Expert Perspectives

In Climate Action, as in Chess, Forethought Wins

Our collective near-term actions to protect our climate are still inadequate, as unfortunately illustrated in 2017. Last year broke two records, as the hottest year on record without an El Niño, and as the one with the highest level of energy-related CO2 emissions. We of course knew that the sum of countries’ pledges was not enough before the ink had dried on the Paris Agreement in December 2015.

The 2017 United Nations Environment Program Gap Report reconfirms that although countries’ emission objectives pledged to the Paris Agreement represent a departure from current trends, they will have depleted 80 percent of the total emissions budget to keep global temperature increase below 2°C, and entirely eliminated the chance of keeping the increase at 1.5°C. The country Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are aware of this ambition gap, and more decisive mitigation actions are needed urgently.

Paradoxically, this sense of urgency should encourage us to look at the long term, before rushing into low-cost emission-reduction approaches that could divert us from more structural changes. Thinking now about long-term emission pathways to meet the ambition of the Paris Agreement is not at all a complacent distraction from the problem at hand; to the contrary, it could help us arrive at a comprehensive solution.

The 2050 Pathways Platform launched at COP22 in Marrakech gathered national and local governments as well as businesses around the simple notion that although having a plan may not be a recipe for success, not having one is a guarantee of failure. The 2050 Pathways Platform members recognize many advantages in developing ambitious long-term emission pathways. These should explore the many possibilities that long-term development creates, in contrast to the time horizon of nationally determined contributions, whose actions are more dependent on, and constrained by, today’s infrastructures and institutions.

Identifying key decision points

Long-term planning allows us to make better decisions in the present by enabling us to compare the long-term implications of alternative solutions. This is particularly important in the case of long-lived infrastructure. We must take particular care in our investment decisions regarding power plants, buildings and transportation infrastructure, which may not be easily replaced or retrofitted. There is a high risk that emissions associated with these investments may be locked in for decades, as the early retirement of such infrastructure would prove costly. Urban planning is another domain where today’s choices will have consequences on emissions for decades to come.

The pathway’s long-term outlook will show the major transformations that must be impelled in the coming years: moving to a low carbon development path by 2050 implies ramping up low GHG infrastructure investment early. Countries that benefit today from a high proportion of variable renewable sources in their electricity mix prepared their grid infrastructure over more than two decades. Further, these jurisdictions started at a time when the economic competitiveness of these solutions (especially wind and solar) was not fully established but the socioeconomic gains (energy independence, industrial know-how, jobs, air quality) appeared substantial, while the increasing evidence of climate change pointed to the need to phase out fossil fuels. Common industrial expectations about future markets and clear incentives helped bring down costs, which in turn facilitated further use of renewable energy, accompanied by progress in grid management and in the underlying infrastructure. Long-term pathways that look at net-zero emissions should lead us to shift our near-term investments, in anticipation of more such structural changes.

Planning policies and incentives

Today’s increasing use of renewable energy sources tells a critical story about the timing of policy and regulatory interventions needed for the transition. Another example is in the area of public procurement, an important instrument in innovation policy. Even though virtually all businesses that rely on fossil fuels or emit large amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are aware of their vulnerability to climate action, they have not responded significantly to this threat, nor have companies with low GHG solutions seen markets open wide for their innovations. Progress is too slow, but governments with a clear path to a net-zero carbon economy identify needed market transformations more rapidly and act more vigorously to encourage them. This should start by reforming how governments spend public money to progressively align expenditures with low carbon goals. Public procurement can be organized to send a signal to the private sector about the direction of change—for example, by requiring information on the carbon footprint of proposed services and announcing externality pricing on that basis in coming years, or by opening a growing share of public markets to zero-GHG solutions. A national private sector will be more responsive if the country has elaborated and agreed on a pathway toward a low carbon future, and staged regulatory reforms accordingly.

The other side of this coin is the avoidance of stranded assets, stranded workforces, and stranded communities. The last century has seen several waves of market-driven phase-outs of swathes of industrial sectors (iron and steel, shipbuilding, textiles), with more or less effective mitigating measures. The ensuing plant closures have left lasting marks on communities that often struggled to recreate economic activity. In contrast, the transition to a low carbon and climate-resilient economy can still be planned to avoid massive stranding, provided that a process is put in place to elaborate a national low GHG pathway, in which sectoral trade-offs, synergies, and vulnerabilities can emerge. There are examples of communities that have understood and anticipated the response to the climate threat: Port Augusta in Australia had built its development on coal mining and coal power plants. As its last coal plant closed in 2016, trade unions, workers, and citizens elaborated a plan to replace coal-based with renewable energy activities. Projects have started, and although it is too early to evaluate the success of the transformation, Port Augusta offers an example of a decisive plan to preserve a community once the fossil fuel economy has left.

From long-term trajectories to renewed ambition

The Paris Agreement recognizes the importance of long-term pathways in its Article 4.19, inviting Parties to present long-term low greenhouse gas development strategies by 2020. Countries should welcome this invitation and develop robust domestic strategies to accompany the transition of their economic activities, citizens, and institutions to a net-zero-GHG world. To benefit from the insights illustrated above, long-term pathways must go beyond the elaboration of quantified GHG emission scenarios. These must be part of an inclusive process whereby economic stakeholders, representatives of civil society, and different parts of governments can confront their present-day realities and build a consensus on the long-term emission and development pathway of the country, region or city. To be effective, the pathway should also be part of a policy roadmap that indicates critical decision milestones and transparent procedures for revising the pathway, as original assumptions will need adjusting.

We must acknowledge the risk of countries and other stakeholders becoming more preoccupied by the implementation of their Paris Agreement medium-term pledges than by the elaboration of a mid-century strategy. The role of the 2050 Pathways Platform is precisely to bring the attention back to the long-term objective, to help turn our collective scientific knowledge about the risks associated with temperatures rising above 2°C into clear paths to a net-zero-emissions world. At the One Planet Summit hosted by France on the second anniversary of the Paris Agreement, a group of countries1 signed the Declaration of the Carbon Neutrality Coalition, announcing that they would “develop long-term low–greenhouse gas emission climate-resilient development strategies, in line with the agreed long-term temperature increase limit. [They] will do so well ahead of 2020, and if possible by 2018.” Thirty-two large cities have also pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050.2 More will need to join around key international climate policy events, and turn the declaration into reality in the coming months.

I strongly believe that ambition hinges not just on setting a long-term aspirational goal but also on translating this goal into a society-wide vision. As countries and non-state actors formulate their 2050 pathways, the incoherence between many business-as-usual decisions and our climate objective will become blatant, and near-term decisions will shift to anticipate the large-scale sectoral and societal transformations ahead. This is the key to more ambitious medium-term pledges. It is my hope that more and more countries and non-state actors will embrace this approach and start their own process to build robust, sustainable long-term pathways to decarbonization.


OECD. 2017. Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth. May 23. Paris: OECD.

Pathak, Siddharth. 2017. Why Develop 2050 Pathways? July. Paris: 2050 Pathways Platform.

Williams, Jim, and Henri Waisman. 2017. 2050 Pathways: A Handbook. July 8. Paris: 2050 Pathways Platform.

1 Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden.

2 Austin, Accra, Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Caracas, Copenhagen, Durban, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, Milan, New York City, Oslo, Paris, Philadelphia, Portland, Quito, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, San Francisco, Santiago, Seattle, Stockholm, Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver, Washington, and Yokohama.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.