Much has been said about the severity and urgency of the ecological crisis, and the climate countdown humanity faces. What is not sufficiently understood, however, is that the action we take today will mainly deliver its impact on climate in about 20 years, because of the inertia in Earth systems – a lag time described by scientists between the moment greenhouse gas emissions take place and when their full effect rolls out. So now, not later, is the time to make a difference.
This lag means that the climate of the 2040s is already largely built in and likely by then to reach 2 C global heating, the upper limit set by the Paris agreement. The consequences are clear: the damage to human societies and ecosystems will be considerable, and adaptation to boost resilience needs to gain pace fast.
But the central fight is actually about avoiding much worse to come and regaining control of our destiny. As Professor Rockström, a leading environmental scientist said, the risk now is to inadvertently “press the buttons” of unstoppable feedback loops that could tip the Earth into a “hot house” state. Feedback loops are when the output of a system affects itself - the nature equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot - causing a domino-like effect by which human efforts to reduce emissions become increasingly futile.
This would not only bring devastation of an unknown scale and change the face of the Earth as we know it, with certain regions of the world becoming uninhabitable. It would also trigger the loss of control on key levers allowing to stabilise the situation. With current greenhouse gas emissions expected to still rise further and natural sinks more threatened than ever, this is still the scenario we are currently in, taking us straight to a tragic 3 to 5C warming.
In this context, nobody should be surprised that an increasing part of the world population finds the current trade-off between short-term satisfaction of society and long-term stewardship simply unacceptable. In particular, today’s younger generation who we’ve seen express their growing anger over the future they’ll inherit. We can take some comfort in the belief that today’s more engaged youth will take action in the future for past neglect, but this assumption couldn’t be more fatal. Because of the lag time, what happens in the coming decade determines our collective future and whether we finally reach by mid-century an intelligent balance between humanity and our environment within the thin layer of life around the Earth’s crust.
In every corner of society, it is those who hold positions of responsibility today who need to act, not those who are coming next. Never has there been such a moment in history, when our choice between two paths will determine so clearly the “safe operating space” for ourselves, our children and future generations.
To date, climate action has been primarily driven by a mix of top-down policy efforts on the supply side, bottom-up citizen movements, coalitions of large cities and companies and environmental NGOs of course. Through regulations and funding streams, the drive is to progressively replace infrastructure, practices and products by alternatives that release less or no greenhouse gas emissions, consume less energy and respect more the nature on which we depend. Given that political, normative and financial levers are very powerful mechanisms, these approaches are instrumental. But they are not yet fast and large enough to reverse the trend of global warming and stave off the worst climate change impacts - the facts are stubborn. It will take time before they are fully able to meet the challenge, overcome social resistance and even longer before they have an impact.
Faced with this situation, every institution, company and organisation in society should be urgently questioning its actions and assessing its own sphere of responsibility, and everything that it is within their control. And for the areas that they don’t control, they should try to influence others by example, high standards and contribute to another domino effect by inspiring other peers to follow. The spheres that we control are often much larger than we think. We are now beyond the stage when we can wait for everything to come from the top or from individual behaviours: the “middle of society” has to take direct responsibility for action. There is a major risk that the tragedy will accelerate if each of us stays confined to their institutional role, their social mission, and doesn’t adapt despite the systemic crisis unfolding before our eyes. We simply cannot wait for the macro-level policies to be fully in place, because this might take another ten to fifteen years.
In order to reach net-zero emissions before 2050, we know we must halve greenhouse gas emissions every decade from now. Time is running out, so we must leverage fast-spreading processes of change to achieve rapidly the scope and scale of global decarbonisation required. The good news is that sustainable climate action is less a matter of developing new solutions than of accessing, implementing and scaling exponentially those that are proven to be effective. Positive examples of organisations that have taken responsibility and slashed their emissions abund, but they remain marginal and too unknown unfortunately. Climate action brings many, yet often underestimated and misunderstood, co-benefits such as long-term cost-effectiveness, better health, cleaner air, reduced waste, new jobs and safety.
There is an enormous untapped potential, made of community organisations - civil society organisations, hospitals and universities, local governments, small and medium businesses, professional network - whose audiences and trend-setting potentials, beyond their contributions to total GHG emissions, have been largely overlooked so far.
Three sectors in particular - aid, health, education & research- have a special role to play. They have a very high amplification potential, in terms of trustfulness, reach and connectedness, as they provide care, protect, generate knowledge, and prepare future generations. They rank among the most trusted sectors in society, and are often viewed as role models, acting with integrity. They know what is unfolding and what the human impacts will be, and their leadership is most likely to inspire emulation by others. Health alone represents 5% of total emissions – the world’s fifth largest emitter if it were a country, twice the level of aviation.
Net-zero emissions can only be achieved with an exponential surge of organisations acknowledging the emergency, leading the way towards science-based reduction targets and creating an unstoppable momentum across society. They can demonstrate that climate action is increasingly accessible, feasible and beneficial, influence their ecosystems, get other organisations on board, and accelerate the implementation of climate solutions towards a social tipping point. Reaching drawdown - the point when greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere start to decline –, requires a whole-of-society approach and transformative shift in scale within the next few years.
The Climate Action Accelerator (CAA) is a newly-formed not-for-profit association, based in Geneva. Its aim is to catalyse adoption and implementation of climate solutions to halve emissions by 2030. It seeks to do this by providing concrete operational support, mobilising and empowering champions and building an open community of action among organisations that represent the under-utilised “middle” of society. The initial focus will be on aid, health, education and research.
Last but not least, we believe that this great transformation requires an accelerated open-source transfer of know-how. By sharing climate solutions as a common universal good, we can make decarbonisation and resilience a feasible journey for organisations, and contribute to the tipping of society.
Bruno Jochum is the director of the Climate Action Accelerator and former director general of Médecins sans Frontieres in Geneva.