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#2020DontBeLate: ‘We have three years to act on climate change’

Christiana Figueres

Mission 2020 campaign by former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres urges decisive action to curb emissions by 2020 on six fronts

Businesses and governments only have three years to act to steer away from a course that will lock in the most devastating impacts of climate change, according to a campaign launched this week by a group convened by Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief.

The Mission 2020 campaign, with its #2020DontBeLate hashtag, was launched at Google’s headquarters in London by Figueres, Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review, Helena Morrissey, head of personal investing at Legal & General Investment Management, Professor Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College, with Astro Teller, CEO of X (formerly Google X) and former IPCC co-chair Professor Stocker of the University of Bern joining by video.

A new report by Yale University, the Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact Research and Carbon Tracker, 2020 The Climate Turning Point, argues that unless the current global emission level of 39 gigatonnes of CO2 per year begins to decline by the turn of the century, any chance of keeping global warming within 1.5C and 2C agreed at Paris, will be “all but unachievable”.  It will also scupper hopes of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Professor John Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said: “Each and every scientific assessment demonstrates that limiting global warming to well below 2°C … can only be achieved if we start decarbonising the world economy now. Geoengineering ourselves out of climate disaster later is nothing more than a dangerous illusion.

Mission2020 lays out a roadmap for decarbonisation, with milestones that must be reached in six key sectors by 2020:

Energy: Renewables will need to outcompete fossil fuels worldwide

Transport: Zero emission transport options will be chosen in major cities and transport routes

Infrastructure: Cities and states will be implementing plans to fully decarbonise infrastructure by 2050

Land Use: Large-scale deforestation to be replaced by land restoration and agriculture shifts to earth-friendly practices

Industry: Heavy industry commits to being Paris-compliant

Finance: Investment in climate action is beyond $1trillion per year, and all financial institutions have a disclosed transition strategy

Briefing journalists, Figueres laid out the problem in stark terms: “We have more or less 800GT of CO2 left that we can emit before going into major disturbances … and we’ve already emitted twice that” since industrialisation, she said. At the current rate of about 40GT, the planet would use up its entire remaining carbon budget in 20 years.

“Because I no longer work for the UN I can be more ambitious than what governments agreed to in Paris, which set 2030 goals. What has been missing since Paris is a near term focal point for action, which is why we have brought together some of the best minds on the subject to collectively demonstrate that the arc of transformation to a fossil free energy system is possible.”

She added: “We know how to do it, but we have to be intentional about our timelines, and get there on time.”

Credit: Taina Sohlman

Stern also emphasised the urgency to take action now. “The world economy will double in 20 years’ time, but we need to actually not grow emissions. The magnitude of the change [from business as usual] is something we need to be clear about. … It’s the only growth strategy going forward because any other type of growth derails itself.”

But he said advances in technology and climate science since his seminal 2006 report had improved the business case, slashing the cost of taking action on climate in relation to the cost of doing nothing. And the societal benefits of action to making cities more liveable and enhance natural capital made climate-friendly investments “enormously attractive” in themselves.

Morrissey, a City high-flyer who recently joined Legal & General after stepping down as CEO of Newton Investment Management because she wanted to get closer to the front line of investment decision making, said the success of Mission 2020 would depend on the finance sector mainstreaming responsible investment.

“I believe climate change is a financial problem,” Morrissey said. “Most view it as a specialist issue and not a day-to-day subject.  … Investors can either accelerate the paths to 2020 or we can hold it up. There’s so much money invested in the companies that hold the key for whether we get there in time because they are obviously not environmentally friendly. You don’t want these companies to go bankrupt, you want them to develop new technologies to help them.”

Asked how much hope the initiative had of gaining traction given the current occupant of the White House, and the climate-scepticism in large parts of the media, members of the panel pointed out that a lot of the decision-making is in the hands of cities and the private sector, where there is growing momentum.

Figueres said: “Everything on the political side will be difficult. We have to understand that. International [climate] negotiations will be very difficult, but it isn’t the only reality.”

She pointed to news this week that Tesla had overtaken GM to become the most valuable carmaker in the US. “Fossil fuels will be exiting the economy in the same sequence as their carbon intensity,” she said.  “The real economy is [decarbonising], not because of altruism but for economic reasons. It’s a better long-term investment.”

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