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Addressing climate change by degrees, not deadlines


Victoria Usher

Published On:

May 6, 2021

Published In:

Business | Sustainability | Technology Insights

Addressing climate change by degrees, not deadlines

“This is a moral imperative, an economic imperative, a moment of peril, but also a moment of extraordinary possibilities” — speaking at the virtual Leaders Summit, US President Joe Biden perfectly summarised the multi-faceted nature of climate change.

Global forces are increasingly recognising the need for adaptation and coming together to address climate issues. In the last few months alone, the UK has committed to a 78% carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction goal by 2035 — 15 years ahead of previous targets — while multiple nations announced new emissions pledges at the digital summit, including cuts of up to 52% by 2030 from the US and 46% from Japan. With the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference also on the horizon later in 2021, progress is moving apace.

But although these steps are positive, it’s vital to ensure emphasis on deadlines doesn’t eclipse the most important goal: limiting temperature increases. Centring attention on continuous progression is critical to build a greener and more sustainable future.

Debunking the 2030 myth

One of the most common misconceptions about global warming is that we have a specific window to drive change. This concept stems from research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018, which found a 45% decrease in emissions by 2030 would offer a reasonable chance of keeping temperature from rising 1.5C above pre-industrial levels — the UN’s Paris agreement target. Since then, it’s become widely believed that mitigation efforts must happen within the next decade; leading to much-cited 12, 10 and eight-year deadlines.

As noted by scientists behind the IPCC report, however, this perspective is highly misleading. Working to 2030 as a defined and final cut-off date creates the false impression that after this point, climate initiatives will have no effect. Of course, it goes without saying that the swifter measures and policies are implemented to achieve reduced emissions, the better. But it’s also important to recognise that all efforts to ensure global heating doesn’t exceed 1.5C will help avert the most significant environmental impacts, regardless of when they take place. Or in other words, the dates are not what truly matters; it’s the degrees.

This means there is room for optimism. Every step taken to halt climbing temperatures can make a big difference, not just those rolled out before 2030. As long, that is, as eyes stay fixed on the real key objective.

Where is climate change now?

While the climate race might not be running as fast as anticipated, consistent action is still important. After impressive declines in emissions from greenhouse gasses during 2020 — including a 7% worldwide reduction — the gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and return to daily activity is seeing carbon levels creep up, underlining the need to sustain these gains and continue exploring innovative solutions. According to some recent estimates, there is a risk unchecked CO2 bounce-back could reach as high as 1.5 gigatonnes globally.

As environmental awareness and enthusiasm for responsible business increases, prospects for eco-friendly improvement are also looking brighter; with a distinct shift away from simple ‘greenwashing’. For example, brands keen to drive changes are making greater commitments on sustainable practices; with players such as Unilever, Mastercard and Tesco adopting the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) Planet Pledge.  Additionally, recognition of the close links between economic and environmental health is dispelling misconceptions about uneven costs.

Back in 2016, Lord Stern argued outmoded views of financial prosperity and climate protection as competing aims were holding companies back from an “exciting growth story”. Recently, studies revealing a robust cost-to-benefit ratio for the Paris agreement have gone even further to illustrate the mutual benefits of low-carbon strategies, with broader estimates also showing dramatic decreases in renewable energy prices. Fast technological evolution has made green power much more efficient and accessible in the space of just a few years, fuelling 70% and 89% drops in wind and solar costs.

What core steps are needed next?

Investment will, of course, form a major element of work to resolve climate issues as existing infrastructure is updated. In particular, much of that will involve embracing sustainable energy sources and clean tech — both areas already seeing encouraging advances in terms of core government policies and rising investor interest.

Thanks to increasingly affordable and sophisticated solutions, however, costs are only due to keep falling, opening up better possibilities for balanced growth. In the UK, for instance, analysis by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) calculates that hitting new carbon benchmarks will mean boosting spending to £50 billion annually, but this will be offset by fuel efficiency savings and add up to just 1% of GDP over the next 30 years.

With many of the long-standing obstacles to climate-centric development removed, it only remains to ensure momentum is maintained; especially when it comes to sustaining focus on hitting temperature objectives, as well as emissions targets. As Ed Matthew, campaigns director of E3G highlighted: nations such as the UK have given an inspiring example that looks set to get the ball rolling across the globe; now it’s time to seize the “opportunity to spark a green revolution”.

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