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Collective Action at the Crossroads: What to Watch in 2020

It seems like a lifetime ago when at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, I watched more than 100 heads of state and government queue to sign the original documents of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Biodiversity Convention and Agenda 21. Negotiations had been tough, and some leaders were more enthusiastic than others. But to everybody in the room, it was clear that this was a moment of clear moral purpose, a coming together of the global community to address critical global threats that no individual nation could tackle on its own.

What Went Wrong?

Nearly three decades on, we are further from a solution on these issues than we were then. In other areas, there have been great achievements. Real global output and incomes have much more than doubled since 1992, poverty has been reduced at a pace unparalleled in human history, life expectancy has increased dramatically, and technological progress has been stunning. But when it comes to collective action to protect global public goods, the governments of the world simply haven’t been up to it. In the past 10 years alone, global emissions of greenhouse gases have been greater than total emissions in the two centuries from 1750 to 1950, and scientists believe biodiversity loss to be proceeding at 1,000 times the natural rate. Today a million species are threatened with extinction.

The past decade has not been humanity’s proudest moment, although there was a remarkable exception in the middle of the decade. In 2015, the world witnessed agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals and on climate action under the Paris Agreement. For a brief moment, it appeared that perhaps the era of cooperation could be rekindled. But in the five years since, we’ve seen little willingness to compromise for the common good. Worsening inequality within countries, and feelings of disempowerment and resentment among those left behind by globalization and technological change have focused attention internally rather than towards any global good. The 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, set 10 years ago, are largely unmet. At the Madrid climate conference in December 2019, negotiators couldn’t agree on the time horizon for increased ambition, the basic rules for carbon markets or, in fact, almost anything at all.

It is no wonder pundits have dubbed the past 10 years as “The Decade of Distrust” and “The Decade of Disillusionment.”

Still Hopeful?

So, as we enter 2020, why are we at WRI redoubling our efforts in the belief that this year – and the coming decade – can be different? We believe that seven factors provide a degree of hope that simply didn’t exist a decade ago. None of these on their own will bring about the required tipping point, but combined and in concert with smart political outreach, they can provide momentum for real systemic change.

1) Evidence That Can No Longer Be Ignored

Nature itself is crying out at a volume that grows each year. Nineteen of the 20 hottest years in recorded history have occurred in the first 19 years of this century. The economic and human toll of extreme weather events, droughts, floods and lost natural habitats are forcing all but the extreme fringe to acknowledge the danger. New science – from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and many other sources – is reminding us that problems are more serious than we understood, and that under present trends, will grow in a potentially catastrophic manner. Watch, sadly, as more extreme climate-induced events in 2020 cause more suffering and build momentum for action.

2) Young Citizens Awakening

Never before have 7 million people marched with such single purpose, inspired by a 16-year-old Time Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg. Never before have young activists been invited in number to address the United Nations, national parliaments and the World Economic Forum. As in the case of plastics over the past two years, this citizen action on climate is having impact around the world: Parliaments in 15 countries — ranging from France and the UK to Argentina, Bangladesh and Canada — have declared states of “climate emergency,” and 18 countries have now committed to a path towards net-zero emissions. In the 2016 U.S. presidential race, climate change was regarded as a losing electoral issue, while it is now center stage as candidates bid up each other in a determined effort to be strongest on climate. A key issue for 2020 will be whether the citizen movement becomes a truly global phenomenon. Watch the turn-out of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day (April 22), and for the voice of activists at the Ocean Summit in Lisbon (June), the Biodiversity COP in Kunming (October) and the Climate COP in Glasgow (November). Watch to see if the theme of a “just transition” becomes central in advocacy in the lead-up to these meetings. Watch to see the tone and direction in the lead-up to November’s U.S. elections.

3) A New Economic Narrative

A decade ago, the language of trade-offs prevailed. The benefits of protecting the global commons needed to be assessed alongside the costs in terms of money, jobs and economic growth. The fight was over discount rates. Would benefits far in the future justify costs today? Now a very different framing is taking root. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, for example, demonstrated the opportunities of a “New Climate Economy,” in which smart climate policies can promote more efficient use of resources, induce new technologies, address pollution, and provide long-term stability of incentives, which, combined, can lead to gains in the short-term as well as the long. The language of costs and trade-offs is replaced by the language of investment and opportunity. This is expressed in different ways, including, for example, by President Xi Jinping’s famous “green is gold.” While this analytical journey has focused primarily on climate change, parallel insights are emerging from the High-Level Panel on a Sustainable Ocean Economy, and from a number of Business for Nature initiatives in the lead-up to this year’s Biodiversity COP. Watch to see this narrative spread in 2020.

4) Shifting Corporate Behavior

The new economic narrative is beginning to take root in business schools and board rooms. Ten years ago, a small number of business leaders were making the economic case for action, but even fewer were acting. Today, while still a minority, the number is growing at an accelerating rate, and intent is leading to action. More than 750 major corporations have committed to Science Based Targets, and the number is growing. Nearly 200 of these have now upgraded their ambition to be consistent with the goal of keeping within a “1.5 degree warming world” (going beyond “below 2 degrees”). These commitments require transparency on both emissions and companies’ time-bound plans to decarbonize throughout value chains. Why are they doing this? Not because governments are requiring it (they aren’t), but because these vanguard companies believe it is smart business, increasing their efficiency, motivating their employees and customers, and, increasingly, attracting finance. The commitments now account for around 1 gigaton of emissions under scope 1 & 2, and nearly 4 gigatons under scope 3 (including value chains), equivalent to 10% of total global emissions.

Watch if these commitments grow in 2020 to the extent that 20% of major companies in each sector join this group (a point at which experts believe the entire industry could “flip”). Watch to see if these leaders use their lobbying muscle to influence government policy and force their business associations into the new economic understanding of the 21st century.

5) Stirring of Financial Markets

Until recently, financial markets had, at best, been neutral in their influence on sustainable investment decisions, and often downright negative due to their conservatism and short-term focus. A sea change is now underway, driven by a recognition of the serious risks associated with environmental change (both physical risks and stranded assets) and by the perceived opportunities from climate action. Change is thus being driven both by risk managers, including regulators, and by asset owners and financial intermediaries who see profit opportunity as well as moral purpose. Consistent with the new economic narrative, the view is spreading that by investing in high environment, social and governance (ESG), companies can, contrary to earlier views, increase yield over the medium- and longer-term. A deeper version of this includes the notion that a focus on shared value will lead to healthier, more profitable and more morally legitimate enterprises. These ideas are spawning an array of initiatives and coalitions of asset owners and institutional investors (Net Zero Asset Owners Alliance, Climate Action 100+), central banks, regulators and standard setters (Network for Greening the Financial System, Climate Disclosure Standards Board, Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB)), and a new Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action (which already has attracted 55 members). The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) has emerged as the leading force for global voluntary standards, and many insiders expect disclosure to become mandatory in key financial markets in the next few years.

These are early days, but the lead-up to the Glasgow COP offers an important opportunity. Watch to see if the leaders of the various initiatives can make the whole add up to more than the sum of the parts, and thus form the beginning of a genuine movement. Watch, too, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in his new role as the Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance.

6) Coalitions for System Change

Achieving the change required cannot be done through incremental actions of individual actors. Coalitions of leaders — often involving government, private sector, science and civil society — are required to create movements for system-wide change. Encouragingly, we are seeing such coalitions across most of the key sectors. These include, for example, the Global Commission on Adaptation; C40 and the Coalition for Urban Transitions; the Food and Land Use Coalition, the New Deal for Nature and People and the Tropical Forest Alliance; the Powering Past Coal Alliance; the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy; the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE); Champions 12.3 for food loss and waste; the Energy Transitions Commission for the “hard-to-abate” sectors; and many others. Such coalitions can play a vital role in clarifying the problem and the possibility of a solution, and for identifying actions that may be hard for individual players to take on their own, but make good sense when all act together.

The best of such coalitions will create an upwards spiral of confidence and action – sometimes called “ambition loops,” in which leaders urge each other to take more ambitious action. Analysis of previous positive tipping points suggest that coalitions of frontrunners almost always play a positive role. At the present time, when multilateral collective action is so difficult, such plurilateral approaches are especially valuable. Watch the role of these coalitions in the lead-up to the major decision points in 2020.

7) New Leadership

In the absence of U.S. leadership, a good deal of focus is understandably on potential deals between the EU, China, India and other major emitters. Recent decisions by the EU on its Green Deal, including its focus on a just transition, provide real hope. But there is also an emerging group of other countries that are insisting on ambition. So far, 79 countries have committed to raise their climate ambition in the lead-up to the Glasgow COP. While these account for only 10.5% of global emissions, their collective voice is proving effective. The group includes many vulnerable small island and African countries, which speak with moral authority. It also includes emerging countries like Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and South Africa. Important G20 countries like Indonesia are also stepping up. The country has completed a major Low Carbon Development Initiative, which demonstrates the positive transformation of its economy in the 2020-2040 period. The government plans to incorporate the findings in its upcoming five-year plan, with carbon emissions as a major indicator.

Opportunities for Global Collective Action in 2020: Key Decision Points

This will be a big year for the ocean, for biodiversity and nature, and for climate change.

On the ocean, major decisions on protected areas, fishing subsidies, governance of the high seas, the ocean and climate, ocean data and finance, and much more will be discussed at the UN Ocean Summit in Lisbon in June, at the WTO in September, the Biodiversity COP in Kunming in October, and at the Climate COP in Glasgow.

On biodiversity, the 10-year targets and policies will be negotiated under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and must be made much more accountable than the failing Aichi targets they will replace. They must also focus actions on the drivers of habitat loss as well as geographical targets. China’s role as host of the COP is an important opportunity. Watch to see if China joins other nations in monitoring and regulating the environmental impacts of its huge commodity trade and its Belt and Road Initiative.

On climate, 2020 is crucial for the future of the Paris Agreement. Five years after the Paris Agreement was forged, countries are required to increase their ambition. So far, large emitters have been waiting on the sidelines. The coming months are critical. Care must be taken that commitments to move towards “net-zero” — which is not yet formally defined and may be politically easier— do not substitute for more ambition in the 2020-2030 period, which is what is required now. The UK, as president of the COP, has a major diplomatic task in the coming months. Watch to see if it and other leaders are able to harness the “Action Track” (the large number of commitments that will be made outside the negotiations) to increase the cooperative spirit of the negotiations. Watch if the new group of climate leaders can, together with leaders from the vulnerable small islands and African countries, create a spirt of positive cooperation. Watch for a potential deal among the big emitters, especially the EU and China. Watch to see if the Climate Adaptation Summit in October in Amsterdam delivers major progress on finance, agriculture and infrastructure, in turn expanding ambition in Glasgow.

WRI’s Commitment

This is a huge and exciting agenda. The stakes are very high, and nobody should anticipate easy success. The world is heading in the wrong direction, and turning it around will require disruptive systemic change across all areas of economic life. This is quite doable and affordable, and will lead to greater prosperity, greater equality and a much better quality of life. But inertia and vested interests are very powerful.

At WRI, we are very proud of the work of our 1,000 experts and practitioners, and our many partners. We recognize that if we act alone, we will only scratch the surface. We are therefore committed to choosing our entry points carefully, always working unselfishly with others, and acting with intensity and humility. WRI staff in our 11 international offices (Brazil, China, Ethiopia, DRC, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Netherlands, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States) are grateful for the deep partnerships we enjoy, and are committed to do all we can to make the coming year the tipping point it needs to be.

More Denmarks?

We are inspired by the brave leadership we are seeing in some communities, corporations, cities and nations. All of the major political parties in Denmark, for example, recently agreed on a target to reduce emissions by 70% by 2030, and become carbon neutral before 2050. They don’t yet know exactly how they will achieve these goals, but their ambition is leading to all kinds of innovation and the engagement of vibrant multi-stakeholder groups. Their goal reflects a deep understanding of what the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has dubbed “the growth story of the 21st century.” Denmark’s economy will shift significantly as a result of this decision. It will sustain and grow its reputation for cutting-edge technology. Its citizens will enjoy cleaner air, better transport, less waste, more green spaces, and the knowledge that they are leaders in the revolution to give our grandchildren a well-functioning Earth on which to prosper.

Count us in!

WRI will launch its annual Stories to Watch on Thursday, January 9th. Register to attend or tune in to the livestream.

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