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A letter from “the physicist behind zero” to school strikers

A letter from “the physicist behind zero” to school strikers

Dear school striker,

Well done on all you are doing – you seem to have made more impact on the climate issue in the past couple of years than I’ve managed in the previous three decades working away on it, and I’ve been described as the physicist behind net zero. Good luck with the demonstrations.

I have one suggestion. You are calling for climate action now, which of course we need – we needed it 20 years ago. The climate establishment in Glasgow will, bizarrely and frustratingly, clap excitedly when you shout at it, and then assure that they are listening and taking actions.

Here’s why you should be sceptical. So far, at COP26, we’ve had a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30%, which will cut global temperatures by about one tenth of a degree, pretty much the warming we’ve seen since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Leaders have pledged stop deforestation by 2030 – again. Moreover, some countries that had planned to stop using coal have now announced they will no longer use it.

“Yes,” they will tell you with just a hint of condescension, “but every little helps and the climate issue is very complicated”.

This is where you should be angry. It isn’t complicated at all. Global warming cannot be caused by fossil fuels. All fossil fuels.

Girl holds up sign in front of monument

Climate strikers, London, 2019.
Ink Drop / shutterstock

There are two options: either we ban fossil fuels completely and enforce it everywhere, or we require anyone who uses or sells fossil fuels to ensure that the carbon they produce is safely and permanently disposed off and not dumped into the atmosphere.

Now, you’ll find most people in the climate establishment, particularly the green movement who claim to be on your side, come down on the side of a ban. But that’s because they aren’t the ones who are going to have to implement it. You are.

When they say “we need to just stop using fossil fuels”, what they mean is “you (the school-striker generation) need to stop using fossil fuels”. And if you don’t, you’ll end up with catastrophic warming. They are like the first world-war generals who used send 19-year olds up in balsa-wood aeroplanes without parachutes “to focus their minds”.


Listen to Myles Allen Climate Fight, a podcast series from The AnthillTalking about the path to net zero.


Produces must pay

There is another way, which would require the present generation of climate leaders doing a bit more, and make your lives massively easier in 30 years’ time. Which is, no doubt, why they don’t want to talk about it. Anyone who wants to continue removing and selling fossil fuels will have to do this. dispose of the carbon dioxideTheir activities and the fuels that they sell are responsible for creating it. It needn’t be the same carbon dioxide, of course, but it needs to be disposed of safely and permanently, which, these days, means reinjecting it back underground. Until we can control deforestation, carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is not safe nor permanent.

This would end global warming, but nobody is even talking about it at the COP26. Why not? Well, perhaps because paying for all that carbon dioxide disposal might affect the profits of oil and gas companies – and the lucrative royalties and taxes that governments cream off the fossil fuel industry. They are doing quite well right now, so don’t feel sorry for them. oil and gas prices sky-rocketing. The conference was opened by Boris Johnson, the British prime minister. invoking James Bond – well, if I were an oil and gas industry lobbyist, I’d be stroking my cat at how well things are going.

In the longer term, safe disposal of CO₂ will make fossil fuels more expensive, and no-one wants to admit this. But we don’t let water companies just dump our sewage in the rivers even though it would make our water bills smaller – and they could argue “the water was clean when we supplied it”. Why do we let fossil fuel companies fly-tip CO₂ into the atmosphere, claiming “the petrol wasn’t causing global warming when we sold it to you.”

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This can be changed. Reclaim net zero. The only net zero that matters for fossil fuels is what goes in and out of the earth’s crust. If the industry insists on continuing to dig fossil fuels up, it has to put the CO₂ back. This is the principle of carbon takeback, and it’s the only fair way to stop fossil fuels from causing global warming. Here’s something to shout at Friday’s protests:

Keep our skies blue, take back your CO₂.

Good luck.

Myles Allen
Director of Oxford Net Zero University of Oxford


COP26: the world's biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.

The Conversation is here for you to clarify the air and get reliable information amid a flood of climate news stories and news. More.



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