Greta Thunberg: 'treat the climate crisis like a real crisis'
The environmental activist talks to the FT's Leslie Hook about her future beyond climate strikes; her neutrality towards business and politics; and her frustration with climate conferences
Interview by Leslie Hook, filmed and edited by James Sandy
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Thanks again for joining us. I'd like to just begin by asking a bit about what your life is like right now. I know you're back in school and obviously it's still a time of coronavirus. Are you still able to get out and protest?
We could do that, but we feel like we want to be responsible in this situation and to still send a clear message that this pandemic is far from over and that we need to keep taking responsibility.
Are there ways that you've been able to still connect and still make progress even without demonstrating in person?
Definitely. We have a very good international connection. We had that already before current pandemic, because, I mean, we are a movement where basically no one flies, so we are going to have to find out ways to communicate without actually travelling to places all the time. So we have Zoom strikes. Sometimes we have like Tweet storms. Sometimes we have physical strikes with very few people and social distancing. So it varies.
Coronavirus obviously means that global emissions fell during 2020 by 6 per cent or 7 per cent. Do you think that that drop in emissions can help put the world on a better path towards avoiding the worst impacts of global warming?
First of all that emission reduction was erased by a weaker carbon land sink, so that's just another aspect that really puts the term net zero in a whole new perspective. But of course no. This is nothing positive. The current pandemic brought nothing positive.
The emissions reductions we could see were temporary and accidental, and happened due to us focusing on another thing. We didn't do them. They didn't occur due to us actually trying to reduce emissions, but they were sort of a byproduct of trying to hold the pandemic. So this has got nothing to do with climate action.
In the last 24 months we've seen a lot of major economies adopt net zero targets, including the UK. I'm sitting here in London. Do you think that that is enough?
If you take into account the overall science, then you can clearly see that it is not enough if we are to live up to the promises and pledges we have made in the Paris agreement. So... but that has nothing to do with me. It's not me saying that.
But it's quite a shame that they can just put out a number like net zero 2050 that is based on incomplete carbon budgets and incomplete numbers, insufficient numbers, and get away with it without being held accountable because of the general lack of awareness is too big. People don't know what net-zero emissions 2050 actually means. And when the UK says it's gonna reduce its emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, people don't know what that actually means. So they get away with it.
You wrote in one of your letters from last summer that net-zero emissions by 2050 for the EU, US, and for other financially fortunate parts of the world equals surrender.
Well, first of all, when I say that it is surrender, it's because, as I said earlier, it's based on insufficient numbers and incomplete carbon budgets. And by adopting that as a target, they basically admit that they are giving up on the Paris agreement, because that is not in line - that's inconsistent with the Paris agreement. So that's why it's surrender, because it means they're giving up on those targets.
And we must also remember that promises of future increase in ambition doesn't really mean anything if we aren't doing anything right now, because it is right now that the carbon budget is being used up. If we continue at the same rate we are right now then the carbon budget which gives us the best odds of staying below 1.5 degrees will be gone long before we will even have the chance to deliver on 2030 or 2050 targets.
Do you think companies have made progress? Have you had any conversations with any CEOs that you thought is... with someone who really gets it or is getting it right?
Of course. There's so much goodwill, and there are so many people wanting to do the right thing. And, I mean, let's be clear. This is not anyone's fault. This cannot be blamed on any specific individual or any CEO or head of state.
This is a structural problem that allows this to continue. Because, I mean, even if a company would want to act in line with what would be consistent with the Paris agreement that would basically not be possible because today it seems too unpopular or unprofitable or uncomfortable to do that. And then they often are stuck in already written contracts and deals.
The United Nations Emissions Gap Report 2019 showed that fossil fuel production by 2030 alone accounts for 120 per cent more than what would be consistent with the Paris agreement. So that shows that if we are to meet these targets we are going to have to tear up valid contracts and deals, and that's not possible within today's system.
So when you talk about how it's a structural problem and this type of change isn't possible within today's system, do you mean that the whole global economy is to blame in a way? Is it the capitalist world that we live in that you see as the root of the problem?
No, I mean... when I say system I don't mean capitalism. Like I explained earlier, it's not legally nor politically possible to do these changes, nor economically. And I'm not criticising capitalism. I stay out of politics as much as possible.
I mean I speak to many politicians and CEOs. And they say that they cannot do these changes because they don't have the support from voters or they don't have the... I mean pressure from customers, or whatever it may be. And the solution to that is obviously to raise awareness, to sort of create public opinion, to treat the crisis like a crisis.
Because how can we expect to have people on board if the climate crisis basically doesn't exist in the public debates? Why would people want climate action then? If we can create awareness, then that will make people push and demand these changes. And then it will be possible to do these things that today seem unthinkable.
I also want to talk a bit about what's happening to the planet. I was wondering if you could just sum up for me and for our readers what we've learned about global warming and what we've seen on the planet in the past year.
Well, of course, you can't connect any individual event with... this is a proof of the climate crisis and so on. But the picture is getting clearer and clearer. And we are seeing more and more of these kinds of events that can be linked to the climate crisis, that are being fueled by the climate and ecological crisis. And we are rapidly moving in the wrong direction.
2020 was the hottest year ever recorded, divided first place, despite a cooling La Nina effect. And we've seen record levels of concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. We've seen numerous like extreme weather events that are the signs of the same pattern, a very clear pattern which shows that we are rapidly moving in the wrong direction.
You've always said that it's not your place to talk about solutions, or you don't have all the solutions. You don't have all the answers. But do you think that's changing now, or is it time to start working on the solutions?
I mean that depends on what people define as a solution... if you find a carbon tax a solution, whether you find electric cars a solution. I mean we of course welcome all these things that do more good than it does harm. But if I were start talking about taxes or things like that, then... since I have such a big reach, that would send a signal that the climate crisis is an issue that can come down to party politics. And that really minimises this crisis and it sends a signal that this can be solved within today's society.
Quoting the IPCC, they said that we need unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. And that just says itself, that we don't know what that will look like because we don't have anything to compare to. We haven't seen these kinds of changes before.
One thing that you've written a lot about is the idea of carbon budgets, of having an annual carbon budget. And I was wondering if you could just explain for the reader of the FT what that means and why it's so important.
A carbon budget is the idea of having a limited amount of carbon dioxide that we can still emit to still have a reasonable chance of staying below a certain target, like 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees. And then all these different carbon budgets have different odds of us staying below these targets. I mean, the only morally right thing to do would be to base policies and to base everything... and do it in line with the carbon budget which gives us the best possible odds of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels.
Because there are carbon dioxide budgets like net-zero 2050 and these things that are based on budget, which gives us an about 50 per cent chance of staying below these targets. And of course since they exclude so many essential aspects of course, that in reality is much less than a 50 per cent chance. And the carbon dioxide budgets given by the IPCC that gives us the highest odds is 66 per cent, or two-thirds possibility of staying below 1.5. But they also exclude many factors. So everything is very, very loose, and it's very complicated.
So that's why we can't just take one number and base everything on that. We need to take into account the whole picture, the full picture. We need to include land use in our calculations, we need to include the aspect of equity, and of course also negative emissions technologies, but at a reasonable scale. And historic emissions. I mean, so many things that need to be taken into account.
Do you know if you'll be going to COP this year in Glasgow?
I mean, that depends, first of all, if it doesn't get cancelled again, and if I get invited. And so, yeah. And if that's OK with school and so on. So there's lots of obstacles there. But I think yeah, if I would be given the chance, then I would probably go.
And what would you like to see at the COP? I mean, you've been to... already you were in Madrid. You were in Katowice. You've seen quite a few of these conferences before. Do you hope this one can be different in some way?
I know it won't be different. Because like I said as long as we don't treat the crisis like a crisis, no real change will be achieved. And so as it is now we can hold these conferences at meetings for eternity, over and over again, as many as we want. That still won't lead to any change unless we actually for real realise where we are and actually start acknowledging this crisis, and admit that we have failed thus far.
I mean, do you think that moment will come?
What is missing right now from the discourse is the sense of time. We are talking about things to do 2050 or 2040, and they're always several decades missing. And so there's a gap that needs to be communicated, a gap between what needs to be done and where we are right now - what we are doing, and also we say we're gonna do.
And that gap is probably among the biggest failures in human history, and the biggest news story ever. And that is something that is being completely ignored, and that's and increases the importance of it.
Where do you hope that the youth climate movement can go from here? And what's next for the group? I know it's not only you, of course, it's a whole grassroots, many people. But what do you think is coming along?
I have no idea. I guess the strength of the Fridays for Future movement is that it's so spontaneous. We are not an organisation. We do everything based on what is best at the moment.
We have learned during this last year that nothing can be taken for granted, that we cannot plan things in advance, because suddenly something comes along which just turns the world completely upside down. So I have no idea. But one thing is for sure, that we are still going to do everything that we can based on the circumstances, and continue to communicate the science, and to be a pain in the ass for people in power and just continue repeating the same message until the climate crisis gets treated as a crisis.