'It's cheaper to save the planet than to ruin it': highlights from TED's climate countdown

"Choose your future. You can change climate change." One of TED's Countdown's slogan which launch took place on 10 October. (Credit: Ted.com)

Celebrities including Pope Francis and Prince Williams joined climate scientists and UN experts for the TED Countdown launch on 10 October. The five-hour live event on YouTube featured more than 40 leading thinkers and doers to initiate a massive collaboration to fight climate change. Here’s a glimpse of some of the most insightful moments and the Swiss added-value to get to net-zero emissions before 2050.

Why is it important? The first of the five-session event, “Urgency”, was a tough reminder that this is the last decade where it is still possible “to make a difference before it’s too late”. In a talk backed by vivid animations of the climate crisis, Johan Rockström, who led the development of the Planetary Boundaries, showed how nine out of the 15 big biophysical systems that regulate the climate -from the permafrost of Siberia to the great forests of the North to the Amazon rainforest- are at risk of reaching tipping points, which could make Earth inhabitable for humanity.

“For the first time, we are forced to consider the real risk of destabilizing the entire planet… This is not a climate emergency. It is a planetary emergency. My fear is not that Earth will fall over a cliff, on the first of January 2030. My fear is that we press unstoppable buttons in the earth system.”

But Rockström also reminded that humanity has both the knowledge and technology to succeed. He was echoed by Christiana Figueres, architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement calling herself a “stubborn optimist”. Recalling how her father, President José Figueres Ferrer restored democracy in Costa Rica despite the burning of his farm, she told about her difficult journey to reach a historical global agreement on climate.

“No one believed we would ever agree on global decarbonization. Not even I believed it was possible… It took a deliberate change of mindset first in me and then in all other participants who gradually but courageously moved from despair to determination from confrontation to collaboration… I learned stubborn optimism, the mindset that is necessary to transform the reality we’re given into the reality we want.”

Inspiring actions. Al Gore, chairman of the Climate Reality Project training thousands of new climate leaders around the world, hosted the second session “Transformation” with American rapper Jaden Smith. The author of “An Inconvenient Truth”, a turning point in climate change advocacy,  introduced four of his graduates showcasing how anybody can address climate change. Ximena Loría, for instance, who after attending a week-long training in Texas in 2016, founded Misión 2 Grados, an NGO influencing public policy in Central America. Loría gives presentations on climate to thousands of people contributing to build a movement for climate survival and social justice from the ground up.

Ex Vice President Al Gore moderated the Leadership session of Ted Countdown on 10 October with Jaden Smith (Credit: Ted.com)

Breakthroughs. A session dedicated to the most innovative solutions to tackle climate change featured two Swiss examples of regeneration of nature and transformation of material into low or zero-carbon alternatives.

  • A digital platform for restoration: ecologist Thomas Crowther whose viral Trillion Trees campaign to capture up to 30 per cent of the excess carbon in the atmosphere paved the way for rapid tree growth sometimes without nuance, introduced Restor, his new project. Thanks to privileged access to successes and failures of restoration projects around the world, he teamed up with Google a year ago to optimise their valuable data and help identify the best working strategies to help restore biodiversity.

“The more data the community upload, the stronger the predictions get and the more informed action we can all take putting the learnings of thousands of projects into the hands of people everywhere. And this ecosystem is much bigger than just planting trees. Trees are just the symbol for entire ecosystem restoration.”

"We are all needed to keep this movement going. We need the whole ecology of humanity," said Crowther. (Credit: Ted.com)

With this tool, Crowther hopes that everyone everywhere gets a chance to engage in the restoration movement whether supporting a wetland conservation project with huge carbon potential, simply find which species of plants exist in their garden or how much soil carbon they could accumulate.

  • A concrete idea to reduce carbon emission. Concrete is the second most-used substance on Earth (behind water), and it's responsible for eight per cent of the world's carbon footprint. Cement researcher and EPFL Professor Karen Scrivener shared the research behind a pioneering new kind of cement known as LC3, a combination of limestone calcite clay and cement, which could slash carbon emissions from this crucial building material by 40 per cent if adopted at scale.

“LC3 has the same properties as Portland cement. It can be produced with the same equipment and processes and used it the same way, but has up to 40 per cent lower CO2 emissions. And this was demonstrated in this house.”

The experiment in India helped save more than 15 tons of CO2, which was 30 to 40 per cent compared to existing materials. LC3 is also used full scale in Cuba and Columbia, commercialized in Ivory Coast and the world's largest cement companies are looking to introduce it. Tom Schuler, CEO of Solidia Technologies, pushed the reasoning further unveiling their newest technology to potentially turn cement into a carbon sink by capturing waste gas from industrial facilities that otherwise would have been released into the atmosphere. A technology he claims can reduce carbon footprint by up to 70 per cent and save trillions of litres of water.

“Now convincing a 2,000 year-old industry that hasn't evolved much over the last 200 years is not easy, but there are lots of new and existing industry players that are attacking that challenge.”

Stubborn realists. Alerting on how we let “capitalism morph into something monstrous”, economist Rebecca Henderson made the case for companies to step up and help fix the climate crisis they're causing:

"Business is screwed if we don't fix climate change."

Finally, discussing why humanity has to act globally at speed and at scale to meet the staggering challenge of decarbonizing the global economy, engineer and investor John Doerr concluded:

"The good news is it's now clearly cheaper to save the planet than to ruin it. The bad news is: we are fast running out of time."