The momentum to cut emissions and decarbonize the way we live has significantly picked up speed since the Paris Agreement, which sounded the alarm about limiting global warming to no more than 1.5ºC.
Governments around the world have started to act, introducing net-zero and decarbonization targets, incentives for renewable energy, as well as for cleaner transport and cooling/heating.
Companies and investors have embraced the net-zero agenda as well, while consumers expect the businesses they buy from to take sustainability issues into account.
A grassroots protest movement driven by younger generations is becoming increasingly strident as the need for urgent action becomes more obvious. While protests have caused controversy, they have also raised awareness around the world.
But is this all enough in the face of the challenge that we face? And do we need to think about climate action differently in order to really achieve the lasting and transformative change we need to see?
“One of our biggest assumptions is that the climate emergency is an issue. It’s not, it’s an era,” says US-based climate futurist Alex Steffen, author of Carbon Zero: Imagining cities that can save the planet and The Snap Forward, and editor of Worldchanging, A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.
“Climate is redefining every aspect of society, already – and we’re only at the beginning. The extent to which this surprises us is a measurement of how little we yet grasp what’s happening.”
Understanding the climate change challenge
So despite the strides in the right direction, Steffen argues that we have yet to fully grasp the scale of the problem – not just of climate change itself but the challenges related to tackling it. And that until we do, the solutions only tackle the tip of the iceberg.
Steffen urges the importance of looking at the problem with fresh eyes, acknowledging the risks that are building for example through the “brittleness bubble” - where climate change dramatically degrades systems and assets that hitherto appeared solid and unassailable.
The Institute for the Future (IFTF) echoes the need to refocus, pointing out that a host of barriers are slowing progress, from tax and planning structures to the cost of abandoning embedded assets, processes and systems that rely on fossil fuels.
It is clear that understanding the problem in full is essential - and that a holistic, multifaceted approach is needed to find solutions that will have the greatest impact.
Multi-solving approach to the climate change challenge
So against this background of complex interactions, what does the future of climate action need to look like? The answer lies in adopting “multi-solve” measures that address several issues at the same time, so that long-term climate-focused initiatives pay immediate social or economic dividends. These exist on several levels and make it easier to “sell” climate action to the public and politicians; human nature tends to want to see quick wins to motivate change.
- Electric vehicles not only cut carbon emissions but also improve air quality and therefore the health of the environment and local people. Meanwhile, sustainably-produced renewable fuels are a valuable drop-in solution that can be used to immediately cut emissions in existing combustion engine vehicles, while also reducing traffic-related local emissions and improving local air quality.
- Energy efficiency measures don’t just cut emissions, they also reduce energy bills permanently. And, because efficiency measures are often labor-intensive and take place at a local level, they create jobs that cannot be exported elsewhere.
- Farming practices that reduce carbon emissions or store carbon - such as planting cover crops, rotating crops and no-tilling regimes - can also improve soil health, reduce water loss, and increase yields. Meanwhile, new food technologies – from insect farming to vertical agriculture and lab-produced meat – can open up enormous economic benefits for developing regions.
- Agri-voltaics, where solar panels are placed on farmland, not only generates zero-carbon energy but also generates an extra income stream for farmers and creates shade for crops to grow or animals to graze and can even increase yields.
Incentivizing people to take action is key; even though consumers are increasingly engaged with climate action, they can be prone to fatigue that leads to a return to inaction and old habits.
“I’m reminded of the John Lennon quote that we need to ‘sell’ peace like we sell soap or soft drinks,” says Richard Cope, senior trends consultant at Mintel Consulting.
“France’s scheme to allow people on low incomes to lease electric vehicles for €100 a month is a good example of the kind of thing we need.”
Another is Italy’s scheme that pays 110% of the cost of energy efficiency measures such as insulation or heat pumps.
“We need to focus on the co-benefits of climate action – the money that you can save, the health benefits, or even just appeal to people’s egos – to get people to change their behavior.”
Importance of people power and selling sustainability
From grassroots to governments, from large corporations to start-ups - everyone has a different and essential role to play in the fight against climate change. Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy and conscious about the choices they make - but real change needs structures that include environmentally sound options in the first place. It is a virtuous cycle where the actions and drive for change in one sector exponentially encourages - and demands - the same in another.
Within this framework, citizens and consumers hold great power with everyday choices that they make - around 60% of the emissions reductions we need to make by 2050 are related to what people choose to do or buy, Cope says.
That ties in with the approach of sustainability consultancy Futerra, whose CEO Lucy Shea calls for creativity from companies and others to drive significant emissions reductions; they hold the power to galvanize people into action.
Shea argues that “understanding behavioral change today is more important than at any other moment in history. Because how we live, work, eat and travel influences the health of the planet.”
“It’s scary to know that we are materially changing the Earth – but it’s also empowering. If our behavior can harm the planet, then our behavior can also help it, ” Shea says.
One way to encourage people to do this, she says, is to “find the fun”. “People will always make more time for pleasure and leisure than they will for chores. Can your brand make sustainable behaviors feel fun? Can you create some glamor, inject some humor, play with some silliness?” she asks.
The worst thing you can do is to “start off with the doom”, says Cope. “Negative data puts people off. Sustainability is just like everything else – you need to sell it.”
However, companies cannot rely on their reputation for doing the right thing. They have to back up their claims, he adds. “People want to understand the impact at the individual product level.”
A growing number of climate change laws – over 90% were passed in the last 20 years, and more than half in the last decade - are bringing certainty, clarity and stability to the necessary transitions in the markets.
There is indeed a recognition that markets will not bring about the transition on their own, and so policy must steer them in that direction, according to the economist Mariana Mazzucato. “This will require an entrepreneurial state that innovates, takes risks, and invests alongside the private sector,” she says.
The business of climate action
Furthermore, corporations are embracing climate action because it makes good business sense. “Smart companies are embracing sustainability to save money and resources over the long term,” Cope points out.
While sustainability is the sensible choice to ensure the health and longevity of your company – in other words, it’s just good business – a growing number of businesses are pursuing purpose in the form of social and environmental benefits as well as profits.
One example of where purpose and profits will co-exist is in the form of carbon “insetting,” set to replace over the next decade the better known carbon offsetting. “Insetting” shifts the focus to investing in your own supply chain to make suppliers less carbon-intensive and more resilient.
Moreover, an increased emphasis on circular economy solutions is set to be the next big transformation, with businesses moving from the “take, make, waste” practices of the linear economy to approaches based more on reducing material use, reusing products and commodities and recycling what cannot be reused.
Products such as Gerrard Street headphones and Fairphone are showing the way in making products more modular, while companies such as Neste are refining waste, residues, and innovative raw materials into renewable fuels and sustainable feedstock for plastics and other materials.
The keys to successful climate action
We have taken great strides on the journey to tackle climate change, but there is no doubt that there is still a long way to go. It is important to be mindful of seeing the issues we face through a narrow lens and in silos – to take a few steps back to see the full picture.
To succeed, we need to adopt solutions that address several problems at the same time, ensure that the transition is just for all and embrace a transformation to a circular economy – all while relentlessly making the message relevant and front of mind for all of humankind.