After COP26, the real race to save the planet is on

The Glasgow COP26 meeting has finally ended — not a failure, nor a notable success. The difficult meeting capped a year filled with climate change challenge and horror. Whole island nations and cultures are now more likely than ever to be submerged. Intensifying rain will mean more and more flooding in some parts of the globe, while worsening hot drought and looming water shortages grip other regions. A news story of drought, amplified by climate change, forcing poor families in Africa to sell their young daughters to old men should sicken us all. What will it take to convince humankind that we must stop the climate change that is destroying our planet? 

The COP26 left the desired global warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius barely alive.  But there is still a way to save the planet from the most devastating impacts of climate change.

Many of us looked to the COP26 to save the day, but we must recognize that an international agreement might never save the day. No matter what commitments were made or not made in Glasgow, the rubber hits the road at home. We learned in the waning days of the Glasgow summit that China understands that our world cannot thrive with ever-worsening climate change.  For China, it’s not just a race for survival, it’s also a race to capture the new jobs that are rapidly emerging in the clean energy economy. In 2020, four out of 10 renewable energy jobs were located in China, more than any other single country.  China didn’t make any earth-shattering new commitments in Glasgow, but they sure know the race is on.

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Europe was, and still is, the world’s shining beacon of hope, and their leaders are going home even more committed to climate action. Europe suffered more than 20,000 deaths in a heatwave in 2003, and ever more since then. Southern Europe endured an unprecedented heat and wildfire hell this summer, while in the same few months more northerly locations were hit hard by climate-supercharged flooding. They are moving fast on climate action and are working hard to capture global market share in the push to decarbonize and build resilience. They certainly understand that the clean tech economic race is on and are leading the race with China. 

Almost everyone in Australia except their leaders understand that climate change is ravaging their country. The iconic Great Barrier Reef has become the poster child for climate-driven coral reef demise, and their heatwave-fueled bushfires rival the worsening wildfire crisis of western North America. Australians know there is a whole new economy growing around renewable energy and other solutions to climate change. Yet, their leaders are in thrall to a fossil fuel industry peddling an outdated vision of coal-fired prosperity that employs relatively few Australians. This limited view will likely soon lead to the new leaders Australians must have — leaders who know the race is on to save the planet, and to win economically.

The United States is another divided country, and like Australia, we stand at two tipping points — not just of climate disaster, but also a point at which the economics of renewable energy begin to drive a national transition away from fossil fuels. The costs of renewable energy systems, electrified mobility and other solutions to our climate challenge continue to plummet, while fossil fuel prices remain volatile, even crippling.

Over 50 percent of Americans, and over 60 percent our country’s GDP, reside in states committed to climate action. In these and other states, the deployment of wind and solar energy is booming, bringing extra income to farmers, ranchers and communities across the heartland of the country. It’s clear that most Americans know the race is on, even if half the political elite remain mired in fossil fuel influence and funding.

With Glasgow in the rearview mirror, it’s time to realize where the real action is — in countries and states, in counties and cities. We must divorce ourselves and our economies from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and for reasons that go beyond the climate chaos and deadly air pollution that fossil fuels cause. Around the world, we find ourselves at an economic tipping point, and the countries that move the fastest will be the true leaders of the rapidly expanding clean energy economy of the 21st century. 

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To compete, we need Congress to move boldly on climate action, both to avert climate disaster and to ensure a stronger economy. To make sure all Americans benefit from the transition to a robust low-carbon economy that has long-term staying power and is just. To empower American industry and workers to be leaders in clean energy, electrified mobility and everything else that is required for the globe to decarbonize and be resilient in the face of ongoing climate change. To succeed, Congress must do its part to drive bold tangible action now and win the race to be the country that provides the know-how, the solutions, the leadership, and the global competitiveness to win the race that saves the planet from climate change. 

Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., is a climate scientist, professor and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He has researched drought, climate variability and climate change on five continents. Follow him on Twitter: @GreatLakesPeck.

These opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Michigan.