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Why a COVID-style ‘breakout moment’ is urgently needed on climate

by Nik Gowing

Filed under Coronavirus / Climate Emergency

The pandemic has upended our world. The climate emergency threatens even worse – and sooner than most believe. Top global voices shared their cutting-edge thinking - and fears – during five days of virtual sessions at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda. TTU’s Founder and Co-Director Nik Gowing analyses the new urgency revealed : how to act on climate as fast as we had to adapt and act on COVID-19 in barely 12 months.

This is an important moment.

A year on from the start of the pandemic we are all struggling in some way or another. Huge impact. Huge change. Huge existential threats.

In so many ways little is getting better, except for the first time the potential for global economic revival, according to the IMF and world bank, and the amazing progress on vaccine development in months not years, as would normally be the case.

And nothing of what was coming was even being talked about by leaders at Davos 2020. It was an unthinkable to top leaders, even though the signals of what was coming were emerging from China, and the Global Risk Report had highlighted vividly the inevitability of a pandemic.

Unthinkable? No unpalatable. Unimaginable, just as our work and project have warned about.

Quite apart from the human horror of deaths and the global economic implosion for almost all of us, there is one huge success. Look at the systemic changes that have been forced upon us in just 10 months. Ten years change in just 10 months.

Remarkable. Yes in a global crisis of survival, brilliant minds - leaders - can rally not just to survive but also to thrive. Just as TTU has always said leaders must step up to do in a huge crisis.

Mark Benioff, Chair and CEO of the phenomenally successful global corporate Salesforce even went so far as to say corporate leaders should be regarded as “heroes”. They did not just save their companies. In Benioff’s words they pivoted rapidly - not for profit but essentially to save the world. This was about mobilising staff, communities, stakeholders. Not just about preserving profit.

Mark Benioff called it a “breakout moment”. He was one of several big voices saying the same.

Why am I bringing this to your attention?

It is because the same is suddenly happening on the climate emergency. This is the next “breakout moment”.

I have to summarise brutally here. In session after session there was urging on Green, Green, Green. And the urging was because of the acute urgency being realised.

Commitment to Net-Zero carbon emissions by 2050 is too generous. There is finally a realisation that huge – yes huge - changes in the way we live and work must be achieved and enacted in just a handful of years, say by 2025 or 2027, not at the leisurely pace implied by talking of 30 years to 2050 or 2060.

It does not matter which projection you quote. The carbon limit needed to keep to a one degree temperature rise will be blown apart in five to six years. Yes. That is all – five to six years. What we burn after that will just keep increasing the temperature rise irreversibly, say the leading scientific projections.

We did not have time to conquer COVID-19. The vaccination development teams had to work at speeds they have never experienced. This time last year they would never have imagined this was expected and achievable. Now the unthinkable has shown it to be possible.

It is the same for the Climate Emergency. Notice I reinforce “emergency”. Not just change.

It is an emergency on a scale even more threatening, existential and challenging for all we as humans take for granted than COVID-19 has been in the past year. Yes! Even more threatening.

So that is what is significant to bring to your attention.

The Davos Agenda heard of “Mission Possible”: of the hundreds of corporates signing up to a raft of new initiatives; of the pressures from investors, pension funds, the next generation and stakeholders on companies. If you are not moving to green and changing your model of how you do business, we won’t invest in you or work for you.

In my postings from the past two Davos meetings in 2019 and 2020 I signalled that in some corporate minds the mountain was moving. But not decisively.

It is all changing, and fast. Believe me. The scale and urgency are now recognised.

There was a blunt warning from the British chairmanship of the COP26 process that will culminate in November this year in Glasgow. There is no messing around or ambiguity in the ambition.

Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, Chief Adviser to COP26 plus the UN on sustainability says there are no ifs and no buts.

“It will be a Net-Zero COP. That is the objective. If you have not committed to Net-Zero by Glasgow, you will not commit to Net-Zero” was his blunt message. He then added: “If you are not in you are out because you chose not to be IN.”

He added that global Net-Zero is now “cascading down through the private sector”.

There is just 10 months to commit to Net-Zero. Not just sign up but to commit to changing the way you operate, do business and make money.

This hugely important message was reinforced bluntly by Nigel Topping, the British High Level Climate Action Champion: “ Not next year or 2025 or 2030. This year.”

Alok Sharma, the UK’s super energetic minister for COP26 doubled down on that. This is a “new chapter of mobilisation at scale”… “We must get every sector to a tipping point. Achievement must then become the norm.”

Al Gore, the former US Vice President has been treading this path of warning after warning with huge frustration – remember his movies, especially An Inconvenient Truth, 15 years ago. I heard him say for the Davos Agenda that there is “definitely a new alignment”. An “unprecedented global transition” and “an impressive movement in public and private sectors towards solutions”. Gore is excited and encouraged by the new progress.

And this was mirrored time after time. Not green washing. Companies in business to make money realise there are new ways to do it – from Green!

That was brought together by Larry Fink, Chair and CEO of the world’s largest investor BlackRock. It has nearly $9 trillion of investments. It now votes against companies and directors for climate-related reasons. It has 191 companies on watch.

He published his annual letter to CEOs during the Davos Agenda. In it he warns companies they must “disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a Net-Zero economy”. He writes that “no issue ranks higher than climate change on our clients’ lists of priorities. They ask us about it nearly every day”.

As we wrote in our posting about Larry’s remarks he was telling business “The ground is shaking. Wake up. Get real on climate, or expect your company to whither”.

There will be many sceptics out there. There will be tens of million of smaller and medium sized companies who will say: I have a host of other problems due to the pandemic. I can’t cope with this yet.

We think you need to and you can. That is what we at Thinking the Unthinkable encourage: a change of perception and mindset.

It is a new road to new business based on Green. Just open your eyes and your minds. The new opportunity it there. It is urgent.

You can no longer say ‘no’ to Net-Zero. That is our clear message.

The express train for urgent action to save the planet has now left the station, and is fast picking up speed. Probably far faster than most of you realise or are even prepared to realise.

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