A turning point is needed on climate action

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Monday's UN Climate Summit puts the signatories to the Paris Agreement under the spotlight, setting the ambition level for the next 18 months to the UK’s COP26. [gigi_nyc / Flickr]

The UN climate summit next week puts the signatories to the Paris Agreement under the spotlight, and will be the acid test for the EU’s new talk on climate. If the bloc really intends to lead the world on economic decarbonisation, this is where it starts, writes Eliot Whittington.

Eliot Whittington is director of the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Incoming Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has got off to what looks like a strong start. Her confirmation went through straightforwardly, given the political positioning taken by parties. Her choices for new Commissioners have been broadly welcomed (job titles aside). Her two-hour press conference last week was as close to welcoming interrogation as a politician can get, targeting her messages to her audience and switching language fluently.

What’s also been very encouraging is the clear recognition of climate and sustainability as being one of the top guiding priorities of her mandate. Her mission letter to Frans Timmermans – her proposed Executive Vice President for a European Green Deal – put securing a climate neutral economy as a Commission priority in senior hands, and entrusted to him the strategy to deliver that outcome.

Her goals for her first 100 days in office (more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets, proposal of a climate law, implementation of a variety of significant legislative instruments on climate and development of a new “climate culture” across European society), have underlined this clear direction.

Green Deal branded as ‘hallmark’ of new European Commission

“I want the European Green Deal to become Europe’s hallmark,” said European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, as she tasked her second-in-command with overseeing Europe’s goal of achieving climate neutrality by mid-century.

And this direction is an essential one. While populism in some of the most traditionally stable corners of the world and debilitating conflict in more vulnerable regions are sucking up attention and legislative time, a global climate emergency is reducing the Earth’s ability to flourish – fuelling yet more and deeper problems and undermining the basis for our economy and our society.

Next week’s UN Climate Summit aims to showcase action on climate change by state and non-state actors – increasing ambition and seeking to start a new wave of momentum towards delivery of a carbon neutral world. It isn’t an end in itself, but potentially the tilting of the playing field towards decarbonisation.

To accelerate that rewiring of our economies, governments, business and the finance sector need to work hand in hand to build confidence, develop regulation, harness investment and deliver innovation. Already around 600 businesses have signed up to science-based emissions reduction targets aligned with limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C, with more than 200 already having their targets approved, and we expect more business announcements during the UN Summit.

Good things are happening – the cost of renewable energy is now lower than new coal almost everywhere, global solar installations hit an all-time high this year, while Moody’s bought a controlling stake in a climate data firm and the Bank of England is asking insurers to assess the impact of climate change on the value of stocks and bonds.

But against this we have ongoing investments in coal, deforestation at record levels in the Amazon and rising demand for oil. We need a turning point.

The progress made to date needs to accelerate. The potential for renewable energy and electric vehicles should be realised. But also, it’s no longer enough to devour the low-hanging fruits. Increasingly we need to grapple with those apparently hard to decarbonise sectors like heavy industry. Although it makes up only a small proportion of Europe’s GDP and employment, it’s part of the supply chain for most other economic sectors and will come to account for more and more of Europe’s carbon footprint. But, with a new industrial strategy focused on circularity, clean technologies and decarbonisation, Europe can develop new competitive advantages, secure cleaner air and water, create new jobs and show the world the value of delivering an inclusive Green Deal.

Secretary General Guterres says he wants his Summit to draw a line in the sand between those who are acting on climate change and the laggards who are not. And, unfortunately, while it has much progress to report, the EU will travel to the Summit without an agreement on net zero by 2050.

The Climate Summit puts the signatories to the Paris Agreement under the spotlight, setting the ambition level for the next 18 months to the UK’s COP26. According to the latest Eurobarometer poll, 93% of Europeans believe that climate change is a serious problem and Monday’s global stage will be the acid test for the EU’s new talk on climate. If the bloc really intends to lead the world on economic decarbonisation, this is where it starts.

Global decarbonisation efforts 'stall', pushing climate goals out of reach

Global decarbonisation efforts will need to be seven times greater if the world is to stand a fair chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C, according to a new PwC report which found decarbonisation has slowed to its lowest level since 2011. EURACTIV’s media partner edie.net reports.

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