The 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP25 as it’s known to insiders is now taking place in Madrid. The conference was supposed to be in Santiago in Chile, and is still officially being hosted by the Chilean government, but the protests that paralysed that city in October and November, and are still going on, led to the event being moved.
While the unrest in Santiago and other Chilean cities was not to do with climate change, it’s not unreasonable to presume that these sorts of spontaneous expressions of social discontent could become more frequent in a warming world. Climate change and its adverse impacts will hit the poorest hardest and exacerbate the inequality that is already a driver of division.
Activism and climate impacts on the rise
Climate change has been in the news a fair amount recently, with the youth climate strikes pioneered by Swedish schoolgirl activist Greta Thunberg inspiring millions around the world and putting a spotlight on the needs of future generations. Meanwhile, the spate of extreme weather events and natural disasters, from the floods in Japan, to the wildfires in Australia and California, and Cyclone Idai in Southern Africa, are less inspirational and more simply terrifying.
Activists say that this is our last chance to put the policies in place that are necessary to prevent catastrophic, runaway climate change. These sorts of ultimatums can be unhelpful, paralysing rather than motivating, but in this case, the message of urgency is warranted. The science says that 2020 is the year the global greenhouse gas emissions curve must peak before rapidly bending down to keep within the safe range of no more than 1.5 °C warming.
Indeed, there are already signs that the warming predicted by scientists is happening faster, and with more dramatic, or unpredictable effects than expected. The rate of ice melt in the Greenland for example, is more rapid than many foresaw, and could speed up even more as the warming water accelerates the melting of remaining glaciers and ice sheets. It seems likely that the window to keep the world within 1.5°C of warming is rapidly closing.
Business steps up
There is a positive story to tell. As the impacts of climate change become clearer and more visible, and public awareness grows, individuals, institutions, cities and businesses are showing leadership and putting in place plans to respond to the threat, as well as address the drivers of global warming.
Well over 100 companies have committed to set climate targets aligned with a goal of limiting warming to no more than 1.5°C and reaching net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. These include companies from traditionally high-emitting sectors, such as cement and steel. Meanwhile, in September last year, 27 of the largest cities in the world, including Berlin, Sydney and New York declared that they had already peaked their emissions.
But more needs to be done by everyone, more quickly, and in particular governments need to step up and do their bit to create the conditions in which others’ actions can be as ambitious, meaningful and collectively impactful as possible.
Governments must show ambition
According to a recent report from the UN Environment Programme, we must reduce emissions by 7.6% every year until 2030 to keep warming below 1.5°C. The current commitments from governments made at the 2015 climate talks in Paris – known as their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – do not promise these sorts of reductions. On the contrary, if everything that has been pledged were done (which in itself is not often the case in international negotiations) we would be on track for a dangerous level of more than 3°C warming.
At the meeting this fortnight in Madrid, it’s essential all governments enhance their NDCs in line with a 1.5-degree trajectory. Unless they do this, businesses, investors and cities will not have the certainty they need to drive towards a zero-carbon future at the pace and scale required. And the good news is that governments can rely on the positive engagement of key companies in key sectors.
At CDP we are convinced disclosure is the bedrock of action. Analysis from companies responding to CDP shows that there are four times as many companies who have set a science-based target within the set of companies who align with the core recommendations of the TCFD, than the set of companies who don’t. Policy can activate companies enhancing the policy environment requesting climate-related disclosures, aligned with the TCFD recommendations, could accelerate corporate climate action further.
By moving more quickly to implement anticipated policies, including mandatory disclosure of emissions, and a carbon price, governments could change what is currently perceived as a business risk into an opportunity. They should take confidence from the groundswell of business action and recognize the many potential benefits of committing to net-zero emissions by 2050.
So far, 68 countries have indicated that they will enhance ambition and action in their NDC by next year - but these countries only represent 8% of global emissions. It is absolutely imperative that higher emitting countries to follow suit. COP25 must be the launchpad for a ratcheting up of climate ambition crucial to prevent catastrophic climate change.