After a year of unprecedented winter wildfires, a relentless hurricane season, and killer droughts, some of the main publications and organizations in the climate action community are greeting 2018 with cautious, conditional hope—as long as humanity seizes the opportunity for rapid carbon cuts and renewable energy adoption by the end of this decade, then builds on that foundation through the first half of the century.
No one is minimizing the massive effort still needed to shift global momentum on climate change, or the short time available to solidify the progress that has begun in recent years. Earlier this week, some Canadian climate hawks recirculated analysis from 2017 that showed global fossil fuel consumption growing 2.4 times faster than renewables over the last decade, despite dramatic progress in the direction of a post-carbon transition.
But even so, “the technology exists to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and avoid the worst of climate change, scientists say. What’s missing is the ambition,” InsideClimate News notes.
“We have about three years left to bend global greenhouse gas emissions to a downward trajectory if we hope to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement,” ICN adds, citing an expert report last June in the journal Nature. “In an article that was both urgent and optimistic, [the authors] argued that the daunting task can be met using technologies that are already at hand.”
In a year-end op ed published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the CEOs of the Hewlett and ClimateWorks Foundations lay out their own seven reasons for hope. “Climate change is intensifying, with dire consequences for people, communities, and economies around the world,” write Larry Kramer and Charlotte Pera. “Yet through both of our foundations’ work to find and support solutions to climate change, we see reasons for hope that humanity can still overcome the problem of climate change. The combined efforts of grantmakers, non-profits, and governments, increasingly joined by businesses, have made tremendous progress in the past decade.”
“And while there is still a long way to go, we are anything but dispirited and believe now is the moment to act.” They note that Hewlett has just committed $600 million over the next five years to “a wide array of organizations working on climate change solutions,” its largest grantmaking program ever.
Their arguments for hope:
- While the Paris Agreement doesn’t bring countries’ decarbonization commitments all the way to a post-carbon future, it cuts into a trajectory that had the world on track to 6.0°C of average global warming when the field of climate philanthropy began 10 years ago. “Since then, nations around the world have pledged to reduce emissions enough to limit warming to near 3.0°C by 2100,” they write. “It’s not enough, and there’s much more to do, but this is remarkable considering the scale and complexity of the problem and the reality that powerful interests continue to fight climate action.”
- Affordable energy alternatives, from wind and solar to batteries and energy-efficient lighting, are surging. “Renewable energy is now as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels in most places, attracting significant capital and driving ambitious clean-energy goals. This is particularly evident in countries like China and India, which are acting aggressively to curb climate change and combat air pollution.”
- U.S. cities and states “are playing indispensable roles as leaders and laboratories for climate solutions”, with 386 mayors committing to the country’s Paris goals and 29 states setting renewable energy targets in a trend that transcends “red and blue” political divisions.
- Businesses are emerging as climate leaders, with nearly half of the Fortune 500 setting climate or clean energy targets and dozens of companies adopting 100% renewable energy targets.
- Markets are rapidly recognizing climate risks, while investors begin tapping into new, low-carbon opportunities.
- Public and philanthropic investors are using relatively small amounts of capital to unlock private financing for clean energy projects in developing countries.
- Efforts are getting under way to protect and restore forests to avert carbon pollution. “Scientists, governments, farmers, and businesses are finding new ways to restore large swaths of degraded land,” they write, and “Latin American and Caribbean nations have pledged to restore more than 49 million acres of degraded land by 2020, a move that will reap $23 billion in benefits over 50 years while removing carbon from the atmosphere.”
But in 2018, we’ll all still have our work cut out for us.
While all the momentum of the last couple of years is unmistakable, InsideClimate points to the large amount of progress that must be made in a very short period of time.
The optimists reckon 2020 can be the peak year for greenhouse gas emissions if renewable energy hits 30% of global electricity supply, electric vehicles accelerate to 15% of all new car sales, countries begin the process of retiring all remaining coal-fired generating stations, and climate action receives US$1 trillion per year in public and private financing, ICN notes.
But even then, “to have a good chance of avoiding dangerous warming, scientists say, emissions of greenhouse gases must effectively hit zero within the next few decades—at the latest, sometime in the second half of this century,” ICN writes. A series of reports last year confirmed that humanity is not yet on track to hit that target. “If we can’t halt the burning of fossil fuels that rapidly, and many people think we won’t, we’ll likely need widespread use of technologies that capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks and bury it in the ground, or find other ways of removing it from the atmosphere.”
InsideClimate still echoes some of the powerful glimmers of hope in the philanthropists’ op ed—from the U.S. states, cities, and businesses that have taken over the mantle of domestic climate leadership from a climate-denying White House administration, to stable greenhouse gas emissions between 2014 and 2016 (broken by an estimated 2% increase last year), to the “paradigm shift” that has brought the cost of wind, solar, and natural gas technologies down below coal [and, increasingly, brought wind and solar costs down below natural gas—Ed.].
On Grist, veteran climate hawk and meteorologist Eric Holthaus finds hope in the public response to the climate crisis in the U.S., where the politics of the issue have been the world’s most traumatic and the front-line climate impacts last year were among the worst. After he asked his Twitter followers to share one positive climate story from 2017, hundreds responded, and “one theme shone through: In the midst of adversity, we’ve found each other,” he writes. “This year inspired many to acknowledge their presence on a fragile planet—and the fact that we’re all in this together.”
“The climate successes of 2017 were intimate and utterly huge, innumerable and critically important,” Holthaus states. Beyond the institutional response that captured headlines through the year, “individuals and groups committed themselves to new and creative efforts to protect the planet: An Irish writer wrote. An academic studied. Teachers, armed with new science standards, taught. A New York woman got a new job. A boy became a vegetarian. A NASA scientist gathered data about the rapidly changing Arctic. Conservationists protected vulnerable lands. A Canadian salt farmer helped save a single endangered turtle. A family planned a move to a smaller, more energy-efficient home closer to work. A geographer’s father abandoned his climate denial.”
And along the way, polls showed record public concern about global warming, across the U.S. and around the world.
“Scientists now know more than they ever have about how human activity affects the climate, and one thing’s for certain,” Holthaus concludes. “At long last, people have begun the lengthy journey to turn their activity into a net positive.”