Net Zero ambition is overtaking the plastics industry, and that is by and large a good thing. Plastics account for 4 – 5% of humanity’s total greenhouse gas output, so there is no overall Net Zero without major changes in this industry. For the plastics industry, the challenge is particularly acute, as it is carbon intensive at every step of its life cycle. From procuring the required energy to cracking the hydrocarbons to turning resin into usable products to incinerating those products (sometimes) after use, plastics entails a huge carbon footprint. In response, plastic and petrochemical companies including Dow Chemical among others have joined peers in different economic sectors by setting targets to achieve Net Zero, often by mid-century.
Time will tell how realistic these programs prove to be. The detailed action plans behind them are not in all cases well fleshed out, and one could be forgiven for taking with a grain of salt long-term pledges whose burdens will primarily fall upon the successors of at the podium. But before action, there must be ambition, so if leaders are making bold pledges to do exceedingly difficult things, that’s a very promising start.
And if we reach those goals quickly, that would also be a very promising end. Global Net Zero by mid-century would essentially solve the climate problem. We would expect peak temperatures late in this century of perhaps 1.5°C above the late 19th century baseline, which is only 0.4°C higher than where we stand today. No doubt, that would mean more weird weather and intense storms and floods and droughts than we experience today, but frankly, on a global scale, the climate damages we experience today are mostly pretty survivable. What makes them frightening is their implication that worse is yet to come. However, with the better part of a century to further prepare for them, the additional damages brought on by a 1.5°C temperature anomaly would likely be minimal for most of humanity. We would put climate change in the “bullet dodged” category, like the fictitious asteroid hurtling towards earth that some action hero just manages to divert at the last moment.
But that presumed positive outcome hinged entirely on the word “quickly”. If instead we reach Net Zero slowly – like by the end of the century or beyond – then we are likely headed for something like 3°C rather than 1.5°. A 3°C change in global average surface temperatures would be utterly profound, as it is likely to dramatically alter the wind and ocean currents that distribute rain and warmth all over the planet and thereby define where plants, animals, and humans can thrive rather than struggle. A key facet of the climate story only dimly understood outside the science community is that once emitted into the atmosphere, CO2 endures for centuries to millennia. This means the future climate will be informed not by our current emissions or recent emissions, but by our aggregate emissions ever since the onset of the industrial revolution. The longer we keep emitting, the more greenhouse gases there will be in the atmosphere on the day we finally reach Net Zero, and it is that peak concentration on the Net Zero day that will determine the climate for the following centuries.
So if we get to Net Zero before we have ruined the climate, our grandchildren will be thrilled. However, if instead we ruin the climate before we get to Net Zero, our great grandchildren will likely hold us in contempt for our knowing but callous indifference to their fate.
What does all that mean for today’s executives in the plastics industry? Perhaps neither more nor less than it does for executives in other high-emitting industries such as aviation, steel, surface shipping, and of course the fossil fuel industries themselves. All of these industries are modern behemoths because of the vast demand that industrialized societies have for the products and services they produce. In the context of a still burgeoning human population and a desire by the developing world to live like their counterparts in the developed world, that demand is in most cases likely to increase. And that demand will have to be met somehow – very few consumers are yet volunteering to sacrifice their standards of living on the altar of climate change.
Nonetheless, the science in the latest IPCC reports is without serious challenge. What had once been a furious debate 20 years ago has resolved into a rout, with continuing reverberation in the political arena but none in the scientific literature. The greenhouse gas emissions produced by the global industrial economy now vastly exceed the ability of the climate system to harmlessly absorb them. Emissions are still rising, and the Paris Agreement has not yet demonstrated a capacity to restrain these trends. We therefore appear to be headed for roughly twice the climate change that the Paris negotiators had deemed to be a safe limit. Physics is physics – objectively true whether one believes in them or not. Our grandchildren will have little choice but to square with all of that.
However, in the interim, the current generation of leaders in the plastics industry and elsewhere must strain to bend the emissions curve as quickly as consumers will tolerate. This will require expensive investments in new technologies and processes, as well as price signals to consumers about how their choices must change. All of that will take time, of which we have less than we think. The fabled first step when you find yourself in a hole is of course to stop digging, and that’s a fair way to think of the climate problem. The longer it takes to get to Net Zero, the deeper the climate hole will be when we finally get there. But of course, if the path to Net Zero takes until the end of the century, it will not be we who will find ourselves standing in that hole, but our descendants. They may have great difficulty understanding why we kept digging at their expense.
A lecturer at Yale University, Wake Smith teaches a world-leading undergraduate course on climate intervention, the syllabus of which forms the basis of his new book Pandora's Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention. Smith is also a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School, writing scholarly articles on the aeronautics, costs, and governance of solar geoengineering.