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More Companies and Government Ambition Required to Meet the “Net Zero” Challenge

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Four years after the Paris Climate Agreement, tangible action from governments is falling short of trajectories needed to restrict global warming to 1.5° Celsius. This is well documented in the recently released UN Environment Closing the Gap report. To date, however, a minority of businesses are taking the necessary steps to reduce emissions and of those who are, much more ambition will be required based on the findings of a new report, The Net Zero Challenge, published today by the World Economic Forum.

The report is released as negotiators gather in Madrid at COP25 to discuss the finer details of the Paris Agreement which called for emissions reductions of 3-5% per year. This is a long way off the annual increase in emissions of 1.5% that we are seeing today.

“2020 is a crucial year for delivering on climate action ambition and it is vital that governments and businesses now work together. For both the public and private sector, collaborative action on climate can spur rapid innovation, growth and jobs in a sluggish economic outlook; what the world needs is a combination of public ambition, policy certainty and company leadership to create a tipping point,” said Dominic Waughray, Managing Director at the World Economic Forum.

Governments: from a slow start, climate action ambitions are growing to address the challenge

67 countries have to date stated an ambition to reach net zero emissions by 2050. These countries account for c.15% of global GHG emissions. Of these countries, sixteen (accounting for less than 6% of emissions) have developed roadmaps and intermediate targets; and even fewer – seven – countries have instituted policy frameworks that could realistically support reaching a net zero emission goal. These countries – Bhutan, Costa Rica, Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, Suriname, Sweden, – account for just 2% of global GHG emissions.

The report does, however, find signs of progress that some governments are beginning to set ambitious climate targets. For example, Morocco has developed the world’s largest concentrated solar farm with a goal of sourcing 50% of its electricity from renewable sources in just 10 years. India is currently implementing the largest renewable power programme in the world, targeting 175 GW of installed capacity by 2022.

The report, done in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), also finds signs of action at the sub-national level. For example, the state of South Australia is targeting 50% renewable power by 2025. In the United States, meanwhile, seven states are targeting zero-carbon energy systems by 2050.

Overall, the report adds to the evidence that there is much political work to be done to raise ambition levels for climate action ahead of when the Paris Agreement is due to begin in November 2020.

Companies and Climate Action: A New Impetus is Required

When it comes to companies and emissions, the report highlights the gap in corporate ambition that must be closed. While 7,000 businesses disclose their emissions to CDP, a non-profit organization that monitors global emissions, the report finds that only a third provide full disclosure, only a quarter set a specific emissions reduction target and only one in eight are so far reducing their emissions year-on-year.

The report also finds that, on average, both short-term and long-term targets are about half of what are needed for a 1.5°C world; on average, short-term targets currently aim for minus 15% instead of minus 30% reductions; while longer-term targets on average currently aim for 50% reductions instead of net zero by mid-century.

There is, however, some variation across industries. Financial and energy companies, are the most advanced when it comes to disclosing, setting targets and reducing emissions; and emissions reductions in the power sector provide a good case on how other sectors might respond to a mixture of smart policies and demand signals. In each sector there are examples of corporations acting decisively to build a first-mover competitive advantage through higher efficiency, lower risks and new green revenues.

The report identifies two major reasons why corporate climate action has so far not reached a tipping point. One is that chief executive officers still find themselves under greater pressure to deliver short-term returns than to demonstrate progress against climate goals. A plethora of ESG (environmental, societal and corporate governance) guidelines is not helping to create clarity or a clear benchmark to judge performance, leading – in the words of one banking CEO – to “real confusion and little action” in the investment world. The other is the lack of reliable policy frameworks at national and international level. All 25 CEOs interviewed as part of the project confirmed, for example, that without a meaningful price on carbon the transition cannot be accelerated at the speed and scale needed.

A call to action from the World Economic Forum

Whilst diplomatic and multilateral political efforts during 2020 will focus on raising ambition levels among governments, the World Economic Forum will use its platforms to promote a complimentary call to action for higher ambition levels among companies and the finance community and for more partnerships. This call for action, which will start in Davos 2020, includes:

An updated Davos Manifesto for 2020 on the universal purpose of a company, which notes that a company is more than an economic unit generating wealth, will be presented to all CEOs to consider. The Manifesto calls for performance to be measured not only on the return to shareholders but also on how it achieves it environmental, social and good governance objectives.

An initiative underway with the Forum’s International Business Council to develop a definitive methodology for standard ESG principles that companies can adopt as a complement to standard financial metrics with support from the “Big Four” accounting firms, which will include common approaches on climate emissions target setting and tracking

The release of a catalogue of “Lighthouse Projects” that show concrete examples of how many leading companies are setting and implementing bold emissions reduction strategies in line with net zero by mid-century, and how other companies can join or replicate these efforts. Such Lighthouse Projects include the Mission Possible Platform, RE100, the UN-convened Net Zero Asset Owners Alliance, the CDSB and over 50 other specific examples of company actions and public-private collaborations in the climate and wider environmental agenda.

To support these efforts, the Forum has also convened a community of CEO Climate Leaders; these are leaders of some of the world’s largest businesses that are committed to support assertive climate action.

“Climate change is the single greatest threat that humanity faces. Businesses that don’t take climate action will be punished by their stakeholders as well as by the planet,” said Alan Jope, CEO, Unilever.

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2020, one of three warmest years on record

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The COVID-19 pandemic was not the only long-term crisis the world will remember from 2020. In terms of climate change, the year was also one of the three warmest on record, and rivalled 2016 for the top spot, the UN weather agency said on Wednesday. 

“The confirmation by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that 2020 was one of the warmest years on record is yet another stark reminder of the relentless pace of climate change, which is destroying lives and livelihoods across our planet”, said Secretary-General António Guterres

He pointed out that at 1.2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, the world is already witnessing unprecedented weather extremes in every region and on every continent.  

“We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century”, he warned. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere.”  

Powerful force 

La Niña, which began in late last year, is expected to continue into the early-middle part of 2021.   

“The exceptional heat of 2020 is despite a La Niña event, which has a temporary cooling effect”, said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.  

La Niña and El Niño effects on average global temperatures are typically strongest in the second year of the event. 

“It is remarkable that temperatures in 2020 were virtually on a par with 2016, when we saw one of the strongest El Niño warming events on record”, he added. “This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature”.  

The extent to which the continued cooling effects of La Niña this year may temporarily diminish the overall long-term warming trend remains to be seen.  

Following atypical patterns  

WMO pointed to sustained heat and wildfires in Siberia, diminishing Arctic sea ice and record-breaking hurricanes in the Atlantic as being among the climate events that most stood out in 2020.  

The UN weather agency also reminded that temperature is just one climate change indicator. Greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, global mean sea level, sea ice extent and extreme events are also factors. 

Backed by science 

WMO’s consolidated global temperature update incorporates information from five leading international sets of data.  

It also uses datasets that combine millions of meteorological and marine observations, including from satellites, with models to produce a complete reanalysis of the atmosphere.  

“The combination of observations with models makes it possible to estimate temperatures at any time and in any place across the globe, even in data-sparse areas such as the polar regions”, according to WMO.  

Looking to the future  

The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

However, the global average temperature in 2020 had already approached the lower limit of the temperature increase that the Agreement seeks to avert.  

Moreover, there is at least a one-in-five chance that the average global temperature will temporarily exceed 1.5 °C by 2024, according to WMO’s Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update, led by the United Kingdom’s Met Office. 

The 2021 Met Office annual global temperature forecast also suggests that next year will again be one of the earth’s hottest years.  

Updating its provisional December report, WMO will issue its final publication in March, which will incorporate temperature figures, information on all leading climate indicators and selected climate impacts. 

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Step up action and adapt to ‘new climate reality’-Report

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Though countries have made progress in planning for climate change adaptation, there are significant financing shortfalls in getting them to the stage where they provide real protection against droughts, floods and rising sea levels, a new UN environment report has found. 

According to the 2020 Adaptation Gap Report, released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as temperatures rise and climate change impacts intensify, nations must urgently step up action to adapt to the new climate reality or face serious costs, damages and losses. 

“The hard truth is that climate change is upon us,” Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, said in a news release announcing the findings. 

“Its impacts will intensify and hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest, even if we meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing 1.5 degree Celsius.” 

Global commitment needed 

Annual adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at $70 billion, but the figure could reach up to $300 billion in 2030, and $500 billion in 2050. Almost three-quarters of nations have some adaptation plans in place, but financing and implementation fall “far short” of what is needed, according to the UNEP report. 

Stepping up public and private finance for adaptation is, therefore, urgently needed. 

“As the Secretary-General has said, we need a global commitment to put half of all global climate finance towards adaptation in the next year … this will allow a huge step up in adaptation, in everything from early warning systems to resilient water resources to nature-based solutions,” Ms. Andersen added. 

Adaptation is a key pillar of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It aims to reduce countries’ and communities’ vulnerability to climate change by increasing their ability to absorb impacts.  

Nature-based solutions 

The UNEP report also underscored the importance of nature-based solutions as low-cost options that reduce climate risks, restore and protect biodiversity, and bring benefits for communities and economies. 

Its analysis of four major climate and development funds: the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Adaptation Fund, and the International Climate Initiative (IKI), suggested that support for green initiatives with some element of nature-based solutions has risen over the last two decades.  

Cumulative investment for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects under the four funds stands at $94 billion. However, only $12 billion was spent on nature-based solutions, a tiny fraction of total adaptation and conservation finance, it added. 

Cutting emissions will reduce costs 

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the impacts and costs associated with climate change, according to the report. Achieving the 2 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement could limit losses in annual growth to up to 1.6 per cent, compared to 2.2 per cent for the 3 degrees Celsius trajectory. 

UNEP urged all nations to pursue the efforts outlined in its December 2020 Emissions Gap Report, which called for a green pandemic recovery and updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that include new net-zero commitments.  

“However, the world must also plan for, finance and implement climate change adaptation to support those nations least responsible for climate change but most at risk,” the UN agency added. 

“While the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to hit the ability of countries to adapt to climate change, investing in adaptation is a sound economic decision,” it said. 

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Guterres: COVID-19 recovery offers ‘chance to change course’

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The process of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic offers the chance to change course, and put humanity on a path on which it is not in conflict with nature, the United Nations Secretary-General said on Monday, urging greater efforts by everyone to protect biodiversity and step up climate action. 

Addressing world leaders at the One Planet Summit, Secretary-General António Guterres outlined the consequences of abusing Earth and its resources. 

“We have been poisoning air, land and water – and filling oceans with plastics. Now, nature is striking back: temperatures are reaching record highs, biodiversity is collapsing, deserts are spreading, [and] fires, floods and hurricanes are more frequent and extreme,” he said. 

“We are extremely fragile”, Mr. Guterres warned. 

Combined with the devastating effects of COVID-19 and its socio-economic fallout, the UN chief reminded everyone that “as we rebuild, we cannot revert to the old normal.”  

“Pandemic recovery is our chance to change course. With smart policies and the right investments, we can chart a path that brings health to all, revives economies and builds resilience and rescues biodiversity”, he highlighted. 

‘Everyone must do much more’ 

The Secretary-General noted that innovations and nature-based solutions are especially promising, and that preserving biodiversity also creates jobs. According to the World Economic Forum, emerging business opportunities across nature could create 191 million jobs by 2030, he added. 

At the same time, with a financing gap of $711 billion per year until 2030 to meet global biodiversity targets, increased and sustained financing will be crucial to transition away from polluting sectors, Mr. Guterres said. 

“The time has come to…align public and private financial flows with the Paris Agreement commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal decisions.” 

The UN chief also urged support for the most vulnerable, who are already suffering the effects of climate change, such as the least developed countries and small island developing States. 

‘The sign of hope’ 

“Everyone must do much more … We begin a new year under the sign of hope. Together, let us seize the opportunity to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world,” he added. 

Organized by the French Government in partnership with the United Nations and the World Bank, the One Planet Summit brought together world leaders to commit action to protect and restore bio-diversity. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event was largely virtual.  

Opening the Summit, French President Emmanuel Macron, declared that protecting and restoring biodiversity is “in our interest”. 

Alongside creating millions of jobs between now and 2030, the natural world offers many benefits, he said, adding that intact forests and ocean ecosystems can help meet climate targets by acting as carbon sinks. 

‘Nature offers solutions’ 

“Nature offers solutions for developing sustainable agriculture, for economic and financial services, helping us to preserve our heritages and cultures”, said the French President.  

Mr. Macron outlined four key priorities for action: protecting terrestrial and maritime ecosystems, to allow nature to regenerate; promoting agro ecology to safeguard environment, strengthen food-security and reduce inequalities; mobilizing public and private financing, which would support both climate action and protect biodiversity; and reducing deforestation, especially tropical forests, to protect species and human health. 

African greening initiative receives $14 billion 

Also on Monday, the Great Green Wall for the Sahel and Sahara, an initiative to combat desertification in the vast region, received a pledge of more than $14.2 billion in new funding over the next 10 years, to restore degrading land, protect biodiversity and strengthen resilience. 

According to the UN Convention on Combating Desertification Secretariat (UNCCD), overall, about $33 billion needed by the initiative to achieve its ambitious targets to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, the soil capture of around 250 million tons of atmospheric carbon, and creation of some 10 million green jobs for communities, by 2030. 

Mohamed Cheikh El-Ghazouani, President of Mauritania and the Chair of Conference of Heads of State and Government of the Pan African Agency for the Green Great Wall, welcomed the announcement.  

“The mobilization of this additional funding through an innovative approach will certainly contribute to the achievement of the Great Green Wall goals”, he said. 

Since its inception in 2007, the country-led Great Green Wall programme has planted billions of trees and supported tens of thousands of local households. Its path snakes along the southern margin of Africa’s Sahara Desert running from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea. 

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