The Paris agreement aims to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the vast majority of scientific experts agree will require achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The Biden administration is convening world leaders for an Earth Day climate summit to keep the 1.5C goal within reach, and is considering more rigorous emissions targets to keep us on track in the medium term. But will they be enough? And what does the imperative to limit warming to 1.5C really mean for U.S. companies and cities?
Framing large, abstract goals whose deadline is decades away is one thing. Deciding what to do concretely — starting now — to meet them is something else. Being serious about keeping warming to 1.5C really requires that much of the world get to net-zero by 2040.
If you lead a wealthy country or a large company or city, this means you.
We cannot expect the less well-resourced to do it if you don’t do it first. And since even 2040 is still a long way off, any serious plan to get to zero-carbon by 2040 requires starting now to cut emissions at least by half by 2030. Realistically, we’ll need most large companies and cities to achieve this to keep warming to 1.5C.
If that seems precipitous, recall that we’ve already been through a half century of preliminaries. Scientists and governments have been discussing climate change at least since the first Earth Day in 1970 — more than 50 years.
The science proving climate change is anthropogenic has been clear for a generation. Nearly every country became a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1994. But it has taken over 20 years for many countries to agree to serious emission targets.
Meaningful emissions reduction has been hampered by misleading or dishonest claims. For example, companies can still buy Renewable Energy Credits (RECS) for projects that were built and operational years earlier, and then claim that the small payments they make have a climate change benefit.
Thankfully, this culture is finally shifting. Companies increasingly fear the greenwashing label, and increasingly adopt more rigorous standards and monitoring to verify climate benefit claims. The Science Based Targets initiative lists more than 600 science-based climate standards adopted by over 1,000 companies. Through the Carbon Disclosure Project, over 8,000 companies and 500 cities publicly disclose binding climate commitments that can be reviewed and monitored by governments and NGOs.
Making and implementing meaningful climate commitment has never been easier or cheaper.
The same is true of scaling renewables. Lazard, one of the world’s leading financial advisory firms, annually publishes levelized cost analysis of various forms of power generation. It documents how steep cost declines in the last five years have made solar and wind the lowest cost sources of electricity, enabling most businesses and governments to shift to zero-carbon electricity now. That alone can cut their climate impact in half. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google are already doing this to shift their climate impact and save money. Banks, utilities and other sectors are following suit.
Shifting to zero-carbon power confers powerful co-benefits in the areas of health, equity and resilience — benefits that companies will want to claim. Health-damaging fossil fuel pollution kills almost 200,000 Americans each year, with the burden falling disproportionally on lower income and minority communities. As renewables displace fossil fuels, the pollution and health burdens lift. Smaller changes like making roads and roofs more reflective, or replacing surfaces impervious to water with porous, green materials, cools neighborhoods, saves water, cuts global warming, and builds communities’ resilience and even their credit ratings. The Smart Surfaces Coalition is tracking and quantifying the cost effectiveness of those strategies.
So not only are we out of time, we’re also out of excuses — the barriers to making and implementing large, near-term climate commitments have disappeared.
Today, any government or business that wants to be taken seriously as a climate leader must make substantial, specific, accountable commitments that track with climate science and face up to reality. EARTHDAY.ORG, its many partners, and people everywhere will be monitoring corporate and government climate commitments and how they’re implemented. At this time in history, timid or tentative climate steps will be viewed as greenwashing — and rightly so.
Cutting emissions in half or more by 2030 and reaching zero-carbon by 2040 is not only feasible, it is the standard would-be climate leaders must commit to this Earth Day. The hour is late, and the world needs no less.