Climate action: Six reasons for optimism in 2016

seedlings optimismWith the passing of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change last month, things are looking up for the planet, with Rebecca Leber of the New Republic saying “the world is a little less doomed”.

Attention now turns to how the countries and cities that have committed to taking action on climate change can turn those pledges into reality. There may be challenging times ahead for global citizens, but here are six reasons to feel hopeful:

  1. Electric car sales have soared

Electric cars will have to make up 60% of new car sales in the UK by 2030 to meet the UK’s carbon budgets. Things are moving in the right(ish) direction, but we will need to progress faster. Last year, plug-in electric car sales reached the 1 million mark. With major cities like Delhi and London affected by severe pollution and smog, electric cars could be a chance to tackle two problems in one, helping us to reach climate targets whilst cleaning up our cities’ air.

  1. Solar power is getting cheaper

The price of solar photovoltaic panels has fallen by more than 80% since 2008. The pace of change has been compared to that in the digital technology sector. In fact some sources have reported that solar energy is set to become the cheapest source of electricity in many parts of the world within the next 10 years.

  1. Green bonds are taking off

Green bonds enable investment in projects that have positive environmental benefits. According to the Climate Bonds Initiative, the green bond market took off in 2014, with $36.6 billion issued; triple the amount issued in 2013. While there is the possibility that companies have also been ‘greenwashing’ their existing bonds, financing needs to grow hugely in coming years to meet the world’s climate targets, and green bonds can be a big part of the solution.

  1. Climate laws are increasing their reach

Over 800 climate change laws have now been passed in 98 countries, covering 93% of the world’s emissions. The GLOBE study has found this has risen from only 54 laws and policies in 1997. Many countries now have specific targets covering renewable energy or transport. In fact, over 75 per cent of global emissions are covered by economy-wide emission reduction targets. Much of this would not have been possible without the international negotiations on climate change.

  1. The US and China have joined forces

Last autumn saw a historic agreement between the US and China on climate change, with the Presidents of the two largest economies coming together to make joint pledges. Last year, the United States also finalised the Clean Power Plan, which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector in 2030 to 32% lower than 2005 levels. China has pledged to peak its emissions by around 2030, but will strive to peak earlier. These two nations are the world’s two biggest polluters, accounting for over a third of global emissions. But a new major emitter has arrived on the scene – India – who will have to join these countries’ ambitions to put the world on a safe pathway.

  1. Countries and cities are going ‘zero carbon’

According to the Track0 initiative, around 36 cities are known to have decarbonisation targets that range from achieving net zero greenhouse gases to generating 100% renewable energy. Having these type of plans gives businesses the certainty they need to make investments.

Evening in Sonderborg, Southern Denmark. Toned image
The Danish town of Sønderborg has committed to going zero carbon by 2029

Meanwhile, countries like Costa Rica are leading the way in showing the world what is possible. Costa Rica achieved 99 percent renewable energy generation last year, most coming from hydropower, combined with geothermal energy, wind, biomass and solar power.


Despite these positive signals, we should notice that the current pledges under the UN climate convention are not enough to prevent dangerous levels of climate change (see this recent blog on the emissions gap). Recent calculations by scientists at the United Nations Environment Programme found that emissions at the level of the pledges would still increase average world temperature by 2.7 degrees Celsius. That is enough to wipe out the world’s coral reefs, which are home to almost a quarter of the species in the ocean, and threaten food crops in large areas (see our AVOID 2 infographic for examples of some key climate impacts ).

The case for social and economic momentum behind climate action is compelling, as we can see from the six reasons above. But under the UN negotiations, it has taken almost 25 years to make any real progress (the Rio process began in 1990). We can only hope that the societal progress outside the UN process continues to move faster than the painstaking political progress inside the negotiations. Otherwise, we are still doomed.

The author is an Imperial College alumni who attended the Paris climate conference.



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