Urgency and Opportunity: Why the next four years are critical to the future of our planet

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40

The launch of Mission 2020 should be welcomed by everyone who understands why tackling climate change is humanity’s most urgent task. Its focus is getting us over the first hurdle in the race to exit the Fossil Fuel Age and move into a greener, cleaner, climate-safe era for humanity. C40, which launched its own ‘Deadline 2020’ program a few months ago, will certainly be getting right behind Mission 2020.

Initiated by Christiana Figueres, who as head of the UNFCCC was instrumental in achieving the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, Mission 2020 starts life after a difficult few months for those who trust science and thus understand the need to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions. President Trump’s decision to scrap the US Clean Power Plan will hamper efforts to cut emissions in the world’s most powerful nation. The subsequent decision of the G20 finance ministers to remove climate change from their agenda this year was a worrying signal of how the US domestic agenda could affect inter-governmental action on climate change.

Yet there have also been many positive moments. Led by C40 mayors, 75 US cities made clear their intention to work with other non-state actors to ensure the US delivers its Paris Agreement commitments, regardless of action by their federal government. C40 Chair, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently launched a car scoring system to slash air pollution on city streets. China and countries in Europe led many others in re-affirming their commitment to climate action. Norway marked the point where a majority of car sales are of electric or hybrid models.

It is thus highly unlikely that this US president can stall international climate action in the way that George W. Bush did by pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. The question, however, is whether action by the rest of the world, along with US non-state actors, can happen quickly enough. That is why Mission 2020’s launch is so timely, because while a climate safe future ultimately requires getting down to zero GHG emissions by mid-century, unless global emissions peak in the next four years it will become essentially impossible to get there.

That was the certainly the conclusion of C40’s ‘Deadline 2020’ analysis. If we leave it any later, the emissions curve (Figure 1) just needs to bend more steeply than any realistic estimate of infrastructure development permits.

Figure 1: Bending the curve: emissions reductions necessary from business-as-usual by 2020, for 1.5 degree scenario. 

Our estimate is that instead of rising 35% on the current trajectory, the maximum emissions growth between now and 2020 across our member cities should be 5%, and thereafter they need to come down very steeply.

The absolutely critical period to tackle climate change is right now. That means it is the mayors, presidents, and CEOs in post today, along with the billions citizens who give them the right to lead on our behalf, who are going to determine whether or not we can move into a climate safe future. Indeed, our modelling shows that 90% of all the action city governments could take to reduce emissions over the rest of this century actually needs to have been taken by 2030. Urgency is the order of the day.

Of particular importance in the light of changes in the United States is the finding that 70% of necessary climate action between now and 2020 needs to happen in the wealthiest quartile of C40 cities. That includes all of our 12 US members, along with their European, Japanese, Australian, and South Korean counterparts. There are also urgent critical decisions that need to be made in global south cities that will affect their future trajectory, but the bulk of immediate emissions savings needs to happen in the already highly developed cities.

In the past decade we have recorded 11,000 individual ‘climate actions’ – ones that cut emissions and improve resilience – by C40 cities. That is a big achievement, but the sobering reality is that in just the next four years we need to see 14,000 more. That’s a 125% increase in delivery in less than 40% of the time. 

This can all sound daunting. Indeed, at an event I attended last week in Montreal alongside its dynamic mayor, Denis Coderre, the moderator questioned if C40 cities are really going to take the action our Deadline 2020 analysis shows is necessary. Both the mayor and I answered with an immediate “yes”. The reason is simple – if you are a big city mayor it is already obvious that shifting to a low carbon pathway will raise living standards faster and embed stronger, more sustainable economic development than the high carbon alternative. The only question is how precisely to do it, which is why mayors are so keen to learn from each other in forums like C40. 

Moreover, as we recently discussed at C40’s Financing Sustainable Cities Forum in London City Hall, $375 billion of investment is needed to get C40 cities to peak emissions in 2020. That is going to create a huge opportunity for new jobs and expanded markets in the low carbon economy, and would rapidly improve the quality of life of more than 650 million citizens in C40 cities. The most successful cities by 2020 will be the ones that are advancing most quickly towards zero carbon, not least because they will simply be more attractive places to live. 

So whether we call it Mission 2020 or Deadline 2020, it is all about urgency and opportunity. Mission 2020 provides an umbrella under which mayors, CEOs, governors and others can stride forward confidently together towards a prosperous, sustainable future. C40 is delighted to be a part of it and we salute Christiana Figueres for her continuing climate leadership.  

This post was originally published on Medium