Prologue: The House of Day Zero
Why hope is the key ingredient to go from climate crisis to net zero.
By Art Lapinsch (all images are AI-generated)
It was Sophia’s fifteenth birthday. Her parents took her to the capital to visit The House of Day Zero. All her friends were talking about how this museum was supposed to be amazing. She had to go.
Three years prior, humanity as a whole achieved the first day of zero carbon emissions. No fossil fuels were burned anywhere on this planet. A truly remarkable moment, and something that went down in history as Day Zero.
It was all over the news. The joy, the laughter, the relief. People took to the streets to celebrate this significant milestone.
Just a few decades earlier, something like Day Zero would have been unthinkable. The challenge of reversing climate change seemed too colossal a task. All the wars, famines, and natural catastrophes caused immeasurable pain. Heat waves caused mass migration and Sophia even remembers the story of her grandparents applying for a house in moderately-tempered Scandinavia only to be rejected.
Many people had given up already. They might have been right, but only in a different timeline. Luckily, our history culminated in the greatest epos of our civilization: Our Journey to Net Zero.
A true David vs. Goliath fight seeded with pain, doubt, and fear but also with effort, ingenuity, and hope. We humans made it in the end.
The House of Day Zero was built to recount this journey in three acts:
End of the World as We Know It 🏭
Dawn of the Climate Race 🔋
Reflections of Hope 🪞
A friend even confessed to Sophia that her father had to wipe away tears by the end of the exhibition. She thought “Crying? In a museum? How lame.”
Well… she was about to experience it herself.
House of Day Zero 🌳
Upon approaching the House of Day Zero, Sophia had to pause and marvel at the structure.
Pictures didn’t do it justice. The organic shape of the building did not resemble any of the high-efficiency models she had seen in her cityscaping class. It was truly unlike anything she had ever seen before yet oddly familiar at the same time.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” her mom said. Sophia nodded slowly with her mouth agape 😮
As they finally made their way inside their sense of wonder got another boost. The atrium was magnificent, bright, and very clean. It kind of made sense since it was a tribute to civilization’s departure from a fossil-fueled past. The House of Day Zero definitely looked the part.
Staff members greeted Sophia’s family and checked their tickets. They arrived 10 minutes before the tour began. Since it was a popular exhibition, the museum offered guided tours only. This would ensure a fully-immersive experience.
While waiting for their guide, the group made their way over to a wall with the curatorial statement:
House of Day Zero Our Climate Crisis was not god-given but man-made. Our Net Zero Future was not god-given but man-made.
Just as Sophia finished reading she perceived faint laughter, yet she couldn’t pinpoint where it came from. Then an upbeat guide arrived and addressed the group.
“Hey everyone and welcome to the House of Day Zero. Thank you so much for making the trip out here. We are excited to host you today and lead you through this curated exhibit on three floors. I’m sure you will remember this day for a long time. Don’t take my word for it. Other guests have come back repeatedly to experience these three floors once more. Without further ado, shall we?!” (chuckled)
End of the World as We Knew It 🏭
The elevator started coming to a halt. Even before the doors opened a smoke-like fog flooded the elevator and absorbed the tour group. The smell of burned wood filled Sophia’s nostrils and stung painfully in her lungs. Her parents started tearing up and a man in the front of the elevator started coughing. The doors opened and her eyes were greeted by a dim orange. The whole situation felt surreal and disorienting. Sophia asked herself if something was wrong with this floor.
“Welcome to the ‘End of the World as We Knew It’, the first floor of our House,” the guide announced. “By now you have certainly noticed that it is rather… uncomfortable. … Well, we tried to recreate some of the conditions that regular citizens of the world were experiencing a few decades ago.”
Sophia couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that anyone could live like this for longer than five minutes.
The museum host took a minute to talk the group through how the climate crisis happened:
What was the End of the World as We Knew It? The climate crisis resulted in all sorts of natural disasters like wildfires, flash floods, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and many more. All of this caused political unrest and forced regular people to become climate refugees. This was commonly referred to as ‘The End of the World as We Knew It’.
What caused the natural disasters? A global rise in average temperatures led to Global Weirding, which meant that weather-related extremes became more intense and more frequent.
Why did average temperatures rise? Average temperatures rose hand-in-hand with higher carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the air (measured as ‘parts per million’ ppm). Carbon dioxide was commonly referred to as a greenhouse gas (GHG) - a gas trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and contributing to a greenhouse effect.
Why was there more and more carbon dioxide? The Earth’s natural ecosystem is capable of trapping and removing a decent amount of carbon dioxide - via photosynthesis (trapping carbon dioxide from the air) for example - this is called a carbon cycle. But humans discovered fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas as energy sources. Burning those fossil fuels is reverse photosynthesis (i.e. releasing trapped carbon dioxide back into the air). At some point, the amount of released carbon dioxide exceeded the ecosystem’s natural capacity to remove CO2. That’s when the atmosphere started accumulating more and more carbon dioxide and it started becoming hotter.
As carbon dioxide increased 👇
CO2 emissions in this chart don’t include land use emissions (release of CO2 through farming practices; CO2 & methane release from cattle; etc.)
Average temperatures increased 👇
“This is messed up. Why would people burn fossil fuels if it had such an impact on the climate,” Sophia asked.
“Ha! Great question,” the guide responded. “It’s always the younger visitors who ask this question and it’s actually the most important one to ask.” He turned to the rest of the crowd and asked: “Can any of you answer this question?”
Murmur and shyness ensued. No one answered at first. After a while, a woman in the first row said “Our society and our economy depended on fossil fuels… The ones who could have changed things didn’t and the ones who wanted couldn’t.”
A smile formed on the guide’s face as he was listening. “Very good, very good. I would say you just correctly described the second part of the answer. Let me ask you: Do you have a guess as to why people took the risk of burning fossil fuels in the first place?”
“Pure evil.” People in the group laughed.
The guide chuckled and said “One could certainly believe so but the world is rarely black and white. Do you want to try again?”
The woman thought for a while, shrugged, and said “they didn’t know?”
The guide eyed her for a second and started grinning. “A small round of applause for our guest in the first row… Seems like she could do my job here… You’ll find me in the cafe on the ground floor.” The group had a laugh.
“Joking aside, our valedictorian is right of course. When people first discovered fossil fuels, they had no idea how the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas would have a massive impact down the road. Many decades later, when scientists started warning us about global warming the economies were fully dependent on fossil fuels. More growth required more energy and fossil fuels were the cheapest and most available sources of energy. We developed something that’s called a ‘Path Dependence.’ Everything was built to run on fossil fuels and it was clear that changing to a different source of energy would cost us a lot.”
“First we didn’t know. Then we didn’t want to bear the cost. We went full steam ahead into the Climate Crisis as renewable alternatives were neither cheaper nor better.”
“Enough of me talking. On this floor, you will get a feeling of the consequences of humanity’s path dependence on fossil fuels. I’ll give you around 15 to 20 minutes to explore. Visitors usually don’t want to spend more than that in this room. Sounds good?”
Sophia started roaming around and discovered the first panel, which showed annual CO2 emissions. It showed that in the 2020s the world had reached a critical junction: We were emitting 50 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2e each year.
What is a gigatonne? Source: Energy Education
A gigatonne is 1,000,000,000 tonnes and is often used when discussing human carbon dioxide emissions. This is roughly the mass of all land mammals (other than humans) in the world. It's also roughly twice the mass of all of the people in the world.
1 gigatonne is also roughly 200 million elephants; enough elephants to stretch from the Earth to the moon. Which would be bad for the elephant at the bottom and it would take a lot of food to feed all of those elephants.
50 gigatonnes are equal to the weight of 10 billion elephants. Sophia asked herself where all these elephants would live.
After looking at the other panels, Sophia walked toward the centerpiece. People crowded around it and looked at it in silence.
The world was on a collision course with an existential wipeout. All of this was just because humans discovered fossil fuels.
Dawn of the Climate Race 🔋
The door opened and the group proceeded into a bright, clean, and modern-looking room. Luckily all the inconveniences of the previous floor seemed to be gone.
“Here we are on the second floor of our House called the ‘Dawn of the Climate Race,’ where we’ll cover the turning point of the climate crisis. I promise you, it is going uphill from now on.”
Sophia looked around and glanced at a couple of panels displaying those outdated solar farms from her history class. There were many more exhibits on this floor.
“Does anyone of you still remember how much carbon was burned in the 2020s on Earth?”
“10 billion elephants worth of carbon,” Sophia blurted out.
“You’re totally right, young lady,” the guide responded. “And all of those elephants would add up to fifty gigatonnes. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide emitted every year. Like a lot. Luckily there was a mega trend during the 2020s that would shake up things quite a lot.”
“All over the world, renewables like solar energy and wind energy became cheaper than fossil fuels. This meant that all those who previously didn’t adapt suddenly had an economic incentive to switch from fossil fuels to renewables. It was cheaper to build and operate a new solar farm than to burn coal in an existing coal plant.”
The guide showed pointed at this figure 👉
“The really exciting thing was that renewables continued to become cheaper as more and more were installed. People referred to this as a ‘learning curve’,” the guide explained.
“Suddenly, it was cheaper, more profitable, and more beneficial for the planet to generate energy from renewables. This is when the large industrial players and the governments started shifting away from fossil fuels. We were off to the ‘Climate Race’.”
Renewables and Learning Curves
Renewables come from natural processes that are refreshed constantly. They include
Solar: Solar photovoltaics (e.g. solar panels); Solar thermal energy (e.g. solar water heater)
Wind: On-shore wind (i.e. installed on land) and off-shore wind (i.e. out on the ocean)
Ocean: Wave and tidal energy plants
Biomass: Burning wood, waste, or biofuels
Geothermal: Tapping into the heat coming from the hot core of the Earth
On Learning curves
“Clean energy is a technology, not a raw material. Its long-term price isn’t so much dictated by the law of supply and demand as it is driven by the virtuous cycle of increased demand leading to reduction of cost via Wright’s Law / the learning curve, and those lower prices leading to increased demand. And that’s a global phenomenon. Deploying more clean energy technology in Europe makes clean energy cheaper in the US, in China, in India, in Africa, and everywhere.”
A man in the back asked: “So you’re saying that money made all the difference?”
“It definitely tipped the scales,” the guide replied. “Once the big companies started working with renewables we started seeing real progress. Development of renewables accelerated and each year there was more and more energy generated from wind, thermal, hydro, and solar. People saw change and for the first time really started trusting that we could get to Net Zero.”
“It’s hard to overstate how important it was that everyone started believing. A real movement started forming across borders. We were united.”
Sophia immediately recognized that iconic poster.
“It was an extremely close call but without all the activity in the 2020s we wouldn’t be standing here today.”
The curious man asked: “So how did we get to Net Zero?”
The guide explained that each region of the world had to approach it in different ways since the local context was very different. The US is unlike the EU, China is very different from India, and so on. The important thing was that everyone joined the Climate Race.
The commonly referenced book Speed & Scale reduced the global challenge into six buckets:
Electrify Transportation 🚗 (from 8 Gt to 2 Gt by 2050)
Decarbonize the Grid 🔌 (from 24 Gt to 3 Gt by 2050)
Fix Food 🥬 (from 9 Gt to 2 Gt by 2050)
Protect Nature 🌳 (from 6 Gt to -1 Gt by 2050)
Clean Up Industry 🏭 (from 12 Gt to 4 Gt by 2050)
Remove Carbon 🌬 (remove 10 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year)
Policymakers, technologists, and civic leaders all played their part and chipped away at the global challenge. Some focused on rethinking the food system while others rebuilt the world of transportation. All for one and one for all.
Sophia thought that she would have most likely joined the race via nature preservation. Maybe she still could? The race wasn’t over yet. Humanity had reached Net Zero - an important milestone - but there would be further decades of geo-engineering to further reduce the CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere.
Reflections of Hope 🪞
Sophia’s brain took a second to comprehend what was going on. A room full of mirrors where holographic reflections of people were walking and talking.
“Welcome to our ‘Reflections of Hope’,” the guide announced while the group tried to orient itself in this fantastical maze.
“Unfortunately our time together has come to an end. This is the last floor of our House and you will explore it on your own. We refer to it as ‘the mirror room’. Each of these mirrors presents heroes of the Climate Race. Approach them and they might share their secrets with you.” (chuckled)
“I can ask them anything?” Sophia asked.
“Try and see.” The guide was referring to the fact that each hologram was an AI-generated holographic representation of actual people from the past. Artists, engineers, politicians, parents, and children. A representative selection of all the people who were needed on the journey to Net Zero.
“You can spend as much time in here as you need. When you are done there is only one way to exit this floor and it is through that exit over there.” The guide pointed at an illuminated door at the end of the floor. “This door opens only for one person at a time. You’ll see why. It usually takes around thirty seconds until the next person can open the door.”
“Alright. Thanks for sticking with me. I want to congratulate you on your visit to the House of Day Zero and am wishing you a memorable rest of your stay. Thank you.” The guide bowed while the group gave a strong round of applause.
Sophia agreed with her parents to meet after exiting this floor and started exploring the floor.
She started asking all sorts of questions to the holograms. Were they afraid? Yes. Did they ever doubt? Sometimes. What gave them the courage to build? Hope.
Some of the conversations were with engineers who explained the technologies they were working on. For the first time, Sophia understood what Direct Air Capture meant. Somehow this holo explained it better than her geoengineering teacher ever could.
Other conversations were with holograms of average people who lived through decades of change and shared their experience of migrating from one country to another in search of better climate.
Sophia was left with a deep sense of gratitude for all the people who fought the climate crisis even before she was born. Emotion welled up in her but she contained herself.
It was a good time to exit the floor. There was one person in front of her who just walked through the door. Seals closed, she counted the seconds, and after she reached twenty-five the door frame illuminated in green. She pushed it and entered a small room with a single mirror. The door shut behind her with the hissing sound of pressurization.
The mirror was empty. No hologram. Suddenly a shape formed and a girl materialized in front of her. She gasped. It was a reflection of herself.
For a few seconds, nothing happened. Slowly the voice of a narrator said:
Hope was the driver of the Climate Race. Without it, we would have not believed. It was each and every one of us that gave hope to one another. It wasn’t easy but it was necessary. Thank you for playing your part.
Sophia had tears in her eyes and she didn’t know why.
The narrator continued:
Thank you for visiting the House of Day Zero - an experiential Journey to Net Zero. And now for the final reveal, see what all this journey was for.
Another hiss and a door opened on the other side of the room. Light started flooding in. Sophia stepped out and found herself on the observation deck on top of the museum. The view was breathtaking.
She started laughing uncontrollably while also crying tears of joy.
Crying in a museum? She didn’t care anymore. She understood.
“Once you have glimpsed at the world as it might be, it is impossible to live in the world as it is.” Anonymous
Dear reader, if you want to discuss climate (questions; topics; jobs; opportunities; etc.), please reach out to me.
Also, if you enjoyed this story, I’d appreciate it if you could share it with people who might find this interesting. Thank you 🙏
I’m looking forward to hearing from you,
Thanks, Sara, Tim, Chris, Finn, Philipp, Hampus, and Skander for discussing and editing.
The original of this story appeared first on Delphi Zero.