The start of every year brings a rush of hope and optimism. However, by mid-February many of us have given up on our resolutions and have returned to old habits. Unlike personal fitness goals, global climate goals cannot wait until next year.
The past six years have been the six hottest years on record according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with 2020 exceeding pre-industrial levels by 1.2 °C. Given the scientific importance of limiting warming to 1.5 °C by 2100, we have precious little margin for error.
Climate change is happening now. As 2020 demonstrated, we may already be living in a new climate regime. The year began with devastating wildfires across Australia and continued with a record hurricane season in the Atlantic. Vast stretches of the American West burned and temperatures in Siberia spiked above 100 degrees. Accelerating ice loss in the Arctic outstripped even dire scientific projections.
In this turbulent and trying year, some considered the 7% drop in global emissions a bright spot. However, similar-sized reductions are needed annually until 2030 to realign us with our Paris Climate goals. A devastating pandemic is hardly a sustainable or desirable way to reduce emissions. Depressingly, even the 7% drop in emissions failed to stem rising levels of atmospheric CO2, which hit a new recorded high of 417 parts per million.
Reasons for Hope
Despite daunting climate challenges, there are reasons for optimism in 2021. Over one-hundred countries, representing nearly two-thirds of global emissions, have made explicit commitments to carbon neutrality. Notably, president-elect Joe Biden has put climate at the top of his agenda, indicating a willingness for the world’s second largest emitter to collaborate on climate action. With the US, EU, China, and other global players seeking to address climate change, the stage is set for an ambitious emissions agreement at this year’s Conference of the Parties in Glasgow.
The private sector has also thrown its support behind climate action. Even COVID-19 failed to slow the pace of corporate climate commitments. The number of these commitments have doubled in the past year, and include some of the world’s largest companies. At NYC Climate Week alone, new pledges came from AT&T, Google, Amazon, and General Electric among others. Consumers have also demanded more from financial institutions. Banks, investors, and insurers face increased scrutiny over their “financed emissions,” and ESG funds are seeing record inflows.
Companies and governments are also finding good economic reasons to go green. The International Energy Agency (IEA), concluded that solar power generation now offers “the cheapest source of electricity in history.” The plummeting costs of wind and solar have helped them begin to replace coal power, even in developing nations. In the EU and the US, most new power capacity will come from renewable sources. These trends will only accelerate as batteries and other storage technologies continue to improve.
No Turning Back
However, these promising developments must be complemented with aggressive action. Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement. According to the UN, the world is falling far short of its emissions reduction targets. We are burning through our remaining carbon budget with abandon. While 2020’s emissions decline is a step forward, many scientists and economists fear that the economic recovery in 2021 may see emissions rebound. This rebound happened after the Global Financial Crisis, when national leaders scrapped environmental goals and emissions jumped to record levels. An alarming sign comes from the nearly $300 billion given to fossil fuels in global COVID-19 stimulus packages.
New fossil fuel investments will rapidly put our climate goals out of reach. IEA analysis indicates that existing fossil fuel infrastructure alone could produce enough emissions to make Paris targets unreachable. The climate challenge can no longer be solved by incremental progress; it demands transformative change. As former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney explained: “achieving net-zero emissions will require a whole economy transition – every company, every bank, every insurer and investor will have to adjust their business models.”
2020 was the year of climate commitments. That was the easy part. Now the transformation begins. 2021 must be the year of climate action.