Polar Opposites? Where we go from the UN Climate Action Summit

As the SYSTEMIQ team reflected on the frenetic week of climate discussions in New York, it’s been hard not to think of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, particularly this lesser-quoted line: “We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

There were moments of incredible progress. And moments that went the other way.

Those moments that went the other way are clear: we’re not doing enough, quickly enough, to tackle the climate emergency. The big nations (other than Russia, whose ratification of the Paris Agreement was 'surprisingly' unheralded by the media) failed to show up. Decades worth of science and climate reports show that we have consistently underestimated the risks from climate change, and that change is happening much faster than we thought, with more far-reaching, domino effects. Not a single IPCC report or serious piece of climate science over the past decade has ever gone “whoops – we over-estimated the risks or the speed with which they would play out.” They have all gone in the other direction.

Now for the bright side. We know how to answer this problem with solutions that are possible and scalable. Those years of analysis and studies give us a clear path forward.

First: create a cleaner energy system. Electrify everything, shift to renewables and use energy more efficiently. Capitalise on the incredible progress and learning curve around renewables, energy storage systems and network optimisation. This gives us the first 50% of the climate solution.

Second: cut the amount of land we’re using for agriculture by over 1 billion hectares and return it to nature, largely by growing trees. And, of course, stop cutting down the rainforests. This could deliver well over 30% of the solution, through reduced emissions from food and agriculture and from stronger, more resilient carbon sinks.

Third: manage our oceans better to capture more carbon biologically and create alternative, low-carbon sources of protein. This could be worth up to 20% of the solution.

We know this isn’t easy. Because it comes down to people and political will. But we believe we can successfully tackle the emergency because we’re seeing positive changes, starting with what is on the table now. These solutions are not mysteries, and scaling them is technically feasible - and, in many cases, economically attractive.

Not so long ago, we spent a lot of time arguing that climate change isn’t just something that might happen. Today it’s impossible to ignore. The notion of needing to ensure the planet doesn’t heat above 2 degrees once seemed radical, but today 1.5 degrees is the accepted, albeit really difficult goal. The new anchor is “net zero” by 2050 – that was the language of the New York Climate Action Summit, even if there is a chasm between rhetoric and reality. Discussions have broadened and deepened, which is fundamental to achieve transformational change. For example:

  • The importance of transitioning food and land use systems – responsible for 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of natural habitat loss – was higher on the shared agenda than it’s ever been. There were more than 125 events and almost 200 commitments made to advancing nature-based solutions like reforestation and regenerative agriculture, taking what was a niche discussion on biodiversity to centre-stage as among the most cost-effective solutions to the climate emergency

  • The energy transition discussion broadened as well, to include decarbonising hard-to-abate industries, such as heavy industry, aviation and shipping, as well as more sustainable life-cycles for batteries – vital to green electrification.

  • The importance of oceans’ roles in relation to climate change came to the fore with discussion around a new IPCC report that highlights the urgency to address unprecedented damage in the ocean and cryosphere, and a high-level panel report that identifies five ocean-based climate solutions that could deliver up to 21% of the annual greenhouse gas emissions cuts the world needs by 2050 to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.

Out of this discussion, there is action. At the Climate Action Summit, more than 80 businesses pledged to align their business plans with the 1.5 degrees target, 130 banks signed onto new climate principles and 65 countries agreed to further emissions reductions in the next year. And a growing range of new partnerships and solutions - from sustainable special economic zones in Africa to a proposed voluntary tax on plastic resin - showed just how much human ingenuity is being applied to make change happen, at speed and scale.

The power of people

Which brings us to our strongest source of hope: the power of people. Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech and the climate strikes that bookended the Summit cut through the political waffle. They have the potential to create a revolutionary shift in consciousness in which we no longer leave climate to government, business, finance – or any one actor – to fix. It’s too important. As climate lawyer and activist Farhana Yamin put it: “Energy is coming from people, not policy.”

The bet is that climate can awaken a new capacity for common action. The real source of possibility is the ways in which people will change – how they will buy, save, vote, or travel differently – in response to the climate emergency. And with the social media platforms we use now, we can coordinate action and inspire global movements in ways we never could before.

Collectively, we will make a difference if we focus not just on the planetary conundrum at hand, but the human one. While our digital world can make us more isolated, it also has the potential to expand the circle of empathy. Despite all the madness, we may look back on New York as a moment in which we – the people – seized back the initiative on climate and our shared destiny. It’s in our hands.

What’s next?

New York was, of course, but one moment in time. What happens next matters more. How will the EU Green Deal work? Will the US act? Will China step up? What will happen in the Amazon? How will activist movements grow? And how will we ensure accountability for our commitments?

While these are tough, fiercely urgent questions, New York and the movements around it reveal a short-term truth: if we are to tap the power of people, we must make the climate emergency real and relevant in people’s lives. For us, one small way we will build on the momentum that’s happening now is by connecting with at least one person every day outside “the climate bubble.” This is a simple way of speeding up action, but we think it’s an important one. Because when it comes to the climate emergency, human behaviour may well determine whether we go to heaven or the other way.

by Jeremy Oppenheim and Martin R. Stuchtey, co-founders of SYSTEMIQ