By Eliot Whittington
The contents of the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5°C may be far from a surprise for those of us who have studied global warming for years, but reading the report still delivers a powerful and disturbing shock.
It leaves little room for doubt that the path forward for the EU and other advanced economies must now be to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050 at the latest to avoid temperature rises with the most devastating consequences.
I’ve worked closely on climate change for well over a decade, and followed the issue for far longer. And for the first time, it has been made clear just how much worse even the transition from 1.5 to 2°C of warming will make matters, from the millions of people that will be displaced by rising seas to the increased prevalence of extreme heat events.
And letting climate change deliver a 2°C increase in global temperatures is almost certain to mean saying goodbye to coral reefs and all the sea life species that rely on them.
The report compiles the strongest evidence to date that governments, businesses and society must bring net carbon emissions down to zero as soon as possible and certainly early in the second half of the century to have a chance of preventing global temperature rises of more than 1.5°C. Every fraction of a degree makes a difference.
If we can keep within the 1.5°C limit, we might be able to protect 10 million people against rising seas and save up to 30% of coral reefs currently at risk of bleaching. It would also make the Sustainable Development Goals, such as ending hunger and poverty, more achievable, by heading off the worst of the poverty created by climate impacts.
This is, according to the report’s authors, achievable within the laws of science. But mobilising the necessary transition across business and society will also require it to be reflected in the laws and policies of our highest powers.
As an advanced economy, the European Union is in a strong position to lead the way and respond to the challenge set out by the IPCC authors for a climate-safe future.
By committing to a clear target of net zero emissions by 2050 or sooner, the EU can help chart the path to a low-carbon economy, giving the planet a 50% chance of limiting temperature rises to 1.5°C. That chance would rise to 66% should the whole world be able to decarbonise in the same timeframe.
A growing number of business leaders have recognised the urgency of achieving net zero emissions. For them, failure to act poses a threat to the future of their business, while taking climate action has become an opportunity to inspire creative and innovative ways to operate more sustainably.
But those progressive companies are just the tip of the iceberg, and their CEOs have been calling on governments at national and international levels to support them in this transition by matching their climate ambition.
One way to do this would be to put “net zero emissions” at the heart of the EU’s strategy for long-term emissions reduction to reflect the EU’s international leadership role in climate action and encourage more businesses to unlock the capital and ambition to change their modus operandi.
Such a target could then inform other key climate measures including the accelerated growth in renewable energy, the transition to electric vehicles and improvements in energy efficiency within buildings. It will also need to catalyse a shift to a much more sustainable agricultural system and prompt conversations about how to make our diet healthier and more sustainable.
The appetite for such a move was clear at the recent Green Growth Platform summit, which brought together politicians, policy-makers, climate experts and business leaders in Luxembourg.
Speakers highlighted the interdependency of public and private sectors when it comes to climate action: climate measures will not happen without finance but companies also need supportive policies to facilitate a low-carbon transition.
But what all sides agreed upon was that there was currently a major gap in ambition, which, left unmet, would lead us to disastrous global warming of 3°C or more.
These kind of discussions are crucial but if this week is to be a watershed moment for climate action, it must herald the start of definitive and ambitious targets at the highest level.
What is clear to business now is that the future is not about whether we respond to climate change, but how.
Eliot Whittington is director of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group.