Tortoise members have been working out how to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Here’s why
Last year the UN’s climate experts said we had 11 years to act decisively or face runaway global warming.
This year we did act decisively – against Covid.
The pandemic seemed to warrant shutting down the world economy in a way that climate change never has and maybe never will. But it has left millions of people wondering: what if?
What if we could summon the will to do what’s needed to bring climate back under control before it’s too late? What would it take?
Welcome to 2030
Picture the scene: a damp autumnal morning in 2030. Alice and Gavin wake in their vertical hutong apartment to the sound of rain on the window. The droplets slip down the pane into a container for watering their hydroponic vegetable patch later in the day. Gavin looks out over what used to be the concrete apron of Heathrow’s Terminal 4 – now landscaped and wilded for optimum carbon sequestration.
It’s actually a special day. Alice has to fly north on business. For once, teleconferencing won’t do. She could take the driverless shuttle to T5 but Gavin pre-heats their 2023 MG ZS plug-in from his phone and says he’ll take her instead.
A quick, quiet, fume-free ride brings them to Eviation’s kerbside check-in. Alice is soon airborne in a 12-seat magnesium-ion battery-powered tri-motor that’ll have her in Aberdeen for breakfast. (CO2 per mile: 0g.) Gavin is a little envious.
Rather than go straight home he noodles over to Heston Services on the M4, for old times’ sake. The egg and cress sandwich at Gregg’s is about the only thing that hasn’t changed there in the past ten years. A couple of fuel cell trucks from Belarus are filling up with liquid hydrogen, but most of the freight on the motorway whistles past in driverless all-electric road trains taking their power from high-tension overhead catenaries and talking to each other with thousands of AI-enabled sensors in each cab.
There’s a farmers’ market nearby, where once there was going to be a third runway. Gavin heads there for some seed potatoes for their graduate student daughter, Dina, who’s back home for her PhD because she gets a stipend for tending their vertical allotment. While he’s about it he fills their reusable bottles with shampoo and washing-up liquid from the negative emissions aisle at the Harmondsworth Whole Foods.
Dina’s stipend is a minor miracle of public policy. She’s basically getting paid for storing CO2 and freeing up flat land for forestation. But in fact this is the least of the climate initiatives of the first Starmer government.
Since the 2024 landslide the new Labour PM has locked in an effective carbon price of £80 per tonne through taxes and pollution penalties; applied those same taxes to imports by joining the World Carbon Club set up by President Harris in her first month in office in 2025; and diverted hundreds of billions of pounds from pension funds to renewable energy bonds with tax incentives for ESG investing.
A lot of that money has funded the Great North Wind initiative that replaced North Sea oil with enough wind power and hydrogen to produce export surpluses – and to employ Alice for the most fulfilling decade of her engineering career.
Gavin, too, feels a spring in his step. Decades of campaigning have finally paid off. How quick it’s all been after so many wasted years! The pessimists said it would take a social revolution for people to accept the trade-offs of full-speed decarbonisation and the end of the cult of GDP. It turns out the revolution had already happened, thanks to people like him. Societies were just ahead of their leaders. Now Gavin heads up an advisory group in the Department for Future Generations, tasked with protecting the livelihoods of his children, their children and their children’s children. The department first set out to protect them from the climate crisis but its remit has expanded since the grand rapprochement between the UK-US alliance and the EU.
He presses down with his right foot. The old MG breezes back down Stanwell Moor Road towards the Hutongs (named after and modelled on the original net zero high rises in Singapore). He feels vaguely guilty he’s not on the bike path or even on an electric scooter, but he never tires of the car’s instant torque in the small of his back, and it never fails to deliver. “Much less fuss with servicing and MOTs,” the salesman said, and he was right.
The 2024 fuel tax made owning an ICE ridiculous anyway. The 2025 meat tax means they eat less of it and feel better for it. The 2026 frequent flyer tax means none of them flies often, and when they do it tends to be memorable.
Alice gets back late but elated. She tells Gavin and Dina about her day. Human-rated battery drones took her and her team out to the last turbine in the Viking III bloc east of Shetland for a short commissioning ceremony. As its giant blades began to turn, power flowed to the grid and to a mighty new electrolysis plant onshore at Baltasound, to extract clean hydrogen from water for heating, industry and fuel cells. How much power? Enough to switch off the last and largest gas-powered station in Britain, at Drax in Yorkshire.
“And that was it,” says Alice, flushed with success and a glass of Gavi. “Net zero. We did it.”
As Tortoise hunkered down under those strange empty skies in March, we asked our members if these were questions they’d like to help answer. A large group of them – of you – said yes.
We called the project Net Zero 2030, nicknamed it the moonshot, and set about measuring the task of getting to net zero carbon emissions within a decade.
The task is huge; most people say impossible. It would require a revolution in social and economic priorities and the biggest shift in investment patterns in at least 200 years. A gigantic heap of junked internal combustion engines would be the least of it.
So why shoot for 2030? Why not 2050, the year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has settled on as a net zero target if we are to have a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees?
There seem to be at least three answers.
First, we’re already on course to overshoot 2 degrees, never mind 1.5, and the difference between them is likely to be catastrophic for hot countries, low countries, poor countries, natural carbon sinks and most of the aquatic world.
Second, whenever we get to net zero, most of the CO2 emitted by humans since the dawn of the industrial revolution will still be warming the planet for generations after that. We need to move on to negative emissions as if our lives depended on it (because they do).
And third, we’re human. For most of today’s leaders and many of today’s voters, 2050 is meaningless. It’s someone else’s problem. It’s a punt.
Like John F. Kennedy with the original moonshot, we decided the deadline needed to be firmly in view if people were going to take it seriously.
And so to the caveats. The field of road maps to net zero is crowded, which is good. We’re not aiming to be comprehensive or definitive. Instead we’ve sought, experimentally, the wisdom and the curiosity of a crowd of volunteers.
The result is not what you’d expect from McKinsey or the World Resources Institute. We defer to their deeper knowledge of divestment trends and the minimum cobalt content of lithium-ion batteries. But we hope we’ve made some constructive contributions to the conversation all the same.
They’re divided into three groups:
The Goal (on where we have to get to);
The Will (because we need to find the popular and political will to act); and
The Way (on how we might get to where we need to go).
Under these headings you’ll find Alfie Ireland’s take on decarbonising UK transport, Abbey Wong’s introduction to “excellent dumb cities” and Sophie Littlewood on the wholesale energy transition that needs to underpin them.
You’ll find Megan Kenyon, Harrison Brewer and Bradley Shippey on net zero and local, national and international governance, respectively.
There’s a fair amount of time travel to and from 2030, because we thought it would be useful – uplifting, even – to imagine this moonshot as an accomplishment, not just a terrifying challenge. (Look out for Gavin and Alice, conceived by Harrison Brewer and sketched by Lizzie Lomax.)
There’s a forensic analysis by Rosie Hamilton of how to shrink the carbon footprint of period products and – essential reading – there’s James Whyte’s explanation of how one reggaeton hit had the climate impact of the annual CO2 emissions of four African countries.
This moonshot is a work in progress. You’re not reading Apollo 11 yet, but we’ll keep adding to this week’s output for as long as you feel inspired to create it.
Sincere thanks to everyone who’s contributed so far. As Glenn Frey pointed out before his time, the heat is on.
– Alice and Gavin: a day in the life of 2030
Reporting team: Bee Boileau, Harrison Brewer, Amy Campbell, Danielle Goodman, Rosie Hamilton, Alfred Ireland, Megan Kenyon, Sophie Littlewood, Sindhu Ram, Niamh Ryall, Bradley Shippey, Tareq Sholi, Jelena Sofronijevic, Rob Wavell, James Whyte, Abbey Wong, Alice Wright
Editors: Giles Whittell, Barney Macintyre, James Wilson, Ella Hill
Design: Oliver Bothwell
Picture editor: Joe Mee
Illustrations: Lizzie Lomax