86. The Scientific Case for The Race to Zero with Johan Rockström
Welcome to Season 3!
With a renewed sense of optimism felt around the world with the inauguration of President Joe Biden in the United States this month, our collective sigh of relief is quickly met with the sobering reality of the moment – Nature’s systems are collapsing and we are running out of time to stop irreversible changes to our planet.
The science is clear. If we do not rapidly cut global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% in 2030, we will push our Earth beyond the ‘planetary boundaries’ that have sustained life for millions upon millions of years.
So what exactly are these ‘planetary boundaries’ we are dangerously approaching, and what are the science-based solutions to achieve our 2030 emissions target? Is there hope for our future? Our guest this week, Johan Rockström, is here to present the sobering, scientific case for why science demands a united global commitment for the race to zero.
Johan Rockström is an internationally recognised scientist and director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research. He is best known for his influential work on the ‘planetary boundaries’ framework on which he has delivered two outstanding Ted Talks, the most recent as part of the Ted Countdown series.
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Thank you to our guest this week, Johan Rockström.
Watch two of his TED Talks mentioned in the episode here:
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You absolutely need to listen to her album version of “The Patriots”
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Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:00:12] Hello and welcome to Outrage and Optimism, I’m Tom Rivett-Carnac.
Christiana Figueres: I’m Christiana Figueres.
Paul Dickinson: And I’m Paul Dickinson.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: This week we set the scene for the Race To Zero in the 2020s by setting out what’s at stake for all of us. We discussed the re-entry of the U.S. into the Paris agreement and we speak with world renowned scientist Johan Rockström. Plus, there’s music from Ayoni. Thanks for being here. So here we are, 2021, the beginning of season three, we’re back together again, of course, the break that we were supposed to take hasn’t really been a break because so much has been going on with big bonuses and dropping in investigative reporting.
[00:00:58] But that’s all been good. And we hope that you, the listener, have been enjoying it. But here we are. This is the year that 2020 was supposed to be. We’re kicking off 2021, this amazing road ahead of us now with an unbelievable wind at our backs that we could barely have imagined a year ago.
[00:01:13] We have science driven policy in the White House. We have clarity from government leaders all around the world. We have a US back in the Paris agreement. Actually, it’s very strange. I mean, even just a few months ago, it all seemed we were getting distracted by covid, but now it feels that we are collectively able to focus on the big issues and climate is right at the front of that.
[00:01:35] So I don’t know about you, too, but I’m starting this year pretty high on optimism. The outrage is always there, but the optimism is riding high.
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:44] Yeah, I’m also riding high and as usual, I was going to say for a change but that’s tongue in cheek. But actually time you said this is the year 2020 was meant to be. Actually, I think 2021 is so much better, as you mentioned, than 2020, because for one, for everything that you’ve mentioned but I want to add to that list because I continue to think that covid has taught us many, many lessons.
[00:02:14] Covid has broken our travel habit, mindless travel habit, whether that’s from home to the office or from a home to three times around the world, that is fundamental, fundamental to our quality of life personally, but also to greenhouse gas emissions. It has broken the habit of everyone needing office space and hence what real estate is going to be like. It’s broken that commitment to very, very quick urbanization. I’m going to be really interested to see urbanization rates from now on, because I think most people, or if not most, but many people will prefer to live outside in the green and commute by zoom rather than commute via a vehicle or in fact even live in the cities. So there is so much actually that we have going for us now in 2021 that we didn’t have in 2020. Of course, in addition to a true White House with all the lights on.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:03:23] Now, you’re absolutely right, Christiana. And actually, what an amazing time to be putting this podcast out, because we have had just had such a statement of intent from the Biden administration just a couple of days ago, Wednesday, during the first week, first full week of the administration was Climate Day, and a whole series of commitments and announcements was rolled out. John Kerry and Gina McCarthy, both of whom, of course, have been on this podcast, Gina just last week, came out and laid out both the international and the domestic agenda on climate so first, John Kerry reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to working with other large emitters, to ambitious actions at home and together reminding us that the U.S., China and the EU account for more than half of all emissions globally and that working together has to be the priority. He also firmly committed to science backed actions, including accelerating the energy transition. And that President Biden will host a leaders summit on the 22nd of April Earth Day, of course, so that the U.S. can play its part in ensuring a strong outcome at COP 26 in Glasgow in November this year. So just night and day on the international scene compared to where we were, of course, all of that coming hot on the heels of the U.S. re-entry into the Paris agreement. However, without a clear domestic agenda, it’s going to be tough for the U.S. To convince the rest of the world that this is really different. And Gina McCarthy has stepped up promising the U.S. will submit its nationally determined contributions before the summit in April, which is a really aggressive timeline. Executive orders targeting oil and gas are expected to be pushed forward as well, with wide reaching protection of federal lands within Biden’s executive reach. Now, apparently, we’ll have to wait a little longer to see what the administration decides about coal, something that the U.S. Campaign groups will be pushing for quickly. But McCarthy said that it will be reviewed under the wider remit that she’s undertaking right now. And anyone who was listening last week will know that that means it’s going to be met with energy and determination and commitment. And my favorite quote from today was when John Kerry came out and said failure is not an option. Absolutely right. And that level of commitment is what we now need, have needed so urgently. And now we have back in the White House.
Paul Dickinson: [00:05:41] Which is a very nice thing to have. You’re absolutely right, as ever, this is what Season three is all about. It is about this fantastic New Year and very exciting to be introducing our Race to Zero series. And just for the listeners, we’ve been having quite a debate about whether the new Race to Zero music is going to be used in this episode or in future episodes. And actually it’s not been approved.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:06:04] The listeners will know by now whether they heard new music at the beginning or not. But if they didn’t, it will be coming in future episodes.
Paul Dickinson: [00:06:12] Do you? Does Clay? Essentially there is new music coming. It’s of a different character. It’s sort of –
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:06:16] I think remixed is the technical term. But yes.
Paul Dickinson: [00:06:19] Thank you. So that’s something to look forward to. But the Race to Zero is about more than just the music, is it not?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:06:26] It is about more than just music.
Christiana Figueres: [00:06:27] The jingle is what you’re talking about, not the music that comes at the end. Let’s be specific here. Otherwise, we get our listeners very confused.
Paul Dickinson: [00:06:35] We ourselves do not quite know what we’re doing with this music, but it’s going to be fantastic. It’s going to be tremendous. Tom, the Race to Zero.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:06:42] Well, I mean, I think to me, the place where we should start describing the Race to Zero, of course, our good friend and friend of this podcast, Nigel Topping, who listeners will have heard from many times and will hear again, is leading the Race to Zero as the UK’s High Level Champion for Climate Action. But I’d start by saying that 2021 contains something that is very important for the world in trying to deal with complex long term problems. And that is a deadline. Most years we kind of run through and there are these deadlines that we try to create. We want to get commitments from national governments, from corporates, whatever. But then every now and then, these very important years turn up when something is going to happen, a big summit, a deadline of some kind. And actually that drives a whole bunch of additional commitment. And this is one of those years. And that deadline is, of course, Glasgow. And as we learn on the road to Paris and has been experienced many times before, when you have those deadlines, you can use them to great effect. And that’s what the world is doing around the Race to Zero. So the high level champions and the rest of the world are all now mobilising key sectors to think how can we transform more rapidly key areas of our economies across business, across cities, across regions, across investors to try to accelerate climate action, to ensure that it comes more into line with what we need it to be to keep us to 1.5 Degrees. And Paul, you are looking extremely confused. Am I doing a bad job?
[00:08:03] No, this is the thing because, you see, I thought you see, I thought the Paris agreement was all the nations in the world came together, the gavel went down, and every single country supported this fantastic agreement. And now you’re not talking about countries. You are talking about these non-state actors, these companies, these investors, these cities are. I’m confused. What’s going on?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:08:24] Well, progress on these issues is a grand alliance, right? It’s a grand alliance between national governments and all other actors in society who can really make decisions. But as we experienced in Paris and as you know, Paul, from your decades working on this often, it’s the other parts of the economy away from the national governments that can really lead the charge. So the question is, and we’ve been debating this around this series, should it just be about what actors other than national governments are doing, what we talked about before, business, cities, regions, investors? Or should we also do deep dives into what National countries are doing deep dives into what –
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:57] National countries?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:08:57] Deep dive into countries.
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:59] They’re my favorite kind.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:09:00] Christiana, what’s your view on this?
Christiana Figueres: [00:09:02] Well, my view is that Paul is acting ignorant, whereas actually he is fundamentally one of the anchor points of this stakeholder engagement through his day job. But thank you for asking the question, Paul. And the fact is that we did have long conversations and it seems that we have made a decision, although it wasn’t entirely clear to me when we started this conversation that we had decided. So the Race to Zero means the race to zero net emissions, as we know. And we did debate or continue to debate whether that’s going to be only on non-governments who do not formally negotiate anything at the COP in Glasgow or where are whether we were going to include what states are doing? Because actually national governments are also doing very exciting things. Like, for example, we just read that China has added almost seventy two gigawatts of wind power just last year, which is more than double the previous record. It is just beyond. Right. I mean, so fantastic.
[00:10:17] We remember when President Xi made a commitment in September to be carbon neutral before 2060. And here they are, you know, well, on to the delivery of that. So it’s very tempting to drop in everything that countries are doing. And we will be admittedly very tempted throughout the entire year to update our listeners and what the U.S. is doing, because for a change, there is going to be many, many contributions from the U.S., starting from the fact that the Biden administration chose Wednesday, the 27th of January, to be Climate Day with all of these announcements.
[00:11:04] So we are going to be very tempted, but we’re going to try to focus the Race to Zero series on what non-states are doing and then peppering in lots of information of what countries are doing.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:11:21] Is that clear to you?
Paul Dickinson: [00:11:22] Well, yeah. I mean, you know, I think business runs the world. I’ve been thinking that for 30 years, but I don’t think business is yet aware.
Christiana Figueres: [00:11:29] I thought I thought your aspiration was to run the world, Paul.
Paul Dickinson: [00:11:33] Yes. And it’s it’s not going as well as I’d hoped by this point in my career. I’m expecting to have a sort of an enormous basically castle, several actually, let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about climate change. So these non-state actors, I think they’re the they’re the game. And I think national governments are kind of like the rules. I mean, that’s a bit simplistic, but they can’t exist without each other.
[00:12:01] The national governments are seeking to empower, to facilitate to create the enabling conditions for industry and the national and global companies and cities and investors are together kind of coming together. That’s the theme it seems to me. And to me, Glasgow is like an opening ceremony of this kind of the great Olympics that will run between now and 2030 as countries and industry and investors kind of collaborate to try and make the best structural plans to achieve these incredibly challenging, exciting goals. And it’s going to be just the best and most exciting year I hope and believe. And I think the Race to Zero will carry us through is an incredible theme with Glasgow as the sort of, as you said at the finish line that gets us there. But, Christiana, let me ask you a difficult question, because you actually doing your email when you should be concentrating, which is fair enough, but I just wanted to let the listener know, you know, this is how we bring Christiana –
Christiana Figueres: [00:13:00] I’m not doing an email, Paul. I am attending to very urgent other issues. And as any wonderful woman, I can actually multitask.
Paul Dickinson: [00:13:13] You don’t know how jealous men are about that because we just do one thing and we just think it’s tremendously important, whatever we do.
Christiana Figueres: [00:13:19] But you do it very well and you concentrate on it. So not, you know, don’t put yourselves down.
Paul Dickinson: [00:13:25] Well, thank you very much indeed.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:13:27] I feel so put down!
Paul Dickinson: [00:13:28] But justifiably with evidence in fact.
Christiana Figueres: [00:13:32] Here’s the thing about multitasking before you go into that, OK, I have reached the conclusion that yes, I can do multitasking, but if you multitask, the fact is that you’re doing several things sort of OK, but you’re not doing anything with full presence. So that’s the price that you pay. So many men, but also some women who focus only on one thing are actually paying much more attention and being much more present to that which is going on. So my admiration for those who do not multitask.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:14:11] My experience of multitasking is doing several things extremely badly rather than fairly well. So, yeah, that’s that. But maybe that’s a good analogy for what we decide to do with this series and focus just on the non-state actors rather than trying to also do national governments.
Paul Dickinson: [00:14:22] The problem with knowing more and more about less and less is eventually, you know, everything about nothing. So you have to be a little bit careful. But Christiana, you have this extraordinary ability to bring all the world’s nations together. You did it in 2015, this landmark agreement that’s on the front page of every newspaper for the rest of time.
Christiana Figueres: [00:14:39] My God, I’m really nervous about what the question is going to be now.
Paul Dickinson: [00:14:42] How are we going to do it with the non-state actors?
[00:14:45] Well, we build actually on past experience. That’s something that we’ve been doing now for years, also since before 2015, as you well know, that it was actually under Tom’s baton that we started bringing non-state actors together to encourage governments to adopt the ambitious decisions that they had to adopt. But something that we started very much as a I would say a black ops operation has actually exploded now and is very much in the forefront. Nigel Topping, being the champion for the U.K. Champion of Climate Action, has a huge team under him. How many people does he have?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:15:28] I have no idea. 7400. More every time.
[00:15:31] Yeah, I mean, just a huge team. Whereas Tom –
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:15:35] And Gonzalo Munoz, the champion for Chile. They are a team. They are a duo. Yeah.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:15:39] Yeah, they’re a team. Whereas Tom was doing this, you know, with I think four or five people stuck in some office that nobody was supposed to know where it was. So that’s actually all a good thing, right, that what was covert is now not just overt, but actually the most interesting game in town, in COP 26, because COP 26, yes. We will have countries coming around to say here is how much I’ve done and here is how much more I can do. But it’s honestly, it’s going to be difficult for the press and for lay people to get hugely excited about a country that goes from, I don’t know, a 26 percent reduction to a thirty two percent reduction. It’s not exactly what captures your imagination, although hugely important. I do think that the imagination will be captured by everything that is going to be happening on the non-state side, because that’s where innovation is happening. That’s where we really get to the nuts and bolts of this transformation. And technology is changing so, so fast. And the coming together now of AI, of digitalization, of renewable energy, is just so exciting that we’re going to see many things being announced at COP 26 that we didn’t even think was possible. Yeah. So I’m very excited. And the other piece that I think is very exciting is that finally the Cinderella of this whole climate action, which is everything to do with land use, food systems, cutting down on deforestation, all of that piece I think is also ripe for explosion at COP 26. So I’m very excited about this year and Glasgow.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:17:24] Amazing. And what this gives us a chance to do for the listener who’s wondering after this slightly chaotic conversation exactly what the series is going to contain is if you followed Outrage and Optimism last year, you will have heard we did these deep dives into the future of transportation. And your feedback was that you really liked those because they helped us and you to understand in greater detail what’s really going on with shipping, what’s really happening with aviation, talk to some of the key people involved in those sectors and really unpack what the future could look like. Well, that’s the model. We’re going to be taking a similar approach and looking at some of the most exciting areas that are unfolding with new technology, with amazing innovators, with solutions that are emerging all around the world. And once a month, we’ll bring you one of those special editions. So if you have ideas of things you want us to focus on, do let us know. We’d be really keen to hear from you. And we’ve got ideas around what the first few are going to be, but it’s going to be such an exciting year that’s going to unfold at such pace. We really want to hear from you.
[00:18:20] One of the great things about the last month or so, actually, while we’ve been off is we’ve had loads of correspondence from you. We asked for that and you fed back to us, which was great. And then we’ve also had more and more engagement. Just recently we heard on Twitter from Ahmed and what he said was that from his experience, much of the messaging that’s coming from the Biden campaign so far has stopped at the idea and the detail around how this transformation is going to be achieved and how people will actually gain more than they will lose in this transformation. And that’s such an interesting question, because it demonstrates that for people it’s still hard to kind of get your arms around and see what this world is going to be that we’re trying to create. So in part what we’re going to try and do in the series, that’s a big question is hard for us to unpack that for you right now. But in a way, this series is sort of a response to that question, is to unpack these different sectors, how they’re unfolding, how beneficial that transformation can be for the planet, but also how beneficial it can be for people.
[00:19:17] And living in that future is going to be a cleaner future with better jobs, more prosperous and all those other good things. So that’s what this Race to Zero series is about. It’s not the entirety of what we’re doing in Outrage and Optimism this year. We will continue with our regular program three times a month and then once a month we’ll do these deep dives. But today we wanted to start off the whole year, normal programming and Race to Zero series by reminding us all what’s at stake in this transformation and who better to take us through that than world renowned scientist Johan Rockström. We had the privilege of speaking with Johan just the other day. He is the director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research. He’s best known for his influential work on the Planetary Boundaries Framework, on which he’s delivered two outstanding TED talks, one of them as part of the recent TED Countdown. And I cannot recommend them highly enough. And Clay will put links to these in the show notes. We caught up with him to hear his compelling and sobering science based case for a united global commitment to the Race to Zero. Here’s Johan.
Christiana Figueres: [00:20:30] Johan, hello. Welcome to a new year and a new world, I must say. Thank you so much for joining us. Actually, just barely a week after the inauguration of President Biden and VP Harris, I know that we’re all still on a high on cloud 99 just from that inauguration day. How meaningful, how beautiful, how you know, what a breath of fresh air, of healing and compassion and engagement with issues that really matter. And so we are delighted that you are joining us today because we feel we have to balance our delight at new leadership with a deeper understanding of the reality that we’re facing. And for that, we have invited you to be our guest for our first episode of this year.
[00:21:32] And we really just want Johan for you to ground us, bring us down from cloud 99 and ground us into the reality of what we’re facing here. You gave an absolutely brilliant TED talk in October of last year in which you provided a very, very sobering update of the challenges that we’re facing with respect to planetary boundaries and how we have exceeded them. And you described that latest review that you made of these systems was the shock of your career. Could you please explain that to us? Why was it so shocking? Why was it not already known how bad things were?
Johan Rockström: [00:22:24] Yeah, I’ll do that. And first of all, wonderful to to see you virtually, Christiana. And great to be here. And you’re absolutely right. It’s a moment of relief at the inauguration. The first thing I did was to send out a tweet basically saying U.S. Is back. What a relief. A voice of unanimous support from the scientific community in the world, because I think there’s not one scientist on this planet that doesn’t, you know, just feel that the weight has released with, you know, has lifted. And then just literally hour after that, President Biden brought the U.S. Back into your Paris agreement, our Paris agreement. So that’s, of course –
Christiana Figueres: [00:23:13] Our Paris agreement. Our collective Paris agreement.
Johan Rockström: [00:23:17] Of course. Yeah. So what does science tell us and why was this the shock of my life? So, as you know, we have for the past ten years been exploring, basically trying to answer two questions. One is, what are the natural or biophysical processes and systems that regulates the stability of the entire planet, the planetary boundaries. And we’ve been able to scientifically put quantitative targets. That gives us a safe operating space for a stable climate, but also functioning natural ecosystems for human well-being. And these boundaries are set because the scientific evidence is already 10 years back show that if we transgress these boundaries, if we move beyond them, we enter a danger zone that can trigger nonlinear changes, what we call tipping points, where things start moving in the wrong direction and are unstoppable, such as irreversible melting of the ice sheet or changes in the ocean circulation, or that the Amazon rainforest flips over into becoming a savannah. Ten years back when we did this assessment, we had evidence that, yes, these tipping points exist, but none of them have been crossed yet. Now, the update, which was published in 2019, which is just before the pandemic showed and that was the shock of my career, that that 9 out of the 15 known big systems, what we call tipping elements, are showing very severe signs of approaching tipping point.
[00:24:56] So not that they have crossed, but we have today evidence that they are either slowing down or behaving unnaturally or showing real signs of losing resilience and moving too close to tipping points. And among these 9, there are 3 that we could you know, we’ve haven’t done it publicly. But I would argue that scientifically we can say that we already must consider that they have very likely crossed tipping points already. And the number one is, is the canary in the coal mine, the ground zero point, which is the Arctic summer sea ice. We’ve passed the point of no return there, which is, as you know, affecting weather systems in the northern hemisphere with heat waves and droughts and forest fires. It is impacting the entire Gulf Stream, is even impacting the monsoon system that provides the rainfall for the Amazon rainforest. And it’s even causing warmer surface temperatures that accelerate the melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf. That’s the number one. And the number two is that a number of glaciers in the West Antarctica are starting to irreversibly slide into the ocean, crossed the tipping point and which would, you know, commit ourselves to very likely another one to two metres of unstoppable sea level rise.
[00:26:17] And the final one is, of course, the system that we read about all the time now, the tipping point in the tropical coral reef systems in the world. So that was the shock of my life to recognize that what we identified ten years back is now playing out faster than we had predicted and that several of these tipping points are starting to be crossed. And we know that once we cross them, we push the button of self-reinforced warming. So suddenly you see systems that turn from being our best friend of cooling and dampening our emission of greenhouse gases and fossil fuel burning. To becoming a foe, which means that when ice melts, the planet gets darker and absorbs more heat. When forests die back, they cannot absorb and be carbon sinks. So this is the if you want to talk of a scientific nightmare, what would keep scientists, you know awake at night is really losing the resilience of the planet. And so that was the state of science as we meet basically today.
Paul Dickinson: [00:27:27] Wow. Christiana is speechless.
Christiana Figueres: [00:27:32] I know I am I am speechless because, Johan, I have been with you throughout so many years and in so many efforts, but I have never heard you state this in such a sobering fashion. I’m trying to regain my speech here. And I guess my follow up question is, and so now what? Would you know, we keep on saying or repeating what we hear from you and from scientists that the immediate goal here needs to be to reduce our global emissions by one half over the next 9 years by 2030. Would that make any difference?
Johan Rockström: [00:28:21] Well, the sobering or let’s say the light in the tunnel, is quite a firm, yes, it will make a difference. So the nightmare assessment is that we are rapidly approaching tipping points faster than we had predicted. We may have already lost 3 of the big systems. 9 of 15 are in danger.
[00:28:43] It is a kind of a last warning signal from science. Science is saying we have learned so much. Here are the red flags we can deviate away from losing the remaining 12 systems we know of. And that requires cutting emissions by half of a decade and reaching a a net zero world economy in 30 years’ time. The challenge, though, is that that will not be enough, it won’t be enough to kind of phase ourselves away from fossil fuels in one generation, which is the task. We also need to keep all our remaining natural ecosystems intact. We need to become very, very careful caretakers of oceans and all the natural ecosystems on land. And as we know, we have not only, you know, burning fossil fuels in a way that has put us at risk. We’ve also destroyed 50 percent of the land based ecosystems on Earth. We’ve lost 60 percent of the populations of of wild mammals since just 1970 during my well, during our lifetime. And so that’s the task now that if we can keep natural ecosystems intact and follow the carbon law of cutting emissions by half every decade, then at least from what we know today, we can still avoid the most what I will call to the catastrophe outcomes in the sense that we would still have massive challenges.
[00:30:19] I mean, with massive challenge already today at 1.2 degree Celsius warming. And it’s very challenging. But we can still probably land not far away from 1.5 degrees Celsius. I would argue that that’s still a target we should really, really aim at under all circumstances. It will be painful even at 1.5, because you should know that the planet has never been so warm since we left the last Ice Age. So it’s already as soon as we passed 1 degree Celsius, we already outside of the warmest points since we entered the Holocene 12000 years ago. But still, the scientific conclusion is that that would not trigger the other the other 9 or the 12 of the known 15 tipping elements. So I would I would I would take this scientific evidence we have today as an even stronger, you know, support from the scientific community to act with urgency..
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:31:21] Johan, it’s so good to hear you talk about this with such clarity. I mean, it’s just the degree of penetration which your voice has had on this issue. And I mean, this alarming warning, of course, which we’ve known is coming right to the point where we start saying, you know what, we’re not approaching these tipping points anymore. We’re beginning to cross them.
[00:31:37] And once we cross them, there’s this very real possibility that they’ll slip beyond our control. And it’s hard to hear. But I think it’s good to be reminded of this on quite a regular basis for all of us who care about this issue. Can I just ask you to dig in in one particular point? Because you talk there about, you know, changes in land use as well. And I think many people intuitively understand burning fossil fuels, worsening climate change. And I think one of the, a big part of your work has been to explain the intersection between land use change, agriculture and really what’s happening. So I know it’s a complicated area, but would you just kind of give us a bit of an overview of that and particularly how agriculture and how we feed ourselves is making the situation worse and could improve it?
Johan Rockström: [00:32:27] I think the starting point for that is the basic reminder that since we started burning fossil fuels, you know, sometime in the 1850s, from that moment up until today, terrestrial ecosystems or land has been our best friend by absorbing on average per year, roughly 25 percent, 25 percent of our emissions caused by fossil fuel burning taken up by trees, biomass and soils. So the more we burn, the more stress we put on the planet, the more planet Earth has been helping us by just absorbing more and more is just the proof of the biophysical resilience of the system.
[00:33:14] You stress it. It’s been protecting us. The most important insight in this is that what have we also done during the hundred fifty years where we have cut down forests, destroyed ecosystems and transformed it into agriculture, infrastructure and cities. So roughly 50 percent of the land area on planet Earth is today transformed, particularly into agriculture.
[00:33:36] Now, the big drama is that when you look carefully at the numbers, the 25 percent of carbon uptake, all of it is in natural ecosystems. So agricultural land is actually the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. So it’s quite a can you imagine just the drama that you have, you know, natural ecosystems, which is this tremendous carbon sink. But as soon as you transform it into food production, it actually turns into a carbon source. So agriculture’s today roughly, you know, causing up to 24, 25 percent of global emissions. That includes both deforestation and the production of food.
[00:34:19] Just ploughing soils means that organic matter in the root zone gets more exposed to the sun and to the atmosphere and burns off and releases carbon dioxide. So, you know, we have to recognize that food is the single largest cause, I mean, single largest economic sector behind emission of greenhouse gases. But not only that, food production is the prime cause where we’re losing biodiversity while we are cutting down trees, while we are consuming freshwater, 70 percent of the consumption of fresh water by us humans is for irrigation in food production. Food production is the biggest cause of why we are emitting nitrous oxide from our overuse of fertilizers. So to put it very simple, food is the number one single culprit behind transgressing planetary boundaries and putting the planet at risk, which means that food can also be the single largest solution to our future, together with, you know, phasing out fossil fuels. So there is this urgency point of decarbonising the energy system, but also transforming the global food system. But as things stand today, food is a prime cause behind both climate change and undermining the life support systems in natural ecosystems. So but the good news is that this little summary to you is also showing how much knowledge we have here. I mean, we have a good handle on on both the causes, but also and we can come into that many of the solutions that are out there to turn agriculture from being an emitter to becoming a part of the solution.
Paul Dickinson: [00:36:01] Johan it is so good to hear you talk, confirm something I think we all know and many of our listeners know that there is an absolute revolution in food science, in food production and you know all of our listeners, I hope, and everyone who knows us, I hope is is considering this new extraordinary duty and opportunity. But can I ask you a question really about the scientific community?
[00:36:27] You know, in my apartment here, I have a fire alarm and, you know, the scientific community are a fire alarm. And by the way, I mean, you know, you just said there’s a fire, OK? And if I can use the metaphor, there is a little light flashing on my fire alarm, but the world is sleeping. And the way the fire alarm is designed is it makes this incredible noise and it takes everybody up and we go to safety. And so my question for you Johan is how can the scientific community best partner with corporations, with investors, with civil society, with artists? You know, as you were talking, I’m starting to wonder, where are the military, where is our national security institutions? How can scientists best partner, you know, in a society that is going to protect itself?
Johan Rockström: [00:37:18] You know, I think you yourself and particularly you, Christiana you’re sitting on the answer yourself, because I think that the very title of this podcast has the answer. I mean, it’s a how do you create a cocktail that has equal elements of outrage with equal elements of optimism? I find it today absolutely fundamental. And you know that so well, Christiana, that we need to put all the cards on the table and never, ever back off from communicating the disastrous risks we’re facing.
[00:37:55] The fire alarm, the evidence behind the fire alarm, loud and clear. Many, many colleagues of mine have been warning me over the years please don’t scare, please don’t go out with all the evidence because it can paralyze people. I’m absolutely convinced that that’s not the case. I think it mobilizes people. It causes the outrage and the adrenaline we actually need to rise at this situation because if you hear a fire alarm, you get pumped up and you need to do something. The challenge is that is pointless to pump up the adrenaline. If you don’t have the fire hose, you need to be able to call the fire brigade. And we scientists have been quite bad at that, to be honest. We’ve tended to get the bell ringing without giving the number you call for the solution. The duty today is that we have a complete maturity on both scientific fields, the science of risk and the science of solution. And that’s a very exciting moment to be in because it means we have a new narrative that’s not only emerging it’s really in place. We have the scalable solutions to deviate from disaster. Isn’t that quite powerful?
Christiana Figueres: [00:39:07] Can I bring you full circle on that, Johan? And as you well say, no good sounding the alarm if we can’t bring in the fire hose. So let me bring you full circle on that where we were before. What is the fire hose for food systems? Because it can’t be from now on, we’re not going to eat. Right. We have to be able to eat. So what are the changes yet? What are the changes that need to be made in food systems so that we can bring that into alignment with planetary responsibility?
Johan Rockström: [00:39:39] Yeah, so luckily, we have actually quite some scientific evidence to answer that question. One piece of that evidence is the Lancet Commission that I led, together with Professor Walter Willett at Harvard, professor of public health of just two years back, where we put in place for the first time the planetary health diet, where we tried to quantitatively define a healthy diet for all people on Earth that can stay within planetary boundaries. I mean, where are the synergies between eating so we can have good health and planetary health? And the conclusion is from the health scientist that a flexitarian diet where we have quite a drastic reduction of red meat consumption of white meat consumption increase the marine protein.
[00:40:31] So it’s not necessarily going vegetarian, but it’s, you know, going from 700 grams of red meat consumption per capita per week in the in the rich part of the world, down to 150 grams. So that’s a drastic reduction. Much more fruit, nuts, vegetables, plant-based proteins. So that’s one part of the solution space. And that’s interesting because it has a beautiful win-win. We eat more plant-based proteins, we can therefore share more of the existing farmland with the growing population in the world, and we reduce climate change impacts and biodiversity impacts. But the second element of this is that we have to transition very fast in sustainable food production. The beauty is that we have the solutions for this. We know how to have better crop rotations, water harvesting systems, conservation, agriculture, which is to transition away from ploughing into copying nature, to have minimum tillage systems that we have science today with all the genetic research coming, you know, making leaps ahead, for example, like the Land Institute developing new forms of perennial staple food crops. And that sounds very technical, but you can just imagine if a farmer doesn’t have to sow for your wheat and your maize every year, but instead you plant your maize and wheat and you can harvest over four or five, six years because it goes from being an annual crop to becoming like a perennial bush. And these perennial crops have root systems that are much, much deeper, much more resilient, much more carbon in the soil and much less diesel and the tractor. So, you know, there is a whole package of system solutions that is available and ready to scale.
[00:42:29] So I think we have an agricultural revolution and a health revolution that we can put in place right now. And I mean, the numbers are daunting. We know, for example, that, you know, the number of malnourished in the world, the roughly one billion, are equal to the number of obese in the world, which actually exceed that that billion. So we have a world where the food system is broken, both in terms of unhealth and in terms of planetary risk. So there is such a huge win-win here.
[00:43:03] This year we have the UN Global Food System Summit, which will be in between the COP meeting on biodiversity and the COP meeting on climate in Glasgow. I hope that there will be some real momentum there because we’ve been walking around this issue for forever.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:43:24] Johan, thank you and it’s so great I’m really glad that we got back to solutions on the agricultural system. I think people really want to know what they can do. And it’s a fundamental part of our relationship with the world around us. So that’s really, really helpful. And like you say, the kind of coincidence of health and planetary health is just remarkable in all these things.
[00:43:41] We have one closing question that Christiana will ask you in just a minute. The other thing which you spent a lot of your time and energy on in terms of solutions, and I’m trying to focus on some of these less obvious solutions because people kind of get now energy system transformation, electric vehicles. But heavy transport has been a really pernicious part of our system that’s been difficult to transform. And you’ve kind of really taken that on as well and asked what could the solutions be? Can you just give us a quick overview of what are some of the solutions? Everything we buy and consume comes through some form of heavy transport or trucking. How are we going to get on top of that and get that where it needs to be for the type of transformation you’re talking about?
Johan Rockström: [00:44:20] Yes, and let me describe that the solution, not primarily in technical terms, but rather in in kind of tipping point terms, how can you tip the logic in the whole global heavy transport sector? So to begin with, as Christiana knows better than anyone. This is one of the difficult to abate sectors.
[00:44:39] I mean, heavy transport, trucks are in this area that is so difficult to get off the combustion engine because of the sheer challenge of how do you put batteries in electrifying big trucks, too heavy, too expensive, and therefore it’s in the difficult to abate sector.
[00:45:00] Secondly, we have been testing different ways of accelerating transformative chang by trying to learn from natural ecosystems. Because when you look at natural ecosystems, if you are in a rainforest or in a marine system, you always find a food web with the top predators. You always have a few species like wolves and cod in some areas and big sharks in other systems that are so-called keystone actors. And these keystone actors are not a majority. They are a minority. But they determine the outcome for the entire ecosystem by the sheer importance of their individual role in the whole ecosystem. So we’ve been applying this methodology, looking at can we find keystone actors, not keystone species out in economic sectors. And in this case, when we looked at the European market, which is the single largest economic region, we found that there are six big truck makers that produce trucks across the entire European Union and that these are keystone actors in the sense that not only are they very few, but they also control such a large economic unit and are global players. And moreover, when you look at any sector today, if it is a textile or food, retail or in any consumer goods, they’re all dependent on their scope 3 emissions, particularly on transport. So we invited these this group of truck makers at the CEO level, this finite group of six. And they all came for a closed science business dialogue and agreed to commit at a pre-competitive level to science based targets of stopping to sell combustion engines, trucks starting 2040 in just 20 years’ time.
[00:46:55] And our hypothesis is that if you get Daimler one of them, the world’s largest truck maker, Volvo, Scania, this is Ford, DAF, IVECO, these big actors to adopt science based targets, they don’t represent all the truck makers in the world, but they are keystone actors potentially, that if they join forces and go public and start investing R&D and say that we are now going to cut emissions by half every decade, we are phasing out in 20 years time, this can spill over and potentially change the logic across the whole value chain, not only in their sector, but potentially in other sectors, because suddenly H&M can say, yeah, my God, here we have a solution for our Scope 3 emissions because we can buy zero carbon trucks from Daimler or from IVECO or from any one of these keystone actors. So that’s the thinking to get kind of a vertical and horizontal tipping point in terms of accelerated change. So that that’s the thinking behind this. Then on the solutions side, there isn’t one silver bullet. What we see in our assessments is that electrification is one solution. Hydrogen is one very important one for the heavy truck sector. We see that biofuels will inevitably be a transition solution because they can be used in the current diesel engine structure. So it is kind of a bridge technology. So we will certainly see a quite a quite a diverse transition here.
[00:48:29] But interestingly, they all stepped up and said, we are on board and we see this as an exciting, competitive. And quite frankly, my assessment is as a survival strategy for these industries because they see the writing on the wall.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:48:45] Amazing. I love that. Thinking about ecological design thinking as a campaign tool to change the world is fantastic.
Christiana Figueres: [00:48:52] Well, Johan, that concept of keystone actors is so pivotal, as you say, it’s so critical. And one example that we’ve been working with is the Asset Owner Alliance, where we are bringing together those keystone actors in the financial space. We started this conversation with you when you dropped us into total despair and you brought us through to the solution space or at least to the potential space, and as you say, that’s the gamut that we run between optimism and outrage. So the final question that we always ask all our guests is, where is your balance? Where do you find, you know, your fulcrum there in that seesaw between outrage and optimism?
Johan Rockström: [00:49:47] Yeah, that’s a very important question, Christiana, and it’s not easy to answer because, of course, as I’m sure it is for you as well, it isn’t a kind of an average flat state that is constant.
[00:50:05] I mean, I go very much up and down to be honest. And my conclusion is that I’m more optimistic than during several years, actually. And my strongest optimism at this point really comes from what I would call the emerging G3 on climate with U.S., the European Union and China now stepping up behind science, adopting a net zero target for 2050 or no later than 2060 for China. And you could just imagine this is also a keystone actor type situation, because here we have the three largest economic powers in the world aligning with science and saying that in 30 years’ time, in one generation, we are going down to zero, we are going to reach net zero, and we’re doing it in a way that will still deliver on human well-being and economic development. And I think that’s our chance that’s where our chance is. And so I’m kind of leaning more towards the positive side at this time. But I should also admit that every time I see you, Christiana, I cannot be anything than having a bit of a smile on my face. So I think it’s you help me a lot there as well, to be honest.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:51:25] Try living with it Johan, it’s in all of our contracts. We can’t be.
Johan Rockström: [00:51:28] Oh, I see.
Paul Dickinson: [00:51:30] It’s also how we get paid. We just get a smile and that’s it. That’s good enough.
Johan Rockström: [00:51:34] So for the listeners, I mean, you don’t know this, but of course in this podcast I see Christiana in front of me on the screen. So that that helps as well. So I might choose to have you in front of me on my desk.
Christiana Figueres: [00:51:50] Well Johan, you’re too kind. Thank you very much. But thank you in particular, Johan, for for your so constant, dependable, detailed work throughout years and throughout decades. I told you many, many, many years ago, I can’t do remember how many that you were my total favourite scientist because you really translate science into concepts that we know and hard scientists can actually understand, sometimes you give us messages such as today that we have difficulty digesting, but you certainly put it in terms that we can understand. So, Johan, thank you for just a lifetime of work. We’re truly grateful.
Johan Rockström: [00:52:45] Thank you. Great to be with you for this conversation.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:52:57] So, I mean, all of us have known Johann Rockström for a long time, and it’s always a remarkable and sobering experience to hear him deliver just with this unbelievable deadpan clarity, exactly the severity of the situation we’re facing, what a service he’s providing to humanity to provide this wake up call. What did you guys leave that discussion with?
Christiana Figueres: [00:53:17] Well, I tell you, I found it difficult as you heard to find words after he told us so eloquently that 3 of the 9 planetary boundaries: the Arctic summer ice, the melting glaciers of western Antarctica and the tropical coral reefs have been exceeded. You know, it is something that I have been placing into the future, but that I had never dared. And I think daring is the word I had never dared to put it into my present. It’s just too painful for words.
Paul Dickinson: [00:54:08] Thank you, Christiana. No, I mean, you know, I kind of went for a walk actually off the interview, and I kind of thought about, you know, how I felt and you know, stating the obvious, this is a time of great meaning for us all, and we need to speak of realism and not be defensive or aggressive, but assertive and understanding, I guess like a good parent or good parents to each other. I mean, I’m not a parent, but this is what I understand that good parenting is all about. I think it’s a time for us to be patient with each other. And I think we need to be calm. And with the changes in the U.S., the debate seems, you know, kind of like over the world is moving, you know, persuasively towards change. And we’re going to change everything and ourselves, our communities, our work, our societies. And we’re not going to ignore the facts, but we’re going to cherish them as in a medical emergency. And that’s something we’ve learned from covid to take facts seriously.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:55:09] Yeah, I mean, we’ve always known these moments are coming right where it’s like that there’s tipping points and then actually you enter a period of consequences where this stuff begins to really happen. And it’s heart-breaking. It really is. I mean, the coral reefs was the one that really hit me in quite what we’re facing. It’s hard to really get your mind around. I mean, just Johan himself. I mean, one of the things I thought of listening to him is just how different people communicate when they’re concerned with scientific objectivity and truth rather than trying to persuade you of something. And that’s kind of what gives him his power. Right? I mean, so much of the time that people put into positions of authority are trying to engineer a particular outcome. But there’s such a lot of power in someone just giving absolute clarity. This is what it is. We have to face it. And in that is that seed of stubborn optimism that we’ve talked about is through facing it and deciding to do everything necessary and everything possible while we can. But that’s the root. And he’s such an amazing communicator of that reality.
Paul Dickinson: [00:56:10] Christiana is having another think. A serious reflection. Bring us back Christiana.
Christiana Figueres: [00:56:18] Yeah, I’m just back. I’m not sure I’m just you know, I’m back there at that moment when we when we interviewed him. I guess the you know, the difficult avenue here path forward is for all of us to dedicate ourselves with respect to the planet, to regenerating the resilience in those ecosystems where we still have some elasticity, right. I think what he was telling us is we’ve lost the elasticity of some of these. And that’s tragic, and it will have knock on effects that are difficult to even imagine. But there are other ecosystems and other boundaries that still have some elasticity in them. And that’s that is the purpose of our collective mission here, is to not let that elasticity pop like these have on our watch, but rather to reinject the resilience to get that elasticity back.
[00:57:38] And so I think, you know, the sobering thought here is that the planet that we will bequeath to our children will not be the planet that we inherited from our parents. It will be different. It will definitely be a changed planet. And that path is not an easy one, but it is and I think for the human race, an unavoidable one and a quite exciting one, let me say just to come back to our optimism. Right. But we have to make mental space for the dents that are in those dreams, those dents of the Arctic summer ice, the western Antarctica and the coral reefs. Those are permanent dents.
Paul Dickinson: [00:58:23] And just a tiny thing like I was laughing with you because the was like nervous laughter. But, you know, somebody once said in a previous crisis, we had to do something. And this is the first crisis where we have to stop doing things. I mean, we have to decarbonise and there’s lots of action and insulation and renewable energy. But you know what I mean. It shouldn’t be beyond us to kind of pull back from excess. But, Tom, you have the masterful way of weaving this into a pure beam of positive capability after that introduction.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:58:54] I definitely don’t know. I mean, I think this is what it is, right? I mean, you know, Johan gives it absolutely straight. And the way that hit you with a full force, Christiana, I can so relate to it. I’m sure many of the listeners can do. By my count, that was four minutes from the depths of feeling it to back to optimism, which is quite impressive. And what we need to do. Right. We need to find a way to feel it and continue to feel it, but move back to fight.
Paul Dickinson: [00:59:17] Little bit giddy. That’s fine, you know, coming up, sort of psychological bends, but, you know, at the surface, breathing air. And, you know on we go.
Christiana Figueres: [00:59:26] Pulling myself from the bootstraps here. Oh, boy. Let’s pull those bootstraps pretty quickly.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:59:34] Now, I do think that one thing we can offer the listeners at the end of this is some music. So one of the things we’re bringing in season three is our partnership with Sofar sounds, bringing you music every week, songs with a purpose that has been, as far as we understand, a very popular part of the series last year. So we hope you continue to enjoy this week. We are bringing you an amazing piece of music from Ayoni, who’s from Barbados. And one change we’ve made this season is that rather than them writing to us about the music, they’ve actually provided us voice note. So we’re going to say goodbye. We’re going to hand you over to Ayoni, who’s going to explain this piece of music. And then Clay is going to read you the credits as only he can. So thank you for listening to us this week. It’s great to be back. I know this was a tough start with Johan, but this is what we’re facing. We’ve got to be honest about it. We’ve got to dig deep. We’ve got to find a way to find the courage to be stubborn, to be optimistic, but also to be realistic. This is a tough fight. We’ve got everything in our favour for this exciting year to make it one of transformation. And we look forward to sharing it with you. Thanks for being here this week. Here’s Ayoni.
Paul Dickinson: [01:00:40] See you next week bye.
Ayoni: [01:00:43] I think it’s really, really important that artists engage with climate change, inequality and other social issues after taking the time to educate themselves because these things affect the human experience. And if art is meant to be a recollection of what it means to be alive and what it means to love and to feel what could be more important than the things that affect us, that we never chose to engage with, that we never chose to have to fight against. And I think that as artists, we really have the opportunity to change the world one piece, one creation at a time, because I do think we need to reflect the times as artists. And yeah, I think it’s an honor.
[01:01:25] My biggest inspiration in creating this record was my personal lived experience and a question that I have asked time and time again throughout my lifetime, which is what is patriotism? And so in the creation of this song, I really wanted to hold space, first of all, for my mourning of the things that have been lost and the things that have been taken from us and the lives that continue to fall every generation, because we will not confront this basic question of what is American history and legacy and what are we actually celebrating when we call people the patriots? I don’t think the patriots storm capitals or polling places. I think the patriots were the ones fighting the summer against police brutality. I think the patriots are abolitionists. I think the patriots are people who are thinking about our humanity and our future long term and not the greed in the world that we can accumulate in this lifetime. So those were the things I was meditating on. And the song is a space for me to grieve and process that and hopefully encourage people to do the same.
[01:07:18] So there you go, episode one of Season three, yes, Ayoni, what an incredible voice and an amazing, amazing tune titled ‘The Patriots’. And you know, you want more. So I’ve got links to her music and socials in the show notes, you absolutely have to hear the album version of the song. Thank you, Ayoni, for welcoming us into the New Year. Season three is going to have more incredible artists just like Ayoni. So, you know, it’s just one of the many perks of being a regular listener to Outrage and Optimism hit subscribe so you don’t miss another note. Outrage and Optimism is a Global Optimism production. Marina Mansilla Hermann is the executive producer. Clay Carnill is the producer. Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivitt-Carnac and THE Paul Dickinson are the hosts. And the rest of the team is Sarah Law, Katie Bradford, Lara Richardson, Sophie McDonald, Freya Newman, Sarah Thomas, Sue Reed, Sharon Johnson and Jon Ward. Thank you to Johan Rokstrom for joining us as our guest this week. And as mentioned earlier in the episode, our listener survey is still active and we’re reading every answer that comes in. So take advantage. We’re closing it soon.
[01:08:41] But we want to hear from you. Link is in the show notes. Thank you for filling that out. And I’m not sure if you caught it before the interview, but we did something. We’re going to do a lot more this season. We answered a question sent to us on Twitter. Sophie, our Communications and Content coordinator, is watching our DMs like an eagle. So follow us, send us a question, slide into our DMs, you know, @globaloptimism
on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. And thank you to Ahmed for your question this week. These credits went fast. That is a wrap on episode one of Season three. Next week is the final episode in our investigative series into the Future of Transport, and it’s all about the future of urban mobility. We’ve had such an incredible time making the series diving deep into the issues that are going to decide what this next decade and the future are going to look like. And that subscribe button isn’t going to press itself. So don’t miss out. We’ll see you right back here next week on Thursday. Look out. We’re changing things up. See you then.