Grading our progress as we approach the 2020 climate turning point

On the VERGE

Grading our progress as we approach the 2020 climate turning point

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Adapted from the VERGE Weekly newsletter, published Wednesdays.

317 days: That’s how long we have until 2020 — the year by which scientists say we need to hit peak emissions in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

317 days — just over 10 months — has never felt so short, especially given that we’re talking about the complete transformation of our global economy, and that what’s at stake is nothing less than the future of life on Earth.

So, how are we doing? Are we on track? Are countries, businesses, states, cities and the rest of us making the deep, economic and societal shifts required?

Last week, the World Resources Institute published a new report with data-driven insights into these very questions. Tracking Progress of the 2020 Climate Turning Point builds on work initiated in 2017, when several leading climate analysis organizations came together as part of the Mission 2020 campaign to define six milestones — in energy, transportation, land use, industry, infrastructure and finance — that need to be met by 2020 to put the world on a pathway consistent with the Paris Agreement.

After wading through the 60-page research paper, I uncovered some surprising findings. While nine of 12 indicators suggest that we’re making insufficient progress (more on that in a minute), it’s worth pausing to celebrate the three areas in which we’re on track:

  • Three cheers for the shipping industry: Last year, the International Maritime Organization announced its first strategy, to reduce carbon emissions at least 50 percent by 2050 compared to 2007 levels. It also committed to phase out emissions completely in this century and to put itself on a trajectory aligned with the Paris Agreement. Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, even announced a goal to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

  • Subnationals in for the win (again): Cities and states are leading from the ground up — out ahead of the private sector, it turns out — when it comes to the goal of investing at least $1 trillion a year in climate action towards mitigation and adaptation efforts. We can primarily thank the climate leadership of mayors for that — both in the United States and globally — who are embracing finance mechanisms such as green bonds and climate funds to unlock the $200 billion of private-sector resources.

  • Renewable energy no longer will be "alternative": The past decade has seen a remarkable shift toward electricity generation from renewable sources and away from fossil fuels — and the report outlines demonstrated progress toward ensuring renewables make up at least 30 percent of the world’s electricity supply by 2020. Global renewable electricity generation reached 25 percent in 2017, and renewables accounted for more than two-thirds of net new capacity added to grids. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that benefits from a long-term energy transition would save $6 trillion annually by 2050, just from reduced air pollution, improved public health and reduced environmental damage. The rise of companiescities and states setting bold renewable energy targets, combined with rapidly declining technology costs, is what will get us there.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and quickly. The report outlines six areas in which we’re currently making "insufficient progress" — where efforts are moving in the right direction, but not happening fast enough. They include electric vehicles, public transport, heavy industry, the built environment, carbon pricing and fossil-fuel subsidies.

Then, there are the areas where indicators suggest that we’re moving in the wrong direction, where "extraordinary action" is needed to shift the trajectory towards the 2020 goals. These include retiring all existing coal-fired power plants, ending net deforestation and reducing emissions through land use. For each of these indicators, it’s no longer a matter of slowing down but rather making a hard and fast U-turn.

I encourage you to download the report to dig deeper, including the recommended actions to accelerate progress.