Feature Story

Why 2020 is a critical milestone for a climate-safe world

April 10, 2017

Developing countries need much higher, and faster, investment now than is currently available so as to lock in clean energy infrastructure to meet their development agendas. Photo: Shutterstock

By Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary UNFCCC and convenor, Mission 2020

We are at a precarious point for the fate of the global commons. Our actions on climate protection over the next few years will determine whether we continue on a path of exponentially growing national disasters or pivot onto a path toward a safer, more prosperous world.

At the 2015 Paris summit, 194 countries committed to work collaboratively to limit the impact of global warming. Data shows that - if we are to achieve the Paris goals - we must reach a climate turning point in 2020 as the graph below shows.

This is critically important because the world community has also agreed to meet 17 sustainable development goals, or global goals, by 2030, including ending poverty and hunger, and ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy.

If we are late to the 2020 milestone, and emissions have not begun a steady decline by then, we will all but eliminate our chance to stay within the range of a 1.5C to 2C temperature rise, beyond which the impacts we are seeing already – record Arctic ice melting, famine-inducing drought in Africa, unprecedented coral-reef bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef – are likely to worsen dramatically, threatening everyone, especially the most vulnerable. Missing the 2020 milestone would also put meeting all the global goals at risk. A temperature rise that exceeds 2C would also make the world systemically uninsurable.

All this shows us that urgent action is necessary to meet the 2020 climate turning point.

It is also desirable; not just to avoid negative impacts from a rapidly warming world, but because the resulting health, energy and food security, and jobs - providing a basis for shared prosperity and financial stability - will benefit everybody.

The question then becomes: is the 2020 climate turning point achievable?

There are many arguments against it:

  • In 2016, the Earth set a temperature record for the third year in a row, an ominous trend, which has unleashed remarkable physical changes to our planet that will last for centuries.
  • Developing countries need much higher, and faster, investment now than is currently available so as to lock in clean energy infrastructure to meet their development agendas. Otherwise they will turn in the short-term to coal.
  • There is significant inertia in the financial system, where externalities like carbon pollution are mostly not yet adequately priced in, and where short-term valuations still prevail.
  • Finally, of course, there is politics, with some governments undoing climate-related policies and public funding drying up.

But, as you might expect, I see many more arguments for the achievability of the 2020 turning point. This is because, in the end, all of our self-interests lie in wanting a stable, safe environment, where we can provide for our families without the threats of hunger, conflict or forced migration.

  • The financial sector, recognizing the risks and opportunities, now has a series of recommendations - via the Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosure - that will help investors stress test their portfolios against the 2C pathway. BlackRock – with over $5tn (£4tn) in assets – has warned companies it will vote out directors of companies that fail to address the risks posed to their businesses by climate change; and State Street Research has pointed to an industry-wide shift as investors discover sustainable value in environmental, social and governance based investing.
  • We’ve just experienced the third year in a row where the world’s carbon dioxide emissions have stayed flat while economic growth has continued.
  • The pace of technological advances in renewables is enabling them to compete robustly, unsubsidized, with fossil fuels. The scale of their use is already comparable to nuclear.
  • Battery storage and capacity, with better integration into the grid is improving exponentially. China is planning to put electric vehicles costing just $8,000, without subsidy, on the road. And India is leading the charge by announcing ambitious plans to be a 100% electric vehicle country by 2030.
  • There is broad participation and real leadership from the world’s biggest businesses and investors in addressing climate change. Cities and states, and some nations, are already demonstrating ambitions on coal phase-outs, renewable energy and halting deforestation over and above the plans announced for Paris.
  • There has been renewed determination over the Paris agreement in recent months rather than a falling back, with a galvanized environmental movement and successful interventions from indigenous communities worldwide as they work to protect their land and water from threats and degradation.

Whether we can achieve the 2020 turning point will depend on our ambition, our will-power in staying the course and on how we define the acronym BAU. We are no longer in a world of business as usual; we are now in business as urgent. We must be determined, and stubbornly foster innovative thinking and radical collaboration so that we reach the junction on time, together.

The 2020 turning point is already in sight. It’s happening!

Join the conversation with the hashtag #2020DontBeLate