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The power of vision in the age of climate change

Helen Keller once said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” The sustainability revolution is unstoppable. Signs are everywhere; policy makers and the private sector are veering towards a decarbonized development model. The adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change on December 2015 marked the political turning point. This moment was only possible, however, due to the previous surge in momentum from non-state and sub-national actors.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Paris Agreement is that all 197 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit this increase to 1.5°C. As a long-term goal, Parties also agreed to reach global peaking of greenhouse gases (GHG) as soon as possible, and to undertake rapid reductions afterwards so as to achieve a balance between the level of emissions and of removals by sinks (zero net emissions) by the second half of this century. The biggest change brought by the Agreement to the UNFCCC regime, is that all Parties must pursue mitigation efforts – not only developed countries.

Parties were also aware of the fact that some climate change impacts are already inevitable. With this in mind they agreed to increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, and foster resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development. Importantly, they agreed to make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development. The Paris Agreement also mandates Parties to strengthen capacities and transfer technology of those Parties in need, so that they, in turn, can also lower GHG emissions and adapt to climate change.

The provisions of the Paris Agreement are however not enough to achieve the desired goal of 1.5°C temperature increase by the end of this century. This is so because the pledges presented by the Parties to the UNFCCC in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) for the years 2020 to 2025/2030 are not ambitious enough to reach the goal (under the Agreement, Parties are free to determine the nature and extent of their pledge).

“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participates in the event on the UN Paris Agreement Entry into Force at the United Nations” by U.S. Department of State. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Paris Agreement also follows a more managerial and procedural approach. This is, it sets strong transparency obligations on Parties to present their national inventories of GHG and the information needed to track progress in the implementation of their pledges under a transparency mechanism. This transparency mechanism is accompanied by two additional mechanisms: a mechanism to facilitate and promote compliance, and a global stocktake. The global stocktake mechanism is a review and ratchet process where Parties review all pledges every five years, assess the progress towards achieving the purpose and long-term goals of the Agreement, and then set more ambitious ones. Unfortunately, waiting for this procedural machinery to start working and for the results of the next global stocktake in 2023 before increasing ambition would be too late.

According to the latest scientific research, in order to achieve the objective of maintaining the increase in average global temperature at below 2°C by the end of the century (least to say 1.5°C), GHG emissions should peak by 2020. According to Mission2020, convened by the former UNFCCC Secretary, Christiana Figueres, several additional milestones should be achieved by 2030 if the long-term goal of decarbonization by the end of the century is to become a reality:

  1. Renewables should make up at least 30% of the world’s electric supply;
  2. cities and states should be running and sufficiently funding programs to achieve the decarbonization of buildings and infrastructure;
  3. at least 15% of all new cars sold globally should be electric, accompanied by an increase in decarbonized public transportation in cities, as well as by more fuel efficiency and less GHG emissions from aviation;
  4. deforestation should stop, and afforestation and reforestation should increase in such a degree so as to create the necessary carbon sinks to reach net zero emissions;
  5. heavy industry should be developing plans for halving emissions before 2050; and
  6. the finance sector (private and public sources) should be mobilizing at least 1 trillion US dollars a year for climate action.

Surely, these milestones are challenging but also possible and desirable.

Several countries and regions are already on the vanguard, pushing for a successful transition towards a decarbonized economy. Iceland, Norway, and Costa Rica have announced their desire to become climate neutral. Bhutan goes a step further and is the only carbon negative country in the world (absorbing more greenhouse gases than it produces), with the intent of remaining so. The Gambia and Morocco’s pledges are also very ambitious.

“Windmills Renewable Energy” by epicantus. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

A second group of countries has presented pledges that are acceptable, but do not contribute enough to the common effort. Their pledges have been rated as “medium” by Climate Action Tracker (which rates countries’ pledges and policies against whether they are consistent with a country’s fair share effort to holding warming to below 2°C). The most important of these (in light of their share in global emissions) are the European Union, China, Brazil, India, and Mexico. These countries and region should step up in their efforts and policies, as by doing so they have much to win.

A last group of countries has announced mitigation goals that are clearly insufficient. Among these are other big emitters such as Canada, Australia, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Ukraine, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. The greatest disappointment and laggard in this third group is the United States, whose current federal government has sadly chosen to follow a path in the wrong direction.

It is clear – even for those with limited vision – that the countries and private companies now betting on decarbonization will be the great winners of the future. First of all, they will provide the knowledge and technology necessary for the transformation. Secondly, they will substantially improve the living conditions of their inhabitants. And thirdly, the economically stronger of them will be the leaders of tomorrow’s global economy.

The race towards decarbonization is picking up speed. Hopefully we will be able to agree with Rudi Dornbusch who said that “things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you ever thought they could”. We must transform our economy, but most importantly, we must transform our minds. We see the world through “carbon eyeglasses” and measure all our activities according to their carbon imprint on the world. The recipe for success is simple to remember: all of us – states, regions, cities, companies, and individuals – should cut our carbon footprint in half by the end of each of the coming three decades. We can do it and the vision of a better, cleaner future will become our reality.

Featured image credit: “Climate Protest” by niekverlaan. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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