"How dare you!" raged Greta Thunberg to UN climate summit leaders in 2019. "We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth." She was bang-on. Climate change is very real.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives us 10 years before climate catastrophe becomes irreversible. Over 11,000 scientists have unanimously declared that the climate emergency could bring about "untold suffering". There’s more man-made material on the planet than living matter. And Hollywood’s Cli-Fi (climate fiction) movies are adding to climate anxiety. Remember how the environment is a key character in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? In Gilead, human rights are sacrificed in order to save the planet.
There can be no doubt: we are in a race to save the planet, and we are all petrified. In 2020, "climate anxiety" was recognised by more than 1,000 clinical psychologists who signed an open letter highlighting the impact of the crisis on people’s wellbeing.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. According to María Fernanda Espinosa, former president of the UN General Assembly, "We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet". We need a decarbonisation revolution, and we can all play our part because behaviour change at a grassroots level is a prerequisite for reducing emissions.
I’m in my early 30s and I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to working on the climate emergency within international policy and, as 2021 begins, I think we all have reasons to be optimistic about the climate fight. There was a lot going on in 2020 so nobody would blame you if you missed them.
Change is happening, I promise
Ten years ago, when I said I worked in climate policy, eyes would glaze over and the subject would be changed. Now, the response is intrigue, questioning and personal experiences of making change. Dedicated climate activists have had a huge impact on environmental awareness: fossil fuels are the new tobacco and 80% of Brits are now concerned about the climate. The language is different too, communicating imminent danger rather than climatic warming. I don’t worry about climate deniers anymore – they’re out of fashion – but I do worry about people feeling that it’s too late and that they "shouldn’t bother because it won’t help anyway" because it’s not – yet!
So what needs to be done?
We must achieve net zero emissions by mid-century and prevent global temperatures from increasing by more than 1.5°C by 2100. In December 2015, 196 countries adopted the legally binding international Paris Climate Agreement to do just that and decarbonise the world by 2050. The 2030 Agenda was adopted alongside the Paris Agreement, introducing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Together, these provide a blueprint for "peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future".
How does the Paris Agreement actually work?
As each country has differing responsibilities, resources and capabilities, they define their own pledges, including climate targets, policies and measures, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). NDCs are updated every five years, meaning that every participating government must make a climate pledge in line with the Paris Agreement during its time in power.
Where do we really stand?
We have just seen the warmest decade on record. Collectively, the current goals in the NDCs are not ambitious enough and are projected to produce nearly 3°C of warming by 2100. The reality is we are still a long way from net zero in 2050 but there are some encouraging signs. Countries’ long-term commitments are expected to become more ambitious, as seen this year in new net zero pledges from many major emitters, including Canada, China, the EU, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the UK and the USA. Based on these new commitments, Climate Action Tracker estimates that the rise in global temperatures will be reduced from the previous estimate of 3°C down to 2.1°C.
Over the last year we have witnessed a devastating crisis. The coronavirus pandemic shone a spotlight on our broken society and food, health and income insecurities. We are witnessing a triple and deep credit, COVID-19 and climate crisis and as the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said in his 2020 Reith Lecture, "The roots of our environmental emergency dig deep into our crisis of values". Too many people feel society is not working for them. We are fighting an ideological battle that has been a long time coming.
But with crisis comes opportunity and the unprecedented scale of coronavirus recovery spending offers a chance to shift the dial on the transition, restructure economies and start a clean energy revolution. Climate momentum is gaining and inspiring examples of post-corona green recovery packages that "build back better" are emerging — if implemented, these will cut CO2 emissions while generating tens of millions of jobs, rebooting economies and improving everyone's health.
In 2020, the world focused on the pandemic but the global economy continued to decarbonise. As of December 2020, 110 countries have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, China by 2060 and New Zealand by 2025! This means that 50% of the world’s GDP, and about 50% of global CO2 emissions, are covered by a net zero commitment. The UK’s "Green Industrial Revolution" aims to decarbonise by 2050 and kickstart a green recovery. Post-Trump, the USA is changing direction as Joe Biden promises to re-enter the Paris Agreement and proposes a "Clean Energy Revolution" with massive investment in renewables and greener infrastructure. The European Green Deal is a set of bold policies guaranteeing "economic growth decoupled from resource use" as well as ensuring "no place and no person is left behind". These Green New Deals and Green Revolutions are increasingly being seen as the only solution to meeting the climate, corona and credit crises at the scale and haste that science and justice require.
So although we’re not yet on track to avoiding irreversible climate change, progress has been at a record high and is actually moving much faster than we realise. Climate momentum is coming from all directions – individuals, countries, cities, businesses and investors – and in 2020, commitments to net zero have doubled, including 452 cities, 1,500 businesses, 549 universities and 45 of the biggest investors. Thanks to the clarity of direction from the Paris Agreement, the global decarbonisation economy is maturing, sector by sector, and this transformation is providing tipping points where low carbon solutions are now out-competing carbon businesses.
Here are some statistics which show how that’s going and which might make you feel better about everything:
Businesses are getting involved: More than 1,500 companies with combined revenues of $12.5 trillion have set their net zero targets between 2025 and 2050.
The finance sector is investing in all things green: Many of the world’s largest insurers, pension funds and asset owners, with over $5 trillion, have committed to be at net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Tech is leading by example: Vitally important technological advances (AI, smart meters, weather modelling supercomputers, etc.) could deliver up to a third of CO2 emission reductions by 2030. Google has committed to operate using carbon-free energy by 2030, Amazon has targeted 2040 for carbon neutrality, Microsoft will be carbon negative by 2030.
Even the energy sector is decarbonising: Renewables offer a direct route to a decarbonised world. Including hydropower, renewables captured three quarters of new power capacity and in just five years, solar and wind have transformed from expensive power sources to the cheapest form of new power generation.
Caring about the environment is in fashion: Thirty-two fashion brands have signed the Fashion Pact, using the SDGs and science-based targets to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. Brands are reviewing their outlook on profit and sustainability and balancing profit with people and planet.
So although sectors are moving at different speeds, all lanes are heading in the same direction: towards decarbonisation.
While we know the damage the climate emergency might cause, we must, as climate ambassador Christiana Figueres says, try to be optimistic, "not because success is guaranteed but because failure is unthinkable". Now is the time to fight for a green and just world and we all need to get on board, because the speed at which we do it will decide our fate and that of all generations to come. We must have a complete transformation of our policies, ideologies, energy systems, behaviours, thinking, everything! If we make it, we will look back and ask why we put up with this polluted, dirty, extinction-driving world.
Right now, the world is in suspense, awaiting the pivotal global climate summit COP26, to be held in Glasgow this November, because the pledges made by countries and companies will pave the way for our future. It is expected that long-term targets will become more ambitious, sending out clear market signals that decarbonisation is the future. However, to stand a chance of limiting warming of the Earth to 1.5ºC, we need urgently to raise the ambition and delivery of all NDCs. All countries must declare a climate emergency, commit to carbon neutrality targets by 2050 and back this with concrete policy measures.
The good news is that politicians and lawmakers are getting behind green recovery packages to help overcome the pandemic in the UK, Germany, France and Chile, among others. Green recovery plans have been announced in many cities, countries and businesses around the world. The UN believes that with a substantial shift in focus towards green COVID-19 recovery packages, we will see global carbon emissions follow a downward trajectory from 2021.
This could be because politicians have noticed that we – aka voters aka the people who keep them in their jobs – are increasingly concerned about the environment. Climate is at the forefront of our minds: fur is out of fashion; meat is moving off the menu; caring about the climate is cool and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are hot and appearing everywhere: on clothing, in songs, in business and national strategies. No wonder they are hopeful too. The director Richard Curtis helped design the SDGs' rainbow graphics for use as a language of change to "inspire everyone, everywhere to act".
The onus remains on our governments, large corporations and those with the power and finances to make change. But together we have a collective voice and we need to use it to loudly call for global, national and local climate action. Maybe we can’t all go full Greta, but there are steps we can take to be part of the decarbonisation revolution.
If there’s something you want to do to help right now, join the Count Us In campaign to reduce your carbon emissions and challenge leaders to deliver bold and global change. Keep your chin up, there are reasons to be hopeful. Stay optimistic and do what you can to make a change.