Eliot Whittington is the Director of the European Corporate Leaders Group
This year has put all of us to the test. Governments, business, economies, communities, and health services have been stretched by the demands of a global pandemic.
And the deeper crises of climate change and biodiversity loss haven’t missed a beat, with impacts being felt and seen more tangibly – from longer and more devastating wildfire seasons and more frequent flooding, to the fact 2020 will be one of the warmest years on record.
While politicians grappled (and continue to do so), with the response to COVID-19, voices from business and NGOs, from policymakers and institutions began to be raised in warning against losing sight of the longer term threat from uncontrolled climate change, and against missing the opportunity we have to move forward.
But the year has delivered a series of positive signals that are more substantial than most of us could have hoped for.
Last year the Commission announced the European Green Deal, and the pandemic could have put that ambition into question, but instead it has been put at the centre of EU policymaking in a packed and active year.
We’ve seen new ideas and proposals come forward to deliver an economic recovery that has the green deal at its heart, a renovation wave to modernise European buildings, a new biodiversity strategy to protect nature, and a climate law embedding climate neutrality in EU legislation.
This month has seen the culmination of some of these efforts as the European Council has agreed a huge new funding boost with a green recovery at its core, and negotiating a milestone 2030 climate goal of at least 55% cut in emissions on 1990 levels.
There are significant aspects that need to be addressed and built on in each of these but the progress is undeniably significant.
Businesses that we work with understand that the brightest economic future is linked to a green transition and are standing behind the ambition of the Green Deal and supporting the higher ambition by 2030, for example through a CEO letter that has now been signed by 200 businesses and investors.
All this has landed in time for the global Climate Ambition Summit which sought to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement and bring world leaders together in the absence of the scheduled UNFCCC COP event.
The summit welcomed 75 world leaders who announced 45 new NDCs, 24 net zero commitments and 20 adaptation and resilience plans, as well as the UK’s announcement to end funding of fossil fuel development overseas.
Indeed, as co-hosts for the summit, and President for the COP26 event scheduled next year, the UK worked hard to lead by example and set high expectations for the Glasgow summit, setting out an ambitious Ten Point Plan of actions and an impressive 68% 2030 target.
But the EU and UK were not the only ones to step up their ambition. China’s announcement of an increase in all four of its NDC headline targets gets deserved criticism for the lack of mention of coal and the lack of immediate progress on decarbonisation – but the very fact the announcement was made at a challenging geopolitical time for China’s relationship in the world is a viable spark in itself.
It’s likely the pandemic has made more governments and businesses look closely at the economics of the transition to net zero and research shows that investment in decarbonisation is good for the economy, society and the climate.
What’s more the cost of getting to net zero is falling dramatically as analysis from sources like the UK’s Climate Change Committee, the Energy Transitions Commission and the International Energy Agency show. Climate action is good value for money and getting better.
Added to the positive signals coming from the incoming Biden administration in the US, what we have seen through this challenging year does add up to hope and a sense that the Paris Agreement is working.
We shouldn’t over claim this – the challenge of achieving climate neutrality is significant and as time passes the process of restraining climate change becomes like walking on gradually submerging stepping-stones, where the diminishing surface areas give us less margin for error and less space to pivot.
So it is vital that we don’t pause or hesitate and lose the momentum we’ve built up as we enter 2021. The signals are good, but ambitious goals and targets have to be delivered, and next year we need to show that stronger targets and better vision will translate in better and faster implementation in growing the new, clean economy, and in delivering deep and rapid cuts to emissions and active protection of the environment.
One early indicator should be the submission of EU member states’ recovery and resilience packages, where the detail will show how seriously countries are taking their climate responsibilities.
Other key actions will include the new proposals on sustainable finance and on the deployment of the EU’s taxonomy, which will shape the future investments in European economies. There will also be very important discussions due on the EU’s industrial policy, and on sustainable product standards.
However the big focus will inevitably be on Europe’s new “Fit for 55” package, due around the middle of the year.
This set of implementing policies for the EU’s 2030 target will look to strengthen carbon pricing, raise ambition for renewable energy deployment and energy efficiency, consider how to spread efforts across Europe and drive the transition in cars towards electric vehicles faster and more. This package of actions will be essential in cementing the Green Deal as the EU’s long-term growth strategy.
The technologies, standards and policies required to achieve the higher 2030 targets can provide the EU with a competitive advantage in a global race to the future. The leadership shown by the EU in 2020 on ambition has helped support and drive global action. The leadership it shows on delivery in 2021 will be key to what comes next both at home and globally – and to the success of the critical COP26.