The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres opened the UN Climate Change Conference - COP25 – in Madrid with uncompromising words. The conference, he said, marked the “point of no return” in humanity’s fight against climate change.
At COP25, we saw palpable momentum from leading companies, investors, cities and some countries but these were islands of ambition. Around them, many governments were locked in stasis just as the world needed them to move forwards.
As COP25 drew to a close, Secretary General Guterres admitted he was ‘disappointed’ with the results and vowed to keep fighting. As a leading advocate of the zero-carbon transition, we feel the same.
Window to keep within 1.5°C
The window to keep the world within 1.5°C of warming is rapidly closing. Ahead of the conference, new research by the UN Environment Programme showed that we must reduce emissions by 7.6% every year until 2030 for that target to remain within reach.
Recognizing the urgent need to act, 'Time For Action' was chosen as the motto for this year's conference. And the events of this year – a burgeoning youth climate movement and increasingly disastrous climate impacts – charged the issue of climate change with a renewed sense of urgency.
Greta Thunberg and the school strikers took to the streets of Madrid. In Australia, forest fires raged. In Greenland, the ice melted seven times faster than it did in the 1990s, according to a report released during the conference.
Yet despite these clarion calls to action, COP25 did not deliver the results we needed and a vital opportunity was missed. Instead, struggling to reach agreements, countries pushed several decisions – including the long-awaited outcome on global carbon markets that would have finalised the rulebook of the Paris Agreement – into the next year. This means the stakes for the crucial COP that will take place in Glasgow are even higher.
Business steps up
But despite the disappointment, the conference offered glimmers of hope. Momentum for change came from the boardroom, as well as the streets.
At the conference, 177 companies committed to science-based emission reduction targets aligned to a 1.5°C future, meaning net-zero by 2050 at the latest. In fact, the number of businesses committing to this ambitious action has more than doubled since September.
These include companies from traditionally high-emitting sectors, such as truck maker Scania, India’s Dalmia Cement and Spanish power utility Iberdrola – as well as established brands such as AstraZeneca, BT, Burberry, Hewlett Packard, Levi Strauss and Unilever.
A progress report for the Science-Based Target initiative revealed that it has snowballed into a global phenomenon, with more than 750 of the world’s biggest companies committed to setting emissions reduction targets that are grounded in climate science. Around 12 companies have joined the Science Based Targets initiative per month since its launch in the run-up to COP21.
Likewise, corporate demand for renewable power is rapidly growing. There are now over 200+ companies working towards 100% renewable electricity including Apple, Google and Ikea. An announcement at the conference revealed that RE100 membership has grown by more than a third in the last year, with 40% of new joiners from the Asia-Pacific. By transitioning to 100% renewable electricity, RE100 companies are creating more than 228 terawatt hours per year (TWh/yr) of demand for renewable energy – enough to power a country like South Africa.
Investors also pushed for more ambitious climate action. Some 630 institutional investors managing $37 trillion in assets called on governments to upgrade their national plans, phase out coal and end fossil-fuel subsidies.
Political leaders can and should take confidence from the groundswell of business action at COP25. But so far, their response has not been commensurate with what is needed.
There were positive signs amidst the missed opportunities. As part of its European Green Deal, the European Commission said it would present a plan to enhance the bloc’s 2030 emissions reduction target to a 50 - 55% reduction compared with 1990 levels by summer 2020. All member states except Poland also committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
In addition, 73 countries, mainly consisting of developing nations, signed up to the Climate Ambition Alliance and signalled their intention to submit an enhanced climate action plan (or Nationally Determined Contribution) in 2020 - these included Chile, Rwanda and Ukraine. Some 11 countries - including the UK - said they have started internal processes to boost ambition and have this reflected in their national plans by 2020.
But other countries, including major emitters like Brazil, Australia, China and India, have so far not committed to enhance their climate plans next year. And the US is now formally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.
The closing statement of the conference included a declaration on the ‘urgent need’ to close the gap between existing emissions pledges and the temperature goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
But the statement fell short of explicitly demanding that countries upgrade their national climate plans - or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in 2020. Given current NDCs put the world on course for global warming of over 3°C, we urgently needed more countries to indicate stronger and explicit commitments.
2020 must be a super year of climate action
The cost of exceeding 1.5°C is catastrophic, with huge implications on water and food security, living standards, the economy and human health. It would have grave implications for our generation, and all generations to come. In economic terms the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is estimated at $15 trillion in damage.
Next year needs to be a super-year of climate action. Forward-thinking companies, investors and cities are proactively taking action. But they cannot do it alone. Leading governments must step up and play their part to create a zero-carbon future.
As we head to COP26 in Glasgow, CDP will continue to stress the many economic opportunities of transitioning to net-zero by 2050 at the latest.
Those who act first on climate will seize the benefits of the transition to the net-zero economies of the future and reduce risk. Governments must urgently step up their ambition and implement policies to give business the clarity and confidence to invest in the zero-carbon future. 2020 must be the year of worldwide action on the climate emergency. Our action must extend far beyond islands of ambition for the world to stand a chance of averting the worst.