2030 Is Out. How About 2050 – Is 2050 Good For You?

When it comes to climate action, 2050 is the new never.

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Cartoonist Bob Mankoff's most famous work for the New Yorker was the 1993 cartoon of a guy making a lunch appointment, concluding "No, Thursday's out. How about never – Is never good for you?" Looking at some of the corporate pledges on climate change, it is beginning to look like 2050 is the new never. According to Bloomberg, Wells Fargo is pointing its ponies at 2050 as its deadline to go net-zero. According to its CEO:

“Climate change is one of the most urgent environmental and social issues of our time, and Wells Fargo is committed to aligning our activities to support the goals of the Paris Agreement and to helping transition to a net-zero carbon economy."

Hannah Levitt of Bloomberg says Wells Fargo is the seventh-largest financier of fossil fuel companies; Goldman Sachs is also aiming for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It also signed the UN's Collective Commitment to Climate Action, "the most ambitious global banking sector initiative supporting the transition to a net-zero economy by 2050." CEO David Solomon says:

"Though we’ve made progress on our sustainable finance goals, one thing is clear: To make even further progress, collaboration is vital, especially in the short term."

The trouble is, all these companies seem to be avoiding the short term. They all pick 2050, the year noted in the Paris Agreement as the target for getting emissions to net-zero to keep the global rise in temperature under 1.5°C, while ignoring 2030, the year by which emissions have to be cut in half. These dates exist because treaties like the Paris Agreement need dates and targets, but as Kate Marvel wrote in Scientific American a few years ago when we had more time:

"You may have heard that we have 12 years [now nine] to fix everything. This is well-meaning nonsense, but it’s still nonsense. We have both no time and more time. Climate change isn’t a cliff we fall off, but a slope we slide down. And, true, we’ve chosen to throw ourselves headlong down the hill at breakneck speed. But we can always choose to begin the long, slow, brutal climb back up."

Perhaps the most dangerous approach to 2030 comes from Bill Gates in his new book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster." He thinks we should be using the time between now and 2030 to figure out what we should do, suggesting that "Making reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us from ever getting to zero." That's because we would be doing the small things when we should be thinking big. "But we’d be setting ourselves up for long-term success. With every breakthrough in generating, storing, and delivering clean electricity, we would march closer and closer to zero."

This is almost the definition of what Alex Steffen calls "predatory delay" – don't do anything now when we can do it later, better, with our carbon capture and storage, nuclear reactors, and hydrogen.

The trouble is, as Edouard Stenger notes, by then it's probably too late.

Then there is Morgan Stanley, which "plans to eliminate the net carbon emissions generated by its financing activities within 30 years," which in terms of climate, is pretty much the same as never.

In a wonderful piece titled Occam’s Razor for the Planet, Dr. Jonathan Foley notes:

"The simplest environmental solutions are often the best. They’re proven. They’re ready now. They can help us avert disaster. So why do many prefer complicated, high-tech, faraway gadgets instead?"

This is an issue we discuss every day with our predilection for zero waste instead of circularity, for insulation and Passive House instead of net-zero, for electric bikes instead of electric cars, for less meat instead of lab-grown meat. It's why we talk about radical simplicity and radical sufficiency.

Because these are all things that we can do now, Otherwise it is just like the cartoon: Thursday's out. How about 2050 – is 2050 good for you?"