Net zero is often analysed abstractly in terms of investment costs, risks, and returns. This approach offers perspective on important issues, for example, the theoretical trade-offs between greenhouse gas abatement and climate adaptation strategies in terms of economic welfare. However, we must tread carefully. Analysis inevitably simplifies and comes with its costs.
To facilitate precise calculations, policy models assume a lot of potential outcomes can be fully evaluated. In truth, our understanding is imperfect and evolving. Offshore wind and solar were widely dismissed as uneconomic just a few decades ago. Today, they are at the forefront of decarbonisation in the power sector.
In addition, all models are representations that leave out aspects of a complex reality. An Ordnance Survey map, for example, highlights contours and rivers but omits weather isobars. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we do not mistake the map for the whole picture.
An alternative vantage point to examine net zero steps back from a narrow analytical lens. This take on the world is broader, concentrating on messages that lie in nature, if only we will look and listen. Insight, trust, and patience are its themes.
One source of insight is the experience gained by living with nature, such as a captain’s knowledge developed and distilled over years on stormy seas, or a farmer’s appreciation of land use harvested from seasons of hard work. Encouraging discovery must play a critical role in any net-zero policy, as the offshore wind and solar stories remind us.
Society’s centres of learning, including Exeter University and the UK’s Met Office, are also indispensable sources of insight, which they have drawn from careful observation of nature over time.
“Diversity and the willingness to listen to a wide set of opinions from people with different experiences are key.”
Our current economic policy path comes at the cost of largescale environmental damage. Nature’s warnings are building up around us in floods, storm damage, forest fires, and biodiversity loss. Some of this is already irreversible – sadly, not all discoveries in life are good news. However, the worst response is to turn a blind eye.
To establish trust in society, proper institutions are necessary but not sufficient. The cement is culture. Diversity and the willingness to listen to a wide set of opinions from people with very different experiences are key.
As an example, work on climate change sometimes uses the concept of decarbonisation paths, blanking out everything but the evolution of greenhouse gas emissions from the picture. Alas, a decline in fossil fuel demand can come at the cost of a crescendo in critical metal use. We need all the voices in nature’s choir to be heard, not just a partial solo version.
Without listening to nature more carefully, and understanding her complexities, net-zero calculations may simply increase – not decrease – global sustainability risk.
There is a third message in nature’s script – the need for patience. Her rhythms are not driven by political expediency or traditional investment horizons. Instead, she operates on many timescales, as the carbon cycle illustrates. A fast cycle of photosynthesis and respiration works alongside a slow cycle that moves carbon between the air, rocks, and oceans over time periods measured in eons. One of nature’s innovations is to merge immediate focus and long-term thinking into a meaningful synthesis.
The climate threat merits both fast and slow responses. With regard to the former, Professor Whiteman highlights the need for us to wake up to immediate threats. We need to heed her warning. With regard to the latter, the challenge is not primarily about us, but to ensure sustainable investment for the benefit of our descendants.
“We need to put in place the institutional structures and culture that allow us to evolve in harmony, not in discord, with nature. This does not have a 2050 end date.”
This requires putting in place the institutional structures and culture that allow us to evolve in harmony, not in discord, with nature. This does not have a 2050 end date. It is a much longer journey, and a more complex evolution than we can imagine.
Finance 101 is about investment, risk and return, for which analysis is a useful stepping stone. However, the challenges associated with sustainable investment take us into much deeper waters. These require building human insight, trust and patience in a dangerous and uncertain world.
In the end, the free flow of creative ideas synthesized through strong institutions and culture offer us the best hope – plus patience. Without all this, we are on a road to nowhere, not to a sustainable net zero.
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