As world leaders marked Earth Day at the United Nations and signed the historic Paris climate accord negotiated last fall, the “now what” questions – what energy strategies and policies will work best, how will nations mobilize their own citizens while cooperating with less-equipped global neighbors, what’s the best way to transfer technology – have followed the elation and celebration after COP21.
For all its photo-op drama, the Earth Day event was a mere first step in the long journey to reduce emissions, coordinate a shift to renewable energy sources, and affirm the values of social and economic justice that are foundational to a sustainable future. The Paris agreement requires the ratification of at least 55 nations, accounting for a minimum 55 percent of the world’s emissions, to put talk into motion.
The political will to move forward varies across governments and cultures – in the United States, for example, executive action is expected to affirm the agreement in order to bypass the Republican-controlled Congress – but most countries seem motivated to do their part in preventing climate catastrophe. What’s less firm is the commitment from the banking sector, oil majors and other industries resistant to the cost of change in their markets and business models, and the impact of this new day on profits.
So far, there’s cause for both hope and skepticism. In developed nations, the push for investment continues with corporations themselves calling for climate action. Thousands of businesses have promised to act on climate change, according to the World Economic Forum, and that includes a group of 79 global CEOs whose companies are worth more than $2 trillion in revenues. Investments in renewables totaled $286 billion in 2015, about 3 percent higher than the previous global record set in 2011.
However, investment from both the public and private spheres needs to increase dramatically if humanity hopes to avoid the worst impacts of climate change while mitigating the effects of those that already are no longer avoidable. Additional World Economic Forum data shows that by 2020 – just four years from now – about $5.7 trillion will be needed in annual investments in green energy and infrastructure. “This will require shifting the world’s $5 trillion in business-as-usual investments into green investments, as well as mobilizing an additional $700 billion to ensure this shift actually happens,” adds the World Resources Institute, noting that government funding remains scarce.
Securing funding and engineering this paradigm shift of global scale will be painful. The massive media and political pressure that accompanied the run up to the COP21 needs to be kept in place in order to overcome the resistance of skeptics and special interest groups. The sequel to the Paris climate talks, the COP22 will take place in Marrakesh, Morocco in November 2016 and will be a useful yardstick to measure the enthusiasm of companies and politicians alike one year after the Paris breakthrough. Even the World’s Fair (now known as Expo 2017), that will take place in Astana, Kazakhstan will focus on future energy and sustainability. The three-month fair will promote and encourage sustainable solutions to address the massive shortfall between what is needed to decelerate global warming and what is actually done. While Kazakhstan is undeniably an oil and gas giant, it’s hosting of Expo 2017 has seen the nation encourage the exploration of renewable energy sources to tackle the pressing issues of global warming and energy security. Deputy Chairman of the Board of Astana’s Expo 2017, Yerbol Shormanov, has already confirmed the attendance of more than 80 countries and 14 international organizations, illustrating that the will among both developed and developing nations to fight climate change remains.
But while developed nations face formidable challenges of their own, the developing world will bear the brunt of the effort and will need hundreds of billions worth of technology transfers and aid. It’s no surprise that Africa’s fragile environment will feature high on the COP22’s agenda. Nations like India and China, with their massive populations and evolving economies, continue their use of coal while struggling to plan for long-term emissions controls. As with their industrialized counterparts, competing demands – for key social programs, national security, education – place pressure on public sector budgets and private sector funding. What’s different in the developing nations of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, among others, is the degree to which they need technical expertise to design smart frameworks for climate policy.
Yet the world cannot overlook that, despite the symbolism of the United Nations gathering and the promise of the Paris agreement, the developed world has its own false starts to overcome. A real commitment to green-technology investment remains limited by both the political environment, as in the United States, and by the resistance of oil companies, coal interests, fracking advocates and pipeline proponents. Their future is uncertain: A recent Deloitte report found that more than one third of the world’s public oil companies are at high risk for bankruptcy in the current environment.
Peabody Energy, the largest US coal company, has declared bankruptcy. Investors are demanding that oil companies, including BP and Exxon, demonstrate their plans to navigate climate impacts. Even SunEdison, the global renewable leader, has filed a bankruptcy with devastating ripple effects.
Looming above it all are the existential demands of a planet where failure, really this time, is not an option, and the world’s short attention span must remain fixed on averting environmental disaster instead of treating the problem – as one participant put it – like it was an HBO miniseries. Citizens, advocates and the media need to continue the fight to keep climate change at the forefront of the public conversation, and place pressure on banking, business and government to guarantee change.
*Hariette Darling is originally from London, has a BA in Economics and currently resides in Singapore while working as a freelance environmental risk researcher for a local consultancy and runs a blog on Daily Kos.