Commentary

Building momentum tips us closer to a zero-carbon future

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When you work on climate change, one of the hardest questions to answer is, “Are we winning?”.

It’s tricky to work out where we stand in-between ever louder clarion calls about devastating climate impacts and the ‘it’s happening’ stories about low-carbon initiatives breaking through. But what is clear is that momentum for climate action is building a critical mass – and that this acceleration is cutting across politics, the real economy and the public sphere.Despite what many sceptics say, this moment was triggered by the Paris deadline. 

A shift in the politics

Yes, there is still a long way to go to give climate change the political attention it deserves. But with the UN Secretary General, the Pope and the G7 all expected to call on fellow leaders to up their game this month, we’ve started to see climate change getting on to the top table.

The US, formerly the bad guys for failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, are now actively campaigning for a global climate deal this year, with John Kerry and President Obama taking on climate action as a personal priority for American diplomacy. The US-China announcement1 last November on their respective pledges to reduce emissions would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when the two countries were locked into a ‘you blink first’ dynamic in international climate negotiations.

This momentum is making it increasingly unacceptable for countries to sit on the sidelines – as seen by the international pressure Japan has come under from its G7 partners, which has motivated it to bring forward a higher mitigation offer than it was originally planning ahead of this weekend’s summit.

This political momentum goes far beyond the national level. Increasing numbers of local mayors and regional elected officials have taken up the climate mantel, driving forward reforms to match and overreach the ambition levels of their national governments. Instead of waiting for national action, local actors are demonstrating their credibility to amplify their political voice. Take the mayors of 30 major European cities for example, whose joint call2 in March for coordinated EU climate action was backed up by their own initiative to coordinate public procurements for greater low carbon investment. Or the action demanded by the States & Regions Alliance, featuring leadership from Canadian and Australian regional leaders3 standing up to their national governments’ obstructive behaviour in addressing climate change. In fact, this year’s Global Climate Legislation study found the number of climate laws and policies globally has doubled to 804 in the past five years, meaning 75% of global emissions are now controlled by national plans.

Real economy

What’s particularly remarkable is how a slew of disruptions in the real economy have underpinned these political shifts, and look set to keep increasing the pace for politicians to keep up with.

High carbon incumbents are now fighting against the tide of investors reacting to carbon exposure and climate change as a key strategic risk. Leading insurer Axa last month announced4 it would divest €500m from high-risk coal funds, seeing greater investment opportunities in green technologies. This came just days ahead of a joint intervention5 from investment fund CEOs responsible for over $12 trillion in assets, who called climate change “one of the biggest systemic risks we face" in a push for G7 countries to operationalise the 2C commitment with a global emissions reductions goal in Paris.

This trend is increasingly drowning out the high carbon voices in political debates spouting exaggerated claims over the risks climate action poses to competitiveness. In an ever clearer sign of the consensus emerging that coal has no future, Norway’s parliament voted to divest6 the country’s $900 billion sovereign wealth fund from coal, becoming the largest fund so far won over by the divestment campaign.

It’s no wonder that we’re seeing a solutions-driven approach when renewable energy is increasingly forcing fossil fuels out of contention. A showdown7 between solar entrepreneurs and coal companies in Paris Climate Week was testament to the astonishing rise of renewable energy in the debate. In fact, a recent study8 showed that the growth rate of clean energy surpassed all predictions of the world’s biggest energy agencies, financial institutions, and fossil fuel companies. Only Greenpeace’s Energy Revolution scenarios best matched how fast the renewable energy market could and would grow.

Public momentum

A fellow activist once told me, “No one wants to be part of a movement that’s going nowhere.” Happily, the opposite is also true. As clean energy solutions become ever more available and politicians get on board, citizens around the world are getting more vocal in calling for faster, stronger action. The momentum from last September’s Peoples’ Climate March has carried through into increasing resistance to fossil fuel extraction projects, a growing European ‘Alternatiba’ movement for citizen-led solutions and a mass lobby of the UK Parliament for this month, to name but a few. We now have 25 major global newspapers agreeing to prioritise climate change coverage9, promoting it  out of the environment pages. This louder public discourse is in turn influencing the kind of politicians getting elected – just look at the stunning victory10 for the pro-climate action New Democratic Party in Canada’s Alberta Province last month, a region formerly synonymous with tar sands extraction.

A fragmented yet positive shift is underway

These shifts aren’t uniform, and there is still major opposition to overcome in all these arenas if we’re going to be able to get to zero-emissions and stabilise global temperatures. But while the mention of ‘tipping points’ in conversations on climate used to only imply the breaching of planetary boundaries, we’re now starting to hear ‘tipping points’ refer to this momentum shifting the world on to an irreversible pathway to zero-carbon.

Maintaining and accelerating this kind of momentum is essential for ensuring the agreement in Paris can live in the real world.

French President François Hollande recently described his vision for the Paris conference as not all about an international treaty in the traditional sense, but about agreeing concrete actions to give further impetus to a broad movement. The world is no longer pinning all its hopes on politicians ‘saving the world’ at a two-week conference.

This shouldn’t be taken as a sign of lowering expectations for what the international community is capable of in the face of climate change. Rather it is a reflection that a climate deal will only be truly ‘global’ if it matches the ambition and action underway across the world, and enables this transition to go further and faster. Paris offers the world’s governments the opportunity to show they are listening, and join all the actors going in the same one direction – with increasing speed and determination.

[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/us-china-joint-announcement-climate-change

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/26/full-text-of-climate-change-statement-signed-by-26-european-mayors

[3] http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/subnational-climate-change-fight-by-philippe-couillard-et-al-2015-04

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/22/axa-divest-high-risk-coal-funds-due-threat-climate-change

[5] http://in.reuters.com/article/2015/05/26/climatechange-funds-idINL5N0YH1CB20150526

[6] http://350.org/press-release/norwegian-parliament-set-to-ban-coal-investments/

[7] www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d47b5904-ffad-11e4-bc30-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=uk

[8] http://motherboard.vice.com/read/guess-who-accurately-predicted-the-explosion-of-the-clean-energy-market

[9] http://mashable.com/2015/05/21/the-guardian-climate-coverage-sharing/

[10] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/alberta-election-oil-patch/article24272879/

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