Will the new generation stop climate change?

Do you remember the final moments of the last millennium? The world had shaken off the dust of the Cold War and was optimistically welcoming the new millennium. Through European eyes, the global market economy and the liberal democracy seemed like the inevitable recipes for success. Finland had left behind a historically bad recession and was taking over the world with its mobile phones. The economy was growing, the internet made anything possible, and the international community swore in the name of peace.

Almost 18 years have passed since the turn of the millennium. Even though time has gone quickly, a lot has also happened. The outlook on the future has gained some new meanings. The international situation has culminated in conflicts and wars, and even the Western world has had to learn to live in the shadow of a new kind of terrorism and violence. The unsuccessful aftercare of the financial crisis of 2008 and the Eurozone crisis that followed have created a rich soil for xenophobia and the rise of the far right. Of course many things have also improved in the world of the 21st century.

However, there is one thing that will revolutionise our future more than anything else. The further into this new millennium we get, then clearer the nightmare scenarios of climate change have become.  Awareness of climate change has grown, and it has taken the top spot amongst the nightmare scenarios in the assessments of e.g. leading economic and security organisations. These days the majority of Europeans see climate change as a substantial threat. In America, Generation Y feels that climate change is the main threat of our times, and are prepared to completely change their lifestyle in order to protect the environment. Finns are well aware of the importance of controlling climate change, but their actions leave a lot to be desired.

In order to stop global warming, historically quick and extensive action will be required. All the main measures to prevent dangerous climate change will need to be taken within as many years as have passed since we celebrated the turn of the millennium. In other words, when a child born today comes of age in the 2030s, societies must have gone through a fundamental change. What sort of changes do we mean?

Science Magazine recently published a roadmap for rapid decarbonisation which summarises the steps that need to be taken. In the 2030s, the energy systems, traffic, housing and industry of industrialised countries (including Finland) must be carbon neutral. Oil will have disappeared as an energy source, and cars with combustion engines will no longer be in use. All air traffic, as well as the production of concrete and steel, will be carbon neutral. The energy markets of the world will be dominated by a brand-new generation of low-carbon energy solutions instead of fossil fuels. Simultaneously, the earth’s natural ability to absorb carbon will have been greatly improved by increasing the number of carbon sinks in the shape of forests, and reducing the amount of emissions caused by agriculture. There will also be tens or hundreds of thousands of carbon capture and storage units in use to capture several tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which are currently only at the trial stage. It is only through these kinds of measures that the world can achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which will create the necessary preconditions for stopping global warming at two degrees, as attempted.

The awareness of the worst nightmare scenarios in relation to climate change, combined with the massive project to change societies, may cause despair, anxiety or apathy. But only a real overview of climate change and the measures required to stop it can act as the foundation for sufficient motivation, focus on solutions, and hope.

The industrial civilisation has been able to produce incredible wealth. It is a historical paradox that societies fed on fossil energy have turned out to be completely unsustainable. Put simply: the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the fossil economy are threatening the very existence of the industrial civilisation. Previous generations have left us with an energy system, an infrastructure and a lifestyle which have to be changed historically quickly. It is said that the actions of previous generations weigh heavy on the shoulders of future generations, and in the age of climate change this saying gains a deeper meaning than ever before.

In order to control climate change and prepare for it, societies must carry out a historic process of ecological restoration which can be compared to the restoration that followed the Second World War. The Finnish post-war generation settled the evacuees, paid the war reparations and created a historically well-functioning social project; a welfare state based on the expansion of social rights. The flip side of the coin is of course that the progress was based on a constant increase in energy consumption, emissions and the use of resources.

Ecological restoration will mean considerable changes to the infrastructure regarding e.g. the energy system, housing, transport and food production. These will create lots of new jobs and require new skills. When the energy from fossil fuels can no longer be used by the world economy and societies, and if renewable energy sources are not able to fill the gap within the required timetable, societies will have to learn to get by with a much smaller energy consumption.

Therefore, ecological restoration will also mean an enormous cultural shift. We must learn to work, live, travel and eat in a world with less energy consumption and increasingly scarce resources. The speed and extent of the changes will also be so demanding that they cannot be put through simply by the means of market solutions; instead, society must be lead purposefully onto a low-emission path. Active and bold measures by the government are a prerequisite for extracting ourselves from the fossil economy.

No one will have to move to a cabin in the forest during the next few years – unless they want to, of course. The age of ecological restoration does not mean that the future of the current generations has to be bleaker than the past. On the contrary, in a world of new skills and jobs people are more likely to stop more often to ask questions that are truly important. What kind of education and skills do I want to gain so that I can live in a sustainable way? What kind of work do I want to do so that I can do my bit for promoting a comprehensive ecological restoration? The generation who will solve climate change are asking: are we building a future society where we can live a good life within the bearing capacity of the environment?

Tero Toivanen

The author is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki and in the independent research unit BIOS