Climate Week 2020 marks a critical period for climate action

Nat Keohane

I live and work in Manhattan, so when Climate Week NYC comes around every September, it feels like the climate world is coming to me.

This year, of course, everything is different. New York City – where I've been throughout the whole of the pandemic – is a shadow of its usual self. The barricades won't go up on First Avenue, the traffic won't slow to a halt, and midtown won't be buzzing with diplomats and climate advocates.

And yet, Climate Week 2020 remains a milestone on the calendar. This year, it marks the beginning of a critical 14-month period for climate action. What happens between now and COP26, in November 2021, will help shape the future of multilateralism on climate – and help determine the fate of the planet.

Reinvigorating the Paris Agreement

It was just five years ago that 196 countries reached the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. That landmark agreement created a strong and robust framework for climate action, built around a simple structure: Parties must make commitments to reduce emissions, report transparently and consistently on their progress in meeting them, and come back every five years to make new ones.

While the agreement provides a framework for action, it can't provide the ambition needed to solve the climate crisis. That must come from the Parties themselves.

To date, country commitments – Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – have fallen well short of what's needed to meet the agreement's objective of limiting climate change to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Now, those of us who were in Paris in 2015 knew that countries would need to ratchet up ambition over time. What we didn't expect was a U.S. administration that would pull the U.S. out of the accord and seek to undermine multilateral cooperation at every turn.

The result is that the world has fallen further behind where we need to be.

Heat-trapping carbon pollution rose in 2019 to a record high. While the deep recession wrought by Covid-19 has led to a temporary dip in emissions, the trend lines continue to point up.

Meanwhile, the devastating impact of climate change is upon us, with wildfires ripping through three million acres in California, exposing millions of residents to toxic air.

What will it take to ratchet up ambition, reinvigorate multilateral cooperation, and begin to realize the promise of Paris?

Rebuild better for the environment and the economy

First, we need to rebuild better from the Covid crisis. Climate and clean energy should be at the center of economic stimulus and recovery efforts, so that as we emerge from the recession we accelerate the shift to a low-carbon future. This is not just good climate policy – it's good economic policy.

Investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and vehicle electrification create good jobs today and buy down the cost of clean energy in future years. A smart tradeoff in good economic times — a no-brainer in an era of high unemployment and rock-bottom interest rates. These investments must be done in a way that promotes equity and justice, by investing in the low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that often face the most direct and dire consequences of climate change. This will redress the toxic burden of pollution that they have been made to disproportionately suffer, and ensure a fair transition for workers in fossil fuel communities.

Business can fill the leadership void

Second, we need leadership from the private sector. If there's a silver lining from the Trump administration's abdication of leadership, it's that companies have stepped into the vacuum with bold climate commitments.

In July, nine companies including Microsoft, Nike, and Starbucks announced the Transform to Net Zero initiative. Corporations including Apple, Ford, and McDonald's have also been among this summer's climate leaders.

Private sector initiatives can't replace the need for government policy. But businesses can achieve a great deal by reducing emissions in their own operations and supply chains, investing in climate solutions to reduce emissions elsewhere, and using their political leverage to influence and advocate for climate policy. Ensuring quality and environmental integrity will be critical.

That's why EDF is leading an effort to develop a set of recommendations to maximize the benefits of voluntary market investments towards climate goals, while driving funds to emissions reduction projects. Reducing tropical deforestation should be a top priority: the world can't achieve the Paris temperature targets without protecting our forests, and the tools are now in place for companies to pay for high-quality emissions reductions at scale.

The largest emitters must stand up

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we need real leadership from the world's largest emitters. Europe is leading the way, as it long has, with the EU Green Deal. China is on track to jumpstart the first trade of the world's largest carbon market this year and is expected to announce a new NDC in the coming months, according to the government's plan;

A critical need for leadership from the U.S.

The U.S. not only should rejoin the Paris Agreement, but rejoin it in a way that restores American credibility, projects American leadership and boosts global ambition.

That will require an aggressive 2030 target backed up by a comprehensive national climate policy. That policy agenda must include a massive investment in clean energy, next-generation Clean Air Act standards that go well beyond the regulations of the Obama administration, and an enforceable declining limit on carbon pollution that puts the entire economy on a path to net zero emissions and aligns market incentives with the low-carbon transition.

Climate Week 2020 should be a wake-up call, at a time when multiple immediate crises – Covid-19, economic recession, and systemic racism and injustice – threaten to crowd the climate crisis off the world's agenda. With the right leadership and commitments, the next 14 months can put us back on a path to bold climate solutions.