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.
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.
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.