A turning point for climate action
With the Leaders Summit on Climate consolidating the consensus on the necessity for carbon neutrality, the focus is on public-private action
Earth Day 2021, which fell on April 22, was a historic moment for action on climate change. At his unprecedented Leaders Summit on Climate, US President Joe Biden pledged that the United States will cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Along with existing commitments to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 from the European Union, the United Kingdom and other major G20 economies, including Japan and the Republic of Korea, as well as President Xi Jinping's commitment to peak China's carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon-neutrality before 2060, governments representing over 60 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are now committed to net-zero emissions goals.
Much diplomatic work needs to be done to close this commitment gap ahead of the COP 26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, but a major political turning point on climate action has undoubtedly occurred.
The challenge now is to turn these political commitments into practical action, especially to get on track with emissions reductions by 2030.
China's war against air pollution saw the government taking stronger action to introduce development plans for renewable energy in 2016. Now, China is the world's biggest producer of wind energy and it generates one-third of the world's solar energy. And China's average life expectancy would rise by 2.9 years if it improves air quality to levels recommended by the World Health Organization. However, whatever is achieved by investing in renewable energy will be neglectable if the country does not reduce its reliance on fossil energy.
Alongside national governments, many companies, cities, states, regions, civil societies and individuals are also pledging climate action. More than 1,000 corporations, for example, have now made net-zero commitments, and a United Nations-convened group of investors called the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance has more than $5 trillion of assets under ownership committed to net zero emissions by 2050 or sooner. These "non-state actor" commitments often come up with practical road maps, investment plans and partnership strategies.
Biden's new national strategy for climate action brings an "all of government" approach, which will also help scale and accelerate non-state actor efforts in the US, effectively stimulating a "win-win "public-private scenario for climate action. The European Green Deal and China's recently released 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) also offer green industrialization and investment strategies, leveraging government capabilities to promote partnerships with industry to help meet the climate goals.
These announcements, as well as the aspirations of the G7 and G20 presidencies for 2021, reflect a more broadly interventionist mood among major governments to stimulate a sustainable and resilient post-pandemic economic recovery involving technology, job creation and action on climate.
Consequently, the transition to get on track for net-zero emissions may now be viewed through the perspective of a unique, decadal effort of public-private cooperation－a once-in-a-generation push for an energy, industrial and agricultural systems upgrade, boosted by the need for a post-pandemic economic stimulus.
This helps sharpen the focus for climate action to 2030. We know we have 10 years to get on track. We know we must remove about 25 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions in that time. We know the key sectors of the economy we must focus our efforts on.
We know the levers of technology innovation, investment and policy that must be pulled. And we can increasingly see the value creation this transition can create, as costs of renewable power decline in relation to fossil fuel options, and as innovations advance many new climate-smart products and services.
We can see investors and markets around the world responding. Values are rising for green innovation, climate-smart companies and environment, social and governance investment funds. And consequently, we also know the transition risks we need to mitigate as we make the shift－the transition in jobs and skills for example, and the need for more comprehensive standards, reporting and accountability frameworks to help show which companies are taking action and managing climate risk best.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the High-Level Climate Champions－which focus on helping mobilize non-state actor efforts－have usefully broken down the economic and industrial areas required for transition and action into 28 specific breakthrough ambitions that need to be achieved across the global economy by 2030 to get us on the pathway to net-zero emissions by mid-century.
The public-private agenda for climate action has never been clearer. This is also why climate ambition and the net-zero transition is a central pillar of the World Economic Forum activity through the Platform for Climate Action.
Spurred by the Leaders Summit on Climate and its announcements, and the potential it raises for the forthcoming Glasgow COP 26, let us ensure history looks back on 2021 as the turning point year when climate action truly became seen as a decadal program for breakthrough public-private action.
Dominic Waughray is managing director of the World Economic Forum. Li Pengyu is a China specialist of the Tropical Forest Alliance at the World Economic Forum. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.