke: [00:05:42] I am very mindful of the fact that there are some agents, industries, individual sectors that want to do everything they can do to destroy net zero. They want to destroy the consensus around the fact that we actually need to act at scale because of invested interests, whether it's a fossil fuel company, whether it's a company that it's invested in, the status quo business as usual. In the UK, we have net zero watch, which is a bunch of regressive right wing politicians who are constantly making arguments that it's too expensive, we can't decarbonise too fast. And really they're just using net zero as a label of climate justice. They're really attacking climate justice. They're saying we don't need to worry about it. We don't need to be paying more taxes. We shouldn't get over alarmed. You shouldn't get overexcited. Everyone just calm down. And it's just the latest form of climate denial. So I'm very mindful of the fact that we do need to support and defend the net zero concept, if that's the concept that we are using in order to actually make progress on the climate issue. There could be other concepts, and I'm pretty agnostic about it. The reason we're talking about net zero is because we have left it so late to decarbonise if you want any chance of bending that curve down and I'm not even talking about overshoot, then we're probably going to need some kind of removals component. The concern that I've got about net zero is that it might be taking away some of that.

James Dyke: [00:07:05] I'm probably going to disagree about this. Right. It might be taking away some of the sense of urgency because it is by definition extending budgets. And if you take a more skeptical view of our ability to actually do removals at scale and you take a more sceptical view of overshoot scenarios, then suddenly the timelines get really compressed, right? We've got eight years, we've got five years. You know, it's not 5 minutes to midnight anymore. The clock is gone. The alarm has been ringing and somehow we have missed that opportunity. And there are an awful lot of fears and concerns around that kind of messaging because it could be disempowering, it could be depressing. It could play into the hands of those kind of vested interests that just want us all to give up. Right? So there is a really powerful and potent approach because it can engender hope and it can engender action. One thing I'm really worried about in terms of the brand is there are still too many bad faith actors in it. We maybe might mention them later, maybe over a beer, maybe not here. Who are using that net zero as a form of greenwashing as an absolutely continue on business as usual, buy now pay later approach. And I think everyone invested in net zero has got everything to gain by getting those bad actors out of the tent, or at least admitting them in only under certain circumstances.

Tom: [00:08:19] So I really like what you just said, and I think what you're talking about is not destroying net zero, it's improving it. If I felt like there were a significant number of actors in Net zero that were engaging in the idea that they didn't have to make serious reductions, they could only invest in offsets and removals and therefore do nothing. Then I would 100% be fully against the concept. What I like about what you're saying and the way that you present it is actually what you're talking about is a concept well delivered rather than undermined. And I think that actually I work very closely with corporations, with governments, with senior decision makers, and I see almost none of the approach to say we will not seriously reduce and we'll just pay for offsets. Actually, I feel like that's a that's a theoretical risk that is very real. And where we find it, we should be militant about identifying that and removing it. But I actually don't think it's as widespread as the kind of hysteria of the activists has led us to think that it might be. I think in most cases, if you speak to people inside companies and say governments at a leadership or an implementation level, they're doing this work because they're serious about decarbonisation and they don't want to just like offset the problem.

James Dyke: [00:09:34] But this move to do right, it's a discussion. Yeah, but the there is a I hate to use the term metanarrative, so is that there is the metanarrative that net zero is being used, which is to support the we won't call it business as usual because that's quite loaded, because there's often associated with, with vested fossil fuel interests. But net zero is certainly compatible with an argument that nothing fundamental needs to change with regards to the way in which we conduct our economies, right? So the way in which we're going to solve the challenges of climate change, which have been produced by an extractivist economy or extractive civilization is essentially through the same tools of that extractivist civilization. We just need to do better innovation. So I think there is a really interesting space to look at, which is kind of beyond net zero. And if you want to extend the concept, I'll be down for it. I think that's pretty cool. And some of those hysterical activists I think are really important in opening up that space. So, for example, if you look at Extinction Rebellion, certainly in academia, I think many academics who've been working in the climate science, climate policy space thought they were a little hysterical, a little bit ill informed, a little bit maybe even misguided in their quite literal interpretation of something like the 1.5 special report. So you kind of you can imagine an activist reading that and going, hey, we've only got ten years. We've only got a very, very small amount of time in order to undertake radical transformations of our society. And you look around and well, obviously there are not radical changes.

James Dyke: [00:11:14] There's not radical transformations of society. And then they look at what is the policy response. And then it's increasingly with the idea of net zero, which is explicitly about giving us more time. It's about effectively increasing the size of budgets so we don't have to decarbonise too fast. But there is something really interesting in understanding or at least exploring, Why can't we decarbonise too fast? Right? And that's because, well, it's the economy, stupid. But there's so much to look at and explore it. And what are the what are those economies doing? What are the goods and services of those economies for? Right. Given increasing inequality, given environmental degradation, given the climate crisis? Surely we should be using this opportunity to really explore net zero in the context of, well, what are these economic systems for?

Tom: [00:11:58] So I'm completely with you there. I'm afraid. So we found an error via an agreement. Okay. So but what I would say is that those are two different concepts that I think are steps on a continuum, right? So I often find I get into discussions with people about, you know, what about changing GDP as a metric? What about rethinking growth and having wellbeing at the heart of our economy? And isn't a focus on net zero stopping those other discussions? And actually it's somehow kind of either or, and that if you're pushing for net zero, then you are removing the requirement to think more deeply about rethinking the purposes of our societies. I'm a hopeless pragmatist in all this space, and I go where the momentum is right and the momentum is behind net zero. And it's not perfect, but it's getting us a long way. And actually, if you look at the requirements inside most most methodologies, the reductions are in excess of 90% with a small amount of offsets. Right. So I actually think the fear that we're just going to offset that, some people are trying to just offset their way out. This problem is not as widespread as we might think. But I also think that while we're going through that process, we need to have a really deep think about what is society for. I mean, what we're doing with the pace of our economies is making most of us pretty miserable, right? And actually digging stuff up and burning it and then throwing it back in the ground as quickly as possible is creating all kinds of other mental health issues that we need to address at the same time. But I don't see that as an either or.

Tom: [00:13:23] I see net zero as the first step and then moving towards a rethinking of our societies afterwards. And I just compliment that with one other thing, and this is probably instructive of where I'm coming from. So in 2007, I was a young activist and the concept of carbon neutrality came out right. The idea that corporations can offset their way to getting through this problem. And I found this to be the most morally outrageous issue that I'd ever come across to the point where I, even with a friend, created a campaign called Cheap Neutral, where you could sort of like remain you could engage in infidelity and pay someone else to remain faithful to their partner. And that somehow equivocated the two different things together. Right. And we did our very best to shame companies to say this is a terrible concept. You shouldn't be engaged in this. This is this is sort of worse than doing nothing. And after about two years, we managed to and many others taint the concept to the point that companies stopped doing it. And from 70% of of 5100 companies having some kind of carbon neutral claim, it kind of ebbed away to a few percent. And now I look back at that and I think the pendulum didn't swing back into balance. It swung the other way and everyone stopped taking action and stop focusing on this issue. And I'm not sure I did a very good thing, right. I actually think that that could have been detrimental. We could have gotten somewhere else if we kept going. So that's the experience that's been quite instructive to me in this.

James Dyke: [00:14:45] Yes, It's the concern of the 'Is it exactly an opportunity cost or a counterfactual?' If you hadn't had done that. Right. Right. Would those companies or corporations have actually made more progress? Right. And while we don't have a time machine.

James Dyke: [00:15:02] An alternate universe in which to explore, but there is something really interesting around how do you engage organizations to go that extra step? Right, Right. So I'll give you an example of my own home institution. So the University of Exeter set some very ambitious net zero targets, right? And at the time, well, those net zero targets have kind of come from most directly come from the declaration of climate and ecological emergency. The university made it wasn't the first university in the UK to declare emergency. Bristol was actually they pipped us to the post, but we were quite close right now at the time when I was actually agitating for the university to make this declaration. There were some voices, a number of individuals and some elements of the university there actually very hesitant for us to do that. And one reason was not because they didn't want us to try and decarbonize as quickly as possible, but they didn't want us to sign up to something that they thought they would not be able to deliver. Right now, it happened to be some of these voices were exactly the same voices that were expressing a significant amount of skepticism around the Paris Agreement and 1.5. Yeah, we're offering something that we have no idea how to deliver. Yes. And they were making essentially the same argument. And back then, as of now, I think I would argue that it's a start. And many organizations that actually made those declarations, they had no idea what they were doing. Right. And if they did know what they were doing, they would have never done it.

Tom: [00:16:33] Right.

James Dyke: [00:16:33] But it's a wedge, right? You got that declaration and it's a wedge. And then our job is to keep pushing the wedge in and to drive it as hard and fast as we can. Now, to get to the net zero point what we are finding in our institution. I know when I talk to other people in other institutions who have exactly the same problem, we've of course we've got rid of all the low hanging fruit, the LED light bulbs and the ridiculous windows and the cutting down on staff, travel and food. But then you're left with a whole series of either scope one, two or three emissions, which are really, really hard to abate. Right. And it's at that point we have a discussion. Okay, so what can we offset? What nature based solutions can we use? And I'm this constant, probably really counterproductive voice.

James Dyke: [00:17:19] That wants us to say, well, look, what is stopping us from closing that gap completely. I'm not going to insist we close it entirely. Right. But what is it? And when you look at what's closing that gap, either in a university or a business or a national scale, it's essentially what you're doing. You're butting up against the objectives or the mission of that institution. Right. In order to actually close the gap, for example, our university might not want to start might not want to continue to try to increase international students, because obviously that's got a large footprint. It might want to not build more buildings. It might not want to continue to expand its campus. And you begin to kind of work into that space. And that's where you get this kind of not defensive reaction. But the institution itself obviously trying to protect itself.

Tom: [00:18:07] Right.

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James Dyke: [00:18:07] And that's where you get this kind of institutional organizational pushback where it kind of puts the level of say, well, no, you can't. Right. But really, I think if as a global society, a global civilization, if we do really want to get warming down to as low as possible, whatever targets you like, then there does need to be this discussion about what is really mission critical and how low can we go, and it's not sufficient. So one of the things I think happens at the moment is that even when they're doing a lot of work in good faith, there's still this tendency as soon as you begin to get into that zone, okay, so we're going to have an offset, right? But we'll try and do it as robustly and as ethically as possible. And I want to bring institutions or organizations back to say, yeah, okay, but what could you do with the institution or organization itself with the purpose of. Right. Yeah, Yeah. What is a university for, Right. I ask people that.

Tom: [00:18:57] It's a fascinating question and I agree with you actually on that point, unfortunately. Yeah. However, I would say that I don't think that's all that's going on. Right. So I think that we have gotten used to the level of tolerance as the pressure is built. Right. As the as the climate crisis is getting worse, the level of tolerance for not delivering something on a regular basis is ebbing away. And as a result of that, we're all trying to deliver results as quickly as possible, but actually a emissions reduction trajectory in your own life, in a business, in a city and an institution will be lumpy, right? It's to do actually with the big capital intensive items that might be replaced once a decade where you might not be able to change your car every year, your boiler every year or other different things. But now and then you'll get to the point where it's completely run out of life and it needs to be replaced with hydrogen, with an electric fleet, with something like that. So I think I agree we shouldn't go straight to offsetting. We should get better at communicating that the path to net zero will be lumpy and as part of that process, we should rethink purpose. I think that's absolutely right. And that's probably to me, that's a useful part of the net zero process. If offsetting comes in too quickly, I agree that that can take some of the pressure off. So I think that that needs to be carefully managed inside organizations. And I think it ultimately has to be because if you say we're going to reduce 90% and have 10% offsetting, you can't just keep turning to the offsetting issue. When you run up against hard issues, you have to use the decarbonization process as a tool for innovation and transformation of purpose.

James Dyke: [00:20:33] So yeah, I think this thing goes back to the evolution of net zero around budgets and targets, right? And one thing that, I mean, I've experienced over the last couple of days the presentation of carbon removal is often prefaced with the IPCC says now that we must be removing 9 billion tonnes of carbon a year by 2030, by 2050, in order to limit warming to something. And it's got that seal of scientific authority, the idea of net zero being based on very robust science, and it is kind of cumulative emissions and total warming, which takes it out of a space in which you can really critically engage with it because the science says right, So you want to limit warming to this. You have there.

Tom: [00:21:22] Is an element of removal that.

James Dyke: [00:21:24] You have to get to net zero to that. But then what gets bundled in there is obviously the ratio of reductions to removals. Yeah. And one thing I'm worried about is that ratio of reductions and removals get smuggled in under the the of the auspices of that kind of scientific credibility of it. Right. Was really if you think about global society, if you think about global emissions, that's the only thing that matters. Yeah, right. It doesn't matter if we're doing fantastic and other regions are doing terrible. There needs to be a global coordinated reduction, absolute reduction in emissions is how do we drill down into and explore those purposes, those those missions of very, very different organizations. And because I like to think at a planetary scale, because I like to float around at the start, right. Civilization is like a planetary phenomena. What does human civilization need to do in order to readdress how it gets resources from its home planet? Right, Right. In ways that it produces goods and services that are of benefit to not just humans, actually, but, you know, beyond human kind of moral system, which obviously we need to share a biosphere with many millions of species.

Tom: [00:22:37] But I don't think we're going to solve that problem by sitting back and coming up with a plan and implementing it. The way we're going to solve that problem is by building momentum, getting going, getting investment, getting enthusiasm, demonstrating, deploying capital, and then solving problems through momentum as we keep going. Right. The way that nets the road to net zero looks now has to evolve and look different as we go forward. It won't always look the same throughout that time period and it will, but up against these other issues. My concern is we have this like this precious thing which is momentum for action and to construct that is so rare. And we now have the vast majority of the world's economy on board with that moving forward in a certain direction, deploying capital with a vision that is shared. Right. That's that's been the work of a decade to get to this point. As we go down that road, we need to refine what it means. We need to use the momentum that it contains in order to focus on these critical issues. My concern is that if we if we look at the ultimate manifestation and we use that to judge the way that it is now and therefore remove some of its credibility, we'll lose the keys that will take us to the answer at the end.

James Dyke: [00:23:45] Okay. Yeah, sure. So it's got to be go back to the wedge metaphor. You've got to continually drive the wedge in. Right. And we don't have the luxury to sit around and wait.

Tom: [00:23:54] For some other idea.

James Dyke: [00:23:56] Yeah, indeed, indeed. Okay. I will grant.

Tom: [00:23:59] You. Okay.

James Dyke: [00:24:00] I will grant you.

Interviewer: [00:24:02] Another question then. Yeah. So, James, before you, you said that you want academics to lead a process of, of, of speaking truth to power or of telling truth that you really feel we need. But by definition, academics don't create global treaties. So what's in your mind, the sort of right relationship between the world you operate in, in the world outside?

James Dyke: [00:24:27] I think many academics are really worried about stepping over that invisible line because they don't want to threaten their perceived objectivity. Also, some just don't want the grief. You know, don't be a female climate scientist on social media, right? Or maybe don't be a woman on social media that has any opinions because it is a shit show. I don't know. Can I say that? I did, right?

Tom: [00:24:50] I don't know that you can say don't be a woman on social media.

James Dyke: [00:24:53] But I mean in the context in the context of the abuse. 

Tom: [00:24:56] They own you now.

James Dyke: [00:24:58] Right? Okay. Disproportionate. I get my fair share because I'm moderately outspoken. I'll take public positions on it as an academic. And but the stuff I get is in. It's just nothing like some of my my colleagues and what they experience. So I think there's a there's a certain hesitancy and reticency to stick your head above the parapet. Right. And there are then more, let's say, principled issues around not wanting to to reduce your scientific credibility by reducing your objectivity. That's absolutely the case. But I think there's some naivete that's going on here. And also I wouldn't say dishonesty. I mean, the thing I'm asking for is academics to be honest about where we are, right? Honest about where we're heading. Because it is the case that I have associates, colleagues, friends who work on climate models, who work on integrated assessment models, who are involved in the science, the social science of physical science that's looking at different scenarios, whether ssp's or rcp's. Potential warming scenarios by the end of this century. They come up with a scenario of 1.5 or Paris compliant, who have absolutely no confidence that will ever happen. But they can separate their their thoughts, their opinions, their beliefs from the academic product. And that's fine. Yeah. But then that is presented in such a way which has is presenting a kind of scientific the scientific credibility comes with that and they don't say anything. Well, it is used in certain ways. And that's one thing that I am a bit worried about. And it goes back to this framing and discussions around 1.5 in which those academics I can't speak for all academics, but the ones that I know have no, we're not going to limit warming to 1.5. It's just not going to happen.

James Dyke: [00:26:57] Right. But when asked in a public forum, they will never say that because it's not their place to say it. It's instead due to ask for more political will or something. But that kind of reticence to speak out about a pretty fundamental point then can be used or has been and continues to be interpreted as, okay, so then 1.5 is still alive. So when a politician talks about we just need one more heave, we just need one more incremental type action to limit warming to 1.5. They know that's not true, because if you really work a limit and we'll talk about in the absence of overshoot, it would require transformation. And no one's talking about that transformation. And really, that is a choice. We are it should be a choice that we don't want to make that transformation. And one of the things I do worry about is the general public people outside the vast majority of people outside this very small kind of climate bubble are getting the idea or the presentation that with further incremental type policies, we'll be able to limit warming to 1.5 and we'll increase our resilience or adaptation. Everything's going to be okay. And the research that I look at or the research that I know that's happening, it's not it's not it's not going to be okay. Now, it doesn't mean it's doom and gloom and disaster and the whole thing is going to fall apart. It does mean there is going to be suffering and there's going to be really, really difficult choices. And one argument I'm trying to make at the moment is that we need to be talking about this now before it happens and that before is only within a decade. Right?

Tom: [00:28:31] Can I add something? Yeah. So? So I'm sort of not surprised that so I my entire life is built on the work of climate scientists. Right. You know, I can read a graph, so therefore, I've dedicated my life to doing something about this. But if I wanted to ask somebody, will we meet 1.5? I wouldn't necessarily ask a climate scientist, right? I mean, they'll be very good at doing models and working out the climate and the chemical compositions and and other different elements of that, which is incredibly important. And that's the basis of all of our action. But I would be talking to policymakers, technologists, activists, leaders of industry. It's those types of interactions and decisions that can precipitate very fast moving changes that can rapidly transform our economy and has done so before. Right? I mean, academia, as James will I'm sure, endorse, is an extremely slow moving sector that struggles to reinvent itself at any time. However, we have an economy that is rapidly reinventing itself all the time, coming up with new solutions. Entrepreneurs, you know, the forces of investment and entrepreneurial ism are now focused on this issue like never before. And there's lots of examples when we look back, you know, Henry Ford saying, if I'd asked my customers, they would have said they wanted faster horses.

Tom: [00:29:43] You know, there's loads of examples of that type of phase transition in technology. Now, I'm not being Pollyanna ish, right? We are really up against it. This is incredibly difficult and there's every chance that we don't make it. But I would struggle to make the kind of assertions that James is that we're only making incremental steps and we're not going to get there. I mean, some of the policies out there now, right and the internal combustion engine by 2030, 68% reduction by 2035. These are transformative attempts where society is trying to come together and build momentum towards a shared outcome. And if we get behind that, I still feel that we don't know where that can go. And one possible outcome of that is that we do deal with this issue. Yes, we can be too late, but we can still get on top of it. And my experience in creating the Paris Agreement and delivering other kinds of outcomes is that knowledge that that is possible, that commitment to keep going is not the result of a success. It's often the cause of it. Right? And that's how we actually make that kind of transformative change. We can't be naive. We can't deny the reality, but. We also can't give up too quickly, otherwise it's over.

Interviewer: [00:30:49] So something I thought was interesting in James's talk before was that sort of after laying out some of the problems with the way Net Zero has rolled out in practice. You also, James, located the origin of that in the Paris Accords and kind of talked about how we need to be sort of honest about our our failures around them as opposed to, say, locating the failures in the ill will of countries trying to cheat on their NDCs or or corporations trying to kind of lie about what they're doing. So, Tom, I'm sort of interested in what you what your response in particular to that part is sort of like how do you how do you think the Paris Accords have weathered understanding that you may have a bias point of view or a particular point of view? And then and then if you talk back and forth a little bit about it, I'm interested in what it's like to talk with somebody who maybe disagrees with you or who has who has who has has expressed a critical view point of view.

Tom: [00:31:45] So in James's TEDTalk, he talked about the Paris Agreement and the failures of the Paris Agreement and the fact that that's taking us down a dangerous road where we are. And I would be the first to say that the Paris Agreement was an essential step forward, but it was far from sufficient and we knew that when we left Paris. Right. It's a negotiated outcome. Between 197 countries had to be a unanimous agreement. And the risks of failure after Copenhagen some years before was so high that we had to focus on how we delivered an outcome. And I would argue that we delivered an ambitious outcome in terms of the objective and the mechanism for managing it. So what I would point out there is that the Paris Accords are based on two things, right? They're based on a long term goal that everybody agrees to, that we will get to net zero by the middle of the century and a series of five yearly goals to get us from here to there. Now, that's a unique mechanism in international diplomacy. It hadn't been used before, and we didn't know in Paris if five years later countries would come back to the table and set more goals. Now, the first round of national commitments weren't taking us towards the objective we set, right?

Tom: [00:32:47] The objective was well under two degrees with best efforts to 1.5. We were actually heading for nearly four degrees of warming when the world met in Glasgow. The intention was, could we close that gap and get down closer to the objectives we set in Paris with the next five year goal? And if you add everything up, then we left Glasgow heading in the direction of something like 2.2 to 2.3 degrees of warming. Now that is nowhere near enough and it has the three critical words, if fully implemented, which is far from being. That's the difference between nice words on a piece of paper and something that changes the world. But that is actually enormous progress towards the outcome that we wanted. So I would say the Paris Agreement is as strong as the countries that want to implement it. There is no guarantees that it is going to actually, the UN has no mechanism to enforce that. There's not going to invade a country because they're not meeting their nationally determined commitment. That's not how the UN works, right? It works through a collective vision of a shared future that we all want to inhabit. And that power continues, right? That spirit that was created in Paris continues and has endured through those years. Is everything going well with it? I would say absolutely not.

Tom: [00:33:54] We have a new round of NDCs that are more ambitious and are taking us further and faster. But emissions are still going up, right? They haven't gone up every year since Paris, but they have gone up some years since Paris. We need to see that we peak emissions now and get down towards 2030. So I would say it is too early to call time on the Paris Agreement and say it hasn't worked. We've still got goodwill from countries, we've got amazing momentum from businesses, cities and investors. We are seeing progress towards those outcomes. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, right? Either we're going to halve emissions by 2030, which is the job for everyone on the planet, under the Paris Agreement, but also under our shared collective humanity. Or we're going to fail in this task. And I mean, I think that we should have the flexibility to criticize the mechanisms in the Paris Agreement. I don't have any problem with James coming out and saying that. I think that that's a perfectly reasonable thing to say. I don't think it's a failure of the Paris Agreement mechanism, though. I think it's a failure of implementation, which was always going to be the next step out of Paris.

James Dyke: [00:34:55] Right. Damn, I agree with you again. Let me find something that I disagree with you about. It's the yeah, the implementation I can't think of, I mean, I have no idea how you would implement a policy of such complexity, but I have no alternative suggestions around the mechanism by which we might want to accelerate ambition or policies or pledges. Right. So I don't think that's what's failing. The failing is essentially there has been insufficient engagement with accelerated decarbonization, as evidenced by the fact that emissions are going up.

Tom: [00:35:29] Right. Which is a failure of reality, which is a failure of the US Senate. It's a failure of the Russian government. It's a failure.

James Dyke: [00:35:35] Yeah, it's a failure of national governments. It's not a failure of the Paris Accords or the Paris Agreement as it's commonly understood. It's and also the idea. The idea. Of giving up on Paris. The world is a better place for the Paris Agreement. Right? Right. The fact, in my opinion, if I may think that it's it's inevitable that we will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming does not mean that 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming isn't really, really important. If anything, it makes it more important because we're going to see if I'm right and I don't want to be right. I desperately want to be wrong. But if I am right, we will see before our eyes in real time what it means. We have the special report about 1.5, which some academics are actually hesitant to engage with because they thought, what's the point? Because we're not going to limit warming to 1.5. Right. So there was a bit of pushback. Yes, it was climate scientists mainly. Right. You might say they're naive and an ill informed, but what's the point of produce?

Tom: [00:36:33] I don't mean that, by the way. I just mean they might not know everything. Yeah.

James Dyke: [00:36:36] You want to talk to some of the people? Like they know everything, right?

James Dyke: [00:36:40] What's the point of doing special report 1.5. We're not going to limit. But what that did that unlocked a new understanding of what it means when you go above 1.5 or two. It really did develop the science of impacts, understanding of climate impacts, and we are going to see that in real time. And the thing that really does worry me is the more research that we do and also just the empirical data that's coming up, you know, there are regions in the Arctic which are warming seven times faster than the global average, and these are extremes that were very, very hard to include in our in our modeling understanding. Right. There are really large gaps of our understanding of how the climate system, the earth system, is going to respond to such unprecedented forcing. One of the problems I think we have in climate communications we produce is these smooth lines, you know, and it's not a smooth response. It's going to be very, very, very jagged. And that's going to play in front of our very eyes. And it's going to precipitate a whole series of social, political, economic things that if and I want to believe somebody like Al Gore, who gave his wonderful kind of tub thumping like, Yes, we can and yes, we will.

James Dyke: [00:37:45] And moral imperative speech yesterday would be that moment of global awakening, the epiphany. Right. Because if we can actually see it and we are seeing it and we're seeing in the United States right now with this kind of the the heat wave and previous year's heat domes, and if we can't do it now, if we can't do it, then when are we going to do it? But there is this other world, the world that I know that terrifies me and probably terrifies you and maybe sometimes we don't talk about it very much is when those same forces drive us into a completely different world. Right? It's not a global epiphany of shared understanding and common good. It's a very frightening, isolationist, protectionist, nationalist world in which it's going to be a scramble for resources. Now, I do think we need to talk about that now and make sure that we keep what is it that we want to sustain. Ultimately, it's our common humanity. It's our global civilization. We're a global species. We can't do this on our own. We can't do this as an individual nation. So in that respect, the Paris Agreement was one of the great testaments of international politics. Right.

Tom: [00:38:49] Well done. Thank you. Well, many, many people. So I mean, I would say and I, I agree with the analysis on climate change. Right. My favorite analogy on climate change is that it's not like sitting in a slowly warming bath of water. It's like being trapped in a cage with a wild tiger that happens to be sleeping, right? And the amount of warming that we're introducing to the atmosphere is us working out how hard we're going to kick the tiger. We kick it hard enough and it wakes up and it doesn't at that point really matter that much what we do after that. So I completely agree with that. And I agree that there's an incredibly dark scenario. I'm not a believer in the idea that more warming and more extreme events will somehow make us better people. I actually think that it's more likely that if that if we get to that point of feedback that we will descend into the darker elements of humanity. But I think what can pull us together is the shared opportunity and the vision that we can do it. Right. In the beginning of the book I wrote with Christiana, we have two different visions of the future. One where we really go in to that dark collapse vision and one will we talk about the fact that we can reforest the earth, we can have clean air, and all of those things are still in front of us as possibilities, right? I mean, the thing that gets, you know, anxiety, climate anxiety is rife amongst young people. Half of young people worry about climate change for multiple hours on a daily basis. I get asked about that by them all the time, as I'm sure you do.

Tom: [00:40:04] I don't know what you say, but I say no one in history has had a bigger opportunity to live a more meaningful life than we do. Right. What we do in the next 5 to 10 years is going to determine the future of life on Earth for the next 5500 and 500,000 years. Right? That is an awesome responsibility. That is almost overwhelming. But when you're able to grasp that it can have a tangible impact on your level of energy and your quality of life. And for me to move down that road knowing that failure is possible, but also knowing that success is possible and we get to choose right. No one else is coming along to solve this for us. Either we figure this out or the whole thing is going down. That's an incredibly enlivening experience. And it brings meaning to your life. So we call that stubborn optimism, right? If that language doesn't work, you can call it active hope or courage or sheer bloody mindedness, Right? It doesn't really matter. But I feel like that is an important component to go back to where we started. If we start saying the Paris Agreement has failed, net zero has failed, we need to accept those things. We risk throwing ourselves into a more complicated world where we don't really know what's moving forward. We start to feel really depressed about the scenarios. There's no organizing principle that pulls us together, and I worry about the impact of that on young people and that that very, very scientifically based reality, because that is a possibility, will actually in itself begin to erode our ability to deliver a better future.

James Dyke: [00:41:30] So the notion of hope comes from that kind of spring of value. So what is it that we're trying to protect, preserve or even grow? Yeah, I think so many times we talk about climate movement is about what can I. You can have that. You can have that. You cannot have this. Right? What can I just keep away from the fire? What can I just try and hold on to? When really it's about growing, literally producing and building a much, much better world. So climate justice isn't just about holding on by your fingertips. It's about producing that world that you would actually want your children to future descendants to build because they did it right. And if we've got the opportunity to be a part of that process, to be a part of that transformative journey, then I can't imagine anything more important than to do with my life. That is absolutely crucial. But we need a kind of grounded sense of of hope and optimism, which has got kind of rough edges and realism. I agree. And we somehow need to embrace those fears because often we don't want to write.

Tom: [00:42:29] So I think that a stubborn and determined optimism lies on the other side of despair. I think you have to go through that and you have to stare into the abyss and say, this is possible. It may even be likely, but you know what? I'm going to do everything I can at this moment to be the change to create that difference. Otherwise, I think it's sort of it's a bit shrill and it's a bit fragile and it's actually not very useful.

James Dyke: [00:42:49] Yeah, it's incredibly fragile. And it can be easily punctured because when you go a bit off script, where is the spring of hope then? Yeah, it will become completely.

Tom: [00:42:58] Because then it becomes about editing the news, you see, and then you start. And that, I think, is actually criminally negligent.

Interviewer: [00:43:08] This is a fantastic place to stop, Tom.

Clay: [00:43:22] Hey, everyone, this is Clay, producer of Outrage + Optimism. Thank you so much to TED Countdown for partnering with us to bring you this conversation today between Tom and James. You can watch the full video and the Dilemma series at Countdown.TED.com/Watch. But the link is in the show notes to click. So just scroll down below where you're listening right now and click it. And hey, you're there. You can connect with James online. I've put his socials and his website in the show notes as well, and be sure to join us again on Thursday, because as Tom mentioned, we're having our US post midterm what now? Episode with White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi and US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. We we actually just got off the phone with both of them a few minutes ago. And truly you will not want to miss a second of it. So hit subscribe. We'll see you on Thursday. Bye.


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