Hurricane Michael over North Carolina
Hurricane Michael over North Carolina

The 2016 Paris Agreement focused on the effects of a 2 C (3.6 F) increase in average global temperature, and gave the world a deadline of 2100 for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero. A new U.N. report, undertaken at the behest of island nations concerned about sea-level rise, looks more conservatively at a 1.5 C (2.7 F) increase. The findings are alarming, to put it mildly: The outcomes of even this lower temperature hike will still be disastrous, and we will be all but resigned to that fate in little more than a decade unless we act immediately. To minimize the catastrophic risk, humanity must reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and achieve total carbon neutrality by 2050.

It’s net-zero hour, folks.

If you think the internet has been disruptive, just wait until rapid decarbonization takes hold. Of course, we already know that achieving carbon neutrality is technically possible. (The AIA COTE Top Ten projects in the Nov. 2018 issue of ARCHITECT demonstrate some of the best sustainable design and construction practices. Take time to learn from them, and earn some continuing education credits in the bargain.) The process calls for an estimated clean energy investment through 2035 of 2.5 percent of global GDP. While that’s a staggering amount of money—roughly $2.4 trillion per year—financing humanity’s survival may seem easy compared to the social and political challenges the task entails.

Current definitions of success have to change, and the prospect inevitably upsets some people—especially the ones who benefit most from the status quo. In a net-zero economy, there’s no avoiding the fact that there will be limits on growth. But that doesn’t mean there will be limits on opportunity. We’ll just have to look elsewhere for it. For true entrepreneurs, the possibilities should be exciting.

Decarbonization isn’t about constraints, it’s about smarter decision-making, based on better information. In a 2011 study, environmental economist Peter Victor of York University in Toronto calculated that to keep temperature rise within a 2 C limit, his fellow Canadians would have to settle for a GDP per capita on par with that of 1976. More extensive research is needed, but the principle remains: We can accept net-zero and dial ourselves back a few decades, or we can do nothing and risk regressing to about 1000 A.D. Given the option, I’ll take “Mad Men” over “Mad Max.”

As citizens of a net-zero planet, we may not even notice differences in the day-to-day, as we drive and fly less frequently, eat foods that are in season, and repair broken possessions instead of automatically buying new ones. Barter, collaboration, and sharing will become more commonplace, and on a large scale. The internet will remain a thing, but it will run on power generated in our own houses or in the neighborhood. We’ll opt to remodel more readily than we will build anew. Such choices won’t feel imposed—they will simply make sense, as feasibility and affordability shift.

Indeed, according to Victor’s report, life could actually improve under net-zero conditions: “In this degrowth scenario … there are very substantial reductions in unemployment, the human poverty index, and the debt to GDP ratio.” The terrible consequences of inaction are increasingly evident—just ask the residents of the Florida Panhandle. Now we must focus on the essential value of taking action, beyond survival.