Like all good Scottish mothers, mine was obsessed by education, and determined that her children were always learning. Thus, on the last day of each year we were obliged to discuss the most important thing we had learned over the past 12 months. Not a bad exercise to try on this, the final day of 2014.

For those of us interested in shifting the needle towards a more sustainable future, 2014–which may be the hottest year ever recorded–offered numerous candidates for top new insight:

  • The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate showed that healthy economic growth and strong action against climate change can be not only consistent with each other, but essential bedfellows.
  • The Risky Business report showed that the impacts of climate change will, if unaddressed, devastate many companies’ and local governments’ balance sheets sooner than we thought.
  • Important research from WRI and the Rights and Resources Initiative showed that granting and enforcing communal land rights can reduce deforestation around the world.
  • Water crises from California to São Paulo taught us that we must treat water as a scarce and vital resource if we are to avoid great cost and hardship.
  • Australia’s repeal of its innovative carbon tax reminded us that sustaining support for good policies is as important as building it in the first place.

But my choice for top insight comes from the tricky world of collective action against climate change. In a context in which a global multilateral arrangement must be struck, what is the role of bilateral, pluri-lateral, and “club” deals and coalitions? This issue has been hotly debated in trade circles for decades: Is the growing number of bilateral and regional trade deals making a global WTO deal more or less likely? Trade economists still can’t agree.

The nature of a trade deal differs from a climate deal, of course, and 2014 demonstrated that strong, visible leadership by groups on climate change can play positively into the multilateral negotiations under the UNFCCC. 2014 was the year some amazing allies got together to act – and as a result, a new spirit of optimism pervaded the end-of-year negotiations in Lima.

Club World

Ban Ki Moon’s Climate Summit in September, which was regarded as a risky gamble by some, paid off big. By bringing together not only the largest number of national leaders, but also CEOs from many of the world’s top corporations and leaders from cities, regions and civil society organizations, the summit provided a platform and point in time, when coalitions of leaders could launch actions and commitments:

  • Eighty countries and more than 1,000 companies signed on to work for a price on carbon.
  • A Compact of Mayors organized by the city networks, C40 and ICLEI brought together some of the most powerful sub-national leaders in the world to commit to annual measurement of greenhouse gases (GHGs), with targets and full transparency. In the past year, more than 100 cities have used the new common protocol on GHG measurement developed by these groups and WRI.
  • A powerful alliance of private, public and civil society leaders committed to deforestation-free commodity supply chains, pledging to use modern tracking technology, such as Global Forest Watch, and full transparency of reporting.
  • A coalition of nations committed to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, bringing dangerous carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to earth where it will improve incomes, food security and resilience. In Lima in December, seven Latin American countries, two regional programs and private financiers committed to restore 20 million hectares by 2020.
  • Other private-public alliances set targets and launched ambitious actions on energy efficiency, renewable energy, transportation and finance.

Each of these is valuable in its own right, but combined, these clubs make a compelling case that action is necessary, feasible, and will happen. They create a powerful antidote to the vested interests and politicization that have thwarted national and multilateral action respectively.

The “2014 Climate Club” was joined in November by the smallest (two members) and biggest (one-third of global GDP) club of all, when Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a landmark climate change agreement to move away from high-carbon fossil fuels toward renewable energy and low-carbon technology that can power their economies. By specifying emissions targets, the two leaders showed they understand the urgent need for action. This, in turn, is providing encouragement and pressure on others to follow.

As recently as five years ago many negotiators at the UNFCCC would have opposed the pluri-lateral arrangements that have come to the fore in 2014 as potentially “cutting across” a universal multilateral process. Thankfully, this debate is now over. Solving climate change needs all hands on deck. Action today can and must support the process of global negotiation. When towards the end of the year countries like Peru, Colombia, Mexico, South Korea and Mongolia chose to join traditional donor countries in contributing to the new Green Climate Fund, and thereby taking the total to more than $10 billion, they illustrated this new spirit of leadership.

There’s still all to play for in 2015 in the lead-up to Paris in December. We urgently need a strong multilateral deal. Negotiations certainly won’t be easy, and nor should they be given the stakes involved. But the prospects of success are brighter as we enter the new year thanks to the leadership shown over recent months. So on this, the last day of 2014, let’s hear it for the national and corporate leaders, the mayors and non-governmental organizations who built new coalitions for action—not because they had to, but because they know that it’s right to curb greenhouse gas emissions and help the world’s most vulnerable people have more confidence in the future.

What did you learn in 2014?