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Evidence of the climate transformation

By Gonzalo Muñoz and Nigel Topping, high-level champions for climate action for Chile’s COP25 and the UK’s COP26
Evidence of the climate transformation

This article first appeared in our COP26 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 05 November 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

If you focus on the geopolitics of climate action, you might be worried.

In a year that has brought many of us closer than ever to the impacts of the climate crisis – from flooded subways and burning homes to power outages and landslides – national commitments often feel welcome but inadequate compared with what the science demands.

But if you focus solely on the geopolitics, you are missing out on the bigger and more promising picture of a transformation that’s already underway.

We are more confident than ever about our chances of creating a healthier, resilient and more liveable zero-emissions future – starting with an acceleration during COP26. Why? Because that’s where the global economy is already headed, significantly faster than indicated by national plans.

Racing to net zero

Since the last COP summit in 2019, the very idea of a corporate, investor or local government commitment to net-zero emissions before 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit warming to 1.5°C, has gone from extreme to mainstream.

General Motors, Aviva, the state of California, Cemex, Natura Cosmeticos, Ørsted, the University of Sao Paulo and Glasgow city are aiming to reach net zero 10 or 20 years sooner.

The UN-backed Race to Zero campaign – which mobilises businesses, investors, cities and regions behind robust targets to halve emissions between 2020 and 2030 and reach net zero before 2050 – has grown exponentially since it launched in June 2020, even in the midst of Covid-19.

Its cities and regions now cover 11% of the population, and its businesses have at least $7.9 trillion in revenue – that’s three times the size of the UK’s GDP.

The need to build resilience to the impacts of climate change is setting in, too – because the zero-emission economy must be able to thrive in spite of impacts such as droughts, floods and unbearable temperatures.

The UN-backed Race to Resilience is similarly mobilising the private sector, local governments and civil society to build resilience for the 4 billion people most at risk by 2030, and defining what makes an accountable and transformative target.

Financing change

For evidence of this exponential shift, look at finance. In 2019, a pioneering alliance of asset owners, responsible for $2.4 trillion in assets under management, committed to fully decarbonise their portfolios by 2050.

Now, that asset owner alliance has roughly doubled in assets under management and become part of the wider Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which unites asset owners, asset managers, banks, insurers and others – responsible for around $90 trillion – under one target for net zero by 2050.

Recognising the need for finance to help reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, we are now working to drive finance-sector commitments to eliminate deforestation from portfolios by 2025 and support businesses that preserve and restore nature.

Decarbonising society

This is exponential – not linear – growth. We’ve seen it time and again, from horses to cars, valves to transistors and landlines to mobile phones. The cost of solar power has tumbled by 80% over the last decade, and wind by 55%.

The number of electric vehicles on the road jumped from 17,000 in 2010 to more than 10 million today, according to the International Energy Agency. In Europe, electric cars and vans are expected to cost less to manufacture than fossil fuel versions by 2027 and could account for all new sales by 2035, according to BloombergNEF.

This kind of growth was unimaginable when the Paris Agreement was clinched in 2015. Then, projections told us the internal combustion engine would still be around in 2100 and that solar photovoltaic would never be cost-competitive. Now that growth is spreading to harder-to-decarbonise sectors such as aviation and shipping.

So Glasgow is set to be the first COP focused on implementing climate action rather than negotiating it – where countries, businesses, investors, cities and regions can share the accelerating progress towards net zero in sector after sector of the economy. Of course, this progress is far from sufficient; but the dynamics of exponential systems transformation are now in place.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that in order to stay within 1.5°C, we need to halve emissions this decade while regenerating nature and building resilience. That equates to cutting emissions by 7.6% per year, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Driving this immediate change will take diversity, cooperation and what UN secretary-general António Guterres calls an ‘inclusive’ and ‘networked’ form of multilateralism.

National governments, cities, regions, multinational corporations, small businesses, investors and civil society must work together to innovate, invest and legislate for a halving of emissions by 2030. In so doing, they will create an ambition loop: the private sector and local governments jump out ahead of national governments, giving political leaders the confidence to set higher targets and more enabling policies.

Businesses, investors, cities and regions can then raise their targets again, which allows governments to aim higher, and so on.

Unlike in 2019, we know what it will take to reach net zero. The Race to Zero has worked with hundreds of partners from industry, civil society, academia and government to create detailed climate action pathways to 2050 for 30 sectors and the breakthroughs needed by 2030 to drive exponential change. 15 hit their first breakthrough ahead of COP26, with 20% of each sector’s major companies joining the Race to Zero.

Diversity matters

Climate change touches every country, every business and every person, just in very different ways. Some feel impacts on their health, some on their revenue and some on their jobs and livelihoods.

A selfish, inward-looking economic response risks fuelling the conditions for catastrophe – the way the Treaty of Versailles did after the first world war, as described by John Maynard Keynes in The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

Instead, we must follow the long-term, outward-looking approach of the Marshall Plan which, after the second world war, recognised the power of global economic recovery to both prevent the conditions of conflict and lift economic performance at home and abroad. But the plans must include the whole world. To do that, we need to embrace diversity.

Now that the Paris Agreement has given us the global end-goal for climate action, we need a diversity of partners – in terms of sector, gender, region, expertise and more – to push and pull the economy from all sides.

The Chilean and UK COP presidencies took an important step in that direction when they appointed us, as the first two high-level champions to come from the private sector rather than government. Our backgrounds enabled us to approach the job with the kind of innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that we are urging CEOs, mayors and governors to take on.

A race we want to win

We hope the incoming COP27 presidency will make diversity a priority when appointing the high-level champion, and consider candidates who are women and whose experience provides an understanding of how resilience and nature regeneration must go hand in hand with emissions cuts.

This is particularly true in small island and least-developed countries, where fossil fuels often make countries reliant on volatile energy imports, cause health problems related to pollution and make it hard to provide energy access to rural communities.

On the other hand, renewable sources can connect rural communities and advance sustainable development by, for instance, powering refrigerators for medical clinics and fresh food farmers and lighting for students after dark.

Barbados, for example, is aiming for 100% renewable energy by 2030 because it makes economic sense to do so. At a total cost of $4 billion, it’s expected to generate $3.9 billion per year in revenue in the 2020s and build energy independence. This is what the race to a healthy, resilient, zero-emissions future is all about. It’s a race we want to win.

We know that the climate crisis is already upon us, and that the recent wave of commitments to action has not yet translated into meaningful emission reductions. But we also know that the impossible is very possible – because, as we have seen, it is already happening.

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