Sustainable Portfolio Management – Annual Report 2022

Guest article by Sir David King: Climate crisis – The need for action now

22 April 2022

By Sir David King, Founder & Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair, at the University of Cambridge

It is now indisputable that we are in a climate emergency. Soaring levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, particularly methane, with combined atmospheric concentrations of more than 500 parts per million today, put the future of humanity at extreme risk1. Global heating is already resulting in more extreme weather events at greater frequency, and some irreversible changes have now been triggered in our climate systems as tipping points are exceeded.

The first such tipping point is the Arctic Circle region. This region is warming four times faster than the global average2, resulting in rapid and irreversible sea ice loss, and ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet. Arctic Sea ice loss is accelerating global warming via the reduction in albedo as the blue sea absorbs the sunlight, rather than ice reflecting the sun’s heat back out into space. Ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating sea level rise, and is now irreversible. In addition, the Arctic region holds vast amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, locked within permafrost, which is now starting to thaw, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Loss of ice in the Arctic is accompanied by significant changes across the globe as weather systems react. The amplification of Arctic warming is disrupting the normal functioning of the Jet stream (i.e. the narrow band of strong winds that generally blow from West to East), which has in the past separated the cold air in the Arctic region from the rest of the Northern hemisphere. As a result, the Jet stream starts to meander over large distances (see Figure 1) and causes extreme weather events around the Northern hemisphere.

The result of this was temperatures being observed along the West Coast of America that were more than 5oC above previous records in those regions, during the summer of 2021.  Some of the largest wildfires ever recorded burned in the forests of North America3 and South-East Australia4, some with such fierce power that they were comparable to a moderate volcanic eruption5. Such events are already costing us over $100 billion per year in loss and damage6.

Once the ice on Greenland is gone, global sea levels will be up to 7.4 metres higher7. A rise of just 0.5m-1m will be disastrous, rendering a number of cities on coastlines unliveable8.

Huge populations in locations including Kolkata and Jakarta will become homeless, forced to move to higher ground.

Every society is acclimatised to, and built on (literally and metaphorically), historical climatic conditions. Every society will suffer terribly as these changes happen and everyone will be affected by them.

What are the solutions?

The only way to reverse some of these catastrophic patterns, and to regain some stability in our climate and weather systems, is “climate repair” – a strategy we call “reduce, remove, repair” – which demands that we make very rapid reductions to achieve net-zero global emissions; that there is massive, active removal of excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and that we undertake to repair some of our most damaged climate systems.

We must quickly refreeze the Earth’s poles and glaciers to correct these wild weather patterns, slow down ice-melt, stabilise sea level, and break the feedback loops that relentlessly accelerate global warming. This will “buy us time” while we bring atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations down to safer levels.

This strategy for creating a manageable future for humanity, while clear, is by no means straightforward.

1. Reduce

Emissions reduction at the scale and pace required is fraught with challenge. The biggest industry in the world is the energy industry – very largely fossil-fuel driven since the Industrial Revolution – with a massive transition required. Nonetheless, this represents considerable economic potential for those companies that recognise the financial opportunity in developing and taking new post-fossil-fuel technologies to market.

Financial incentives are required to fast track the transition. Mission Innovation – a group of 22 countries and the European Union, representing 90% of global GDP, formed at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference – represents one model for creating the necessary ecosystem. This group made a voluntary commitment to spend $30 billion per annum of public money by 2020 on the development of post-fossil-fuel technologies, in order to de-risk their development and enable them to get into the marketplace more efficiently and more quickly. They have now agreed to raise this to $35 billion per annum by 20259.

We urgently need more private sector understanding of these opportunities. Investment that is fit for purpose in the 21st century is the only investment that should be countenanced. This means focusing on those companies taking us safely into this future, and not on those that are creating the stranded assets of the future.

2. Remove

Greenhouse gas removal at scale requires considerably more research funding to enable the development of the safe technologies that are needed to remove tens of billions of tons of excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere per annum. A carefully valued carbon price is required to incentivise the development of a greenhouse gas removal industry. A combination of different solutions – from nature-based through to bio-mimicry – will be needed to meet the removal requirements already baked into countries’ net-zero commitments.

3. Repair

Climate repair requires significantly more research and investment. “Repairing” systematically seeks to draw the Earth back from climate tipping points, buying time during which reduction and removal can happen. Political, financial, and societal will is needed, with the right incentives in place to enable rapid research and deployment.

The most urgent effort is to refreeze the Arctic. Marine cloud brightening, in which floating solar-powered pumps spray salt upwards to brighten clouds and create a reflective barrier between the Sun and the ocean, is known to cool ocean surfaces and is a promising way to promote Arctic summer cooling. It mimics nature, and can be scaled up or down in a flexible way. Studies of marine cloud brightening, its climate impacts, and interactions with human systems, are underway.

Research is critical, to ensure the solutions in question do not bring with them unintended consequences, which could be unleashed if these techniques were deployed in an emergency. Public engagement is needed, to understand which solutions are publicly acceptable, and which are not.

The time to act is now

“Nowhere is safe.” As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in a recent report, climate change and its consequences are here to stay. The challenge of surviving the next 50 years is a planet-wide existential crisis; we need to work together urgently. What we do in the next five years will determine humanity's fate.

Professor Sir David King is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, at the University of Cambridge; Founder and Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair in the University; Chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group; an Affiliate Partner of SYSTEMIQ Limited; and Senior Strategy Adviser to the President of Rwanda. He was the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, 2000-2007, and the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative on Climate Change, 2013-2017.

The Centre for Climate Repair

The Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge (CCRC) is a cross-disciplinary research institution, aiming to develop and understand the solutions that will safeguard our planet from the disastrous consequences of global warming. CCRC is taking ambitious action on climate repair, supported by scientific research and robust evidence.

To find out more, visit climaterepair.cam.ac.uk

Related articles


Sustainable Portfolio Management

In this year’s report, we focus on some of the exciting new technologies that could meaningfully improve sustainability outcomes, from precision manufacturing and measurement, to genomic sequencing, to digital infrastructure. And we’re delighted to feature an article from Sir David King on the strategies urgently needed to ensure climate repair.