Climate Week 2019: Time for bold commitments — and action

BSR

Climate Week 2019: Time for bold commitments — and action

Climate Week 2019 comes at a time of both great distress and great promise. This is our great challenge and our great opportunity.

As we approach Climate Week, which kicks off with the U.N. Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit, it is clear that more action is needed. Globally, emissions continue to rise, despite Paris Agreement pledges. The impacts of a changing climate are coming faster than median predictions would have us believe, evidenced by stronger storms, increased flooding, and year-round wildfire seasons.

Political will in many of the leading — and heaviest-emitting — economies is flagging, with the United States interfering with joint action. And there is already debate over whether a recession — if it comes — again will dampen public interest in climate action. Unfortunately, next week’s summit is unlikely to match the urgency that Secretary General António Guterres is rightly and diligently fighting for.

There are also, to be sure, many reasons to be optimistic. Public calls for action are intensifying. Bottom-up activism from company employees, students and the general public is growing steadily. In the United States, the Democratic presidential contenders are in an unprecedented competition to generate the most ambitious climate plans. Around the world, nations, regions and cities accounting for nearly one-sixth of global GDP have committed to net zero emissions targets.

Even more crucially, changes are reshaping the "real economy" as well. The end of the internal combustion engine in passenger vehicles is within sight — China and others are electrifying public transport — and investors are taking an increasingly aggressive approach to fostering a clean energy system.

Over the coming week, I will be looking for signs that the building blocks of decisive action are being put in place. A concerted effort that includes government action, business commitments, innovation and financing is needed. New York will be awash in events, and the list of new commitments will be long. We must celebrate that, but we cannot stop there. It is essential that we recognize that, despite the serious efforts made since 2015, we are not yet pointed in the right direction or making sufficient progress. 

That’s why it’s so important that more governments join the United Kingdom, France, California and others with net zero by 2050 targets, along with tangible plans to achieve them. Business needs to align emissions reductions plans with a 1.5 degree Celsius objective rather than a 2 degrees C goal, a shift that more companies are embracing. To make this goal a reality, it is crucial that businesses ensure that their trade associations act consistently with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. 

Shell and BHP, amongst others, have taken this step in 2019, and more should follow. Financial flows are also essential. Investments also should be aligned with the need to support both the economies that are most vulnerable to a changing climate and the valuable commercial opportunities that will help us to build the clean energy economy. And we need to see wider uptake of the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which will ensure that business strategy and reporting are also in line with climate ambition.

We know that heightened urgency is badly needed. And while the U.N. General Assembly is possibly the ultimate expression of top-down leadership, some of the great hope and energy will come from ordinary citizens. The fact that 16-year-old Greta Thunberg has become the most talked-about name when heads of state gather from around the world is both astonishing and thrilling. She has inspired millions to call for action, and this may provide what Al Gore calls the ultimate renewable energy: the will to shift to a clean economy that works for all.

As for BSR, we will push forward on several fronts, including climate resilience commitments, heightened commitments to clean transport, including an emerging sustainable air freight initiative, and calls for companies to align their lobbying efforts with their climate commitments. We also will join our partners in the We Mean Business coalition to build momentum for companies to embrace a truly Paris-compliant objective of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and achieving net zero no later than mid-century.

Climate Week this year is designed to create momentum to build towards a successful outcome at COP26 in Scotland next year, the intended five-year interval to assess progress toward the Paris Agreement. Given the trajectory we are on, the very concept of Climate Week is a misnomer. We are — or should be — living through Climate Era. Let us hope that the gathering in New York next week takes that to heart, makes bold new commitments over the next few days and then gets to work to make those commitments a reality.

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