Last November, the world watched as world leaders, diplomats, thinkers, scientists and business leaders gathered in Glasgow. The aim? To reaffirm a global solution to the climate crisis.
Eight months later, The New York Times Climate Forward conference in London brought together three days of science, culture, storytelling, politics and debate. Climate leaders answered critical questions and different sectors and industries and delved deep into the facts informing decision-makers as the world collectively gears up for COP27.
Here are our five key takeaways from the event.
1. Cities can be the problem or the solution.
Cities are a huge source of emissions globally. They consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions, while they take up just 2% of the world’s surface.
However, they’re also experiencing some of the most extreme effects of climate change (just look at London this week, for example, where temperatures broke records and topped 40 degrees celsius).
Somini Sengupta, International Climate Reporter for the NYT, observed the critical role that cities must begin playing when it comes to tackling emissions: “Cities can be the doers as you say, but they’re also a huge source of emissions, so they have little choice but to step up.”
Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London and Chair of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, was optimistic about the capacity that cities have to turn the tide: “It’s the cities who are the doers, whether it’s New York, Los Angeles, Freetown, Dhaka, London. We can be part of the solution. We’re willing to step up.”
Khan’s ultra low emissions zone in London reduced toxic particulates by 50% in two years – it’s clear that taking action has tangible results. Other solutions to reducing city emissions include expanding low emissions zones for vehicles, introducing more charging stations for electric vehicles, increasing pedestrianised areas, increasing the number of cycle lanes and improving public transport infrastructure.
2. Mitigation is more important than adaptation
Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is not a goal, it’s a limit. And it’s a limit that we’re dangerously close to pushing, according to Johan Rockstrom.
“It’s a planetary boundary. We also have a lot of scientific evidence to show that even 1.5 degrees is dangerous. So yes, we need to make huge investments in the adaptation side, but the mitigation efforts are still the most important in order to reduce the chance of exceeding that boundary in the first place.”
Huge carbon sinks like forests, soils, wetlands, grasslands and the ocean will also represent important battle grounds in the fight to limit warming to 1.5 degrees – more important, according to Rockström, than the energy transition: “the energy transition alone – cutting out the use of fossil fuels – will not ensure our success in this fight.”
3. Climate change is an issue of racial and social justice
There’s an increasing understanding that the people who contribute the least to global emissions are also facing the worst consequences of the crisis. On a large scale, this means the global south is facing more life-threatening extreme weather events, despite the global north bearing more responsibility for climate change.
On a smaller scale, it also means people living in deprived communities facing higher rates of air pollution. Sadiq Khan emphasised the importance of recognising climate change not as a distant concept happening in the future, but as something that is impacting people right now: “People in the global north assume climate change is very distant, but there are more than 4000 premature deaths a year in London alone all caused by air pollution.”
“On a global and city scale, those least responsible for climate change are paying the highest price,” he continued. “So for me, the issue of climate justice is an issue of racial justice and an issue of social justice.”
4. We need to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources
The war in Ukraine has had a global impact on everything from supply chains to the global economy, and climate change is no exception. But for many, the crisis in Europe is being used as an excuse to restart drilling and mining efforts to extract fossil fuels, in an attempt to alleviate pressure on energy supply chains. But far from returning to old habits, leading scientists are insistent that we instead ramp up efforts to switch to renewables in order to create a green and politically more stable supply of energy for the future.
“The war in Ukraine is actually a reason to accelerate the transition to renewables. The subsidies given to the oil and gas industry are enormous compared with the lack of subsidies given to the wind and solar sector. Renewable energy is also secure energy. You’re not reliant on gas and oil from other parts of the globe,” Johan Rockstrom points out.
The path to a greener future, and to sticking to the promises made at COP26, won’t be created by returning to fossil fuels – instead, we need to press forward and accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources.
5. We’re in the deciding decade
Leading scientists made it clear that the 2020s are a deciding decade in the fight against climate change. With the 2030 goal of 50% reduction in global emissions looming, it’s more crucial than ever that global leaders take action.
Johan Rockstrom, Director of Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, emphasised the critical stage that the next eight years represents: “We need to cut global emissions by 7% each year in order to cut emissions by 50% by the time we reach 2030. We’re unfortunately not following that path – emissions are still rising.”
He also pointed to the importance of tipping points – important indicators of “irreversible change to our planet: the Greenland ice sheet, the west Antarctic ice shelf, the Amazon rainforest. The window to secure the Paris Agreement is rapidly shutting.”
The remainder of this decade will be a deciding one for the future of humanity – and it’s only with decisive and collaborative action that we will turn the tide against global warming.