While governments dither, climate action elsewhere is speeding up

Andrew Higham
Sep 19 · 5 min read

National efforts to step up the fight against climate change are largely lacklustre, but at least local governments and businesses could go some way to helping avoid the most disastrous impacts of a warming planet.

New reports out this week, ahead of the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit in New York on Monday, show us where we are in the battle to avert trillions of dollars in damages and millions of deaths and species extinctions, and where we have the potential to go.

The top-line takeaway: Many national governments remain tied to their old, dirty, domineering fossil fuel industries, whereas cities, regions, businesses and investors around the world see the benefits of chasing a clean economy and are committing to change. The ability and potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions is therefore out there, but it still needs to be harnessed, turned into reality, and seriously amped up.

The most sobering bit of news this week came from the UN climate secretariat’s assessment of national plans. Fourteen high-emitting economies, which produce a quarter of global emissions, have said they do not intend to revise their pledges under the Paris Agreement by 2020, even though the 2015 deal encourages them to do so and their contribution is far from adequate. On the flip side, 75 developing nations representing 37 percent of emissions are planning to ramp up their pledges.

Clearly, there is still a disconnect between the countries most responsible for the warming climate and best able to tackle it, and the countries most vulnerable to its extreme impacts — as will be evident at the UN on Monday.

Around 60 heads of state and government will take the stage and announce plans to raise their existing Paris commitments, or set goals out to 2050, or both. Few, however, will heed Secretary-General António Guterres’ necessary and feasible call for an immediate end to fossil fuel support and coal-fired power plant construction. Big economies like Australia, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia aren’t even allowed on stage because of their refusal to quit these toxic fuels.

Now, the good news

There is a glimmer of hope, and it should give national leaders the confidence to raise their pledges between now and December 2020: The untapped potential from local governments and companies, acting on their own or through international initiatives, to safeguard jobs, health, infrastructure, pensions, insurance policies and nature from the worst climate impacts.

The Global Climate Action from Cities, Regions and Businesses report released this week shows that the goals set out in 17 high-performing cooperative initiatives could cut greenhouse gas emissions by a hefty one-third by 2030. This would help limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius — still short of the 1.5-degree limit we can’t afford to cross, but better than the 3 degrees-plus that existing Paris Agreement pledges would lead us to. In addition, individual commitments by 6,000 cities and regions and 1,500 companies in 10 of the highest-emitting economies could trim another 4 percent off global emissions.

Separately, the Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity report finds that low-carbon measures in cities around the world would generate $24 trillion by 2050, creating higher living standards that translate into political dividends for national governments. Benefits come in the form of cleaner air, less traffic, and up to 87 million jobs in 2030.

So the ability and incentives to limit climate change are clear and present. The challenge is maximising and expanding that potential.

It won’t be easy, for example, for cooperative initiatives to reduce emissions by one-third, because their goals are sometimes extremely high, such as ending deforestation by 2030, and require memberships to grow. But amid the often disappointing moves from national governments, these findings show that mayors, governors, chief executives, investors and others are speeding ahead of their capitals. Even where national leaders are rolling back climate policies — like in the US and Brazil — local governments and companies can keep their countries somewhat on track.

It’s already happening.

Two Indian states, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, announced this month that they will stop building coal-fired power plants and fill new electricity demand with renewables. Meanwhile, New Delhi dithers on whether it will raise the Paris goals it is already expected to overshoot. As the report on city, regional and business action finds, individual commitments in India would add a 5.5 percent reduction to the current national policy projections for 2030.

In the European Union, these individual commitments would lead to an emissions reduction of up to 48 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels — a 20 percent jump from the current goal of at least 40 percent. Suddenly, a goal to reduce emissions by 55 percent by 2030, as many in Brussels are calling for, doesn’t seem as big.

And in the US, continued climate action by local governments and companies put the country in range of meeting its 2025 pledge, despite the Trump administration’s rollbacks.

In the private sector, companies with a combined market capitalisation of $1.3 trillion committed in July to cut their emissions to net-zero by 2050, in line with a 1.5-degree limit. Among those is Nestlé, the world’s biggest food company, which could as a result force changes across coffee and dairy farms and packaging companies. Big investors are beginning to make similar moves, which would push companies in their portfolios to follow suit or risk being dumped. And the tech giant Salesforce, launched a new carbon accounting product on Wednesday, arming businesses with a new data-driven tool to track and change their environmental footprint.

Now governments need to step in and help their cities, regions and businesses follow and raise their commitments to stay within the 1.5°C-degree limit. Governments need to take this local and private sector action into account in their updated Paris pledges and provide technical, regulatory and financial support.

The UN’s climate secretariat’s Global Climate Action portal, re-launched this week with a new interactive map and country profiles, makes it possible to navigate climate commitments around the global economy — showing us where progress is being made, and where it’s lacking.

The potential to strengthen efforts against climate change is now quite literally at our fingertips, as well as in our local town halls and businesses. Let’s follow the map, and quicken the pace.

For more information on progress towards Mission 2020, see www.mission2020.global

Written by

CEO of Mission 2020, seasoned political strategist, lead drafter of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

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