The state of climate action: A systems transformation is needed

Anna Triponel

October 25, 2021
Our key takeaway: To deliver a zero-carbon world in time, we need to rapidly transform the systems that propel our economy (power generation, buildings, industry, transport, land use and agriculture), and we need to scale up technological carbon removal and climate finance. These transitions can be translated into 40 targets for 2030 and 2050, with measurable indicators. We know where we need to go, but we are not on track for any of these indicators, with some even heading in the wrong direction.

World Resources Institute, The High-Level Climate Champions, Climate Action Tracker, ClimateWorks Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund published ‘The State of Climate Action 2021: Systems Transformations Required to Limit Global Warming to 1.5°C’ which identifies progress made towards targets and associated indicators for power, buildings, industry, transport, technological carbon removal, land and coastal zone management, agriculture, and finance that the literature suggests are the best available to monitor sectoral decarbonization pathways:

  • Exponential change for the adoption of innovative technologies is possible – but will need sustained efforts from decision-makers: the report highlights that “[p]ast transitions, particularly those driven by the advent and widespread adoption of new technologies (e.g., the automobile, radio, and the smartphone), have often followed an S-curve trajectory of growth: rates of change are initially quite low as entrepreneurs develop new technologies, then accelerate as these innovations begin to diffuse across society.” Nine of the indicators “directly track the adoption of innovative technologies” (e.g. solar and wind power), and, therefore, “have a good chance of following S-curve dynamics” – provided that “decision-makers across the private and public sectors provide the right support (e.g. “investments in research and development, a regulatory environment that supports adoption, and strong institutions to enforce these policies”). While solar and wind, electric vehicles (EVs) in light-duty vehicles sales and electric buses are higher up on the S-curve, the remaining low-carbon technologies are still only just emerging: green hydrogen, medium- and heavy-duty EVs and EVs in light-duty vehicle fleet, sustainable aviation fuel, zero-emissions shipping fuel and carbon removal technologies.
  • Exponential change unlikely for a range of other indicators, and we are lacking data to categorize global progress: the report underscores that other indicators (e.g. related to deforestation, coastal wetlands restoration, or cropland productivity) “are not as closely related to technology adoption and are unlikely to experience rapid, nonlinear change.” For these, the report compares the current rate of change (over the past five years) to the linear rate of change required to reach 2030 targets. This in turn feeds into acceleration factors which show how much the historical linear pace of change must accelerate to achieve the 2030 target. A few examples: to get on track for the emission cuts and carbon removal required by 2030, the world needs to phase out unabated coal in electricity generation 5 times faster, accelerate the increase in annual gross tree cover gain 3 times faster, increase the share of low-emission fuels 12 times faster, and restore coastal wetlands nearly 3 times faster. Data is lacking for a quarter of the indicators, in particular in the buildings, land, and agriculture sectors, which underscores the need for “accessible, comprehensive, and high-quality data.”
  • “To reach a net-zero future, we must ignite fundamental change across nearly all systems [which] will depend on the massive scale-up of finance, technology, and capacity building”: When it comes to power (a third of global GHG emissions), although a number of countries are reducing the carbon intensity of electricity generation, we are a long way off: current levels of 525 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour needs to fall to 50–125 gCO2/kWh by 2030 and to below zero by 2050. The share of renewables in electricity generation needs to reach 55–90 percent by 2030 and 98–100 percent by 2050: we are currently only at 29 percent. The share of unabated coal in electricity generation must fall drastically: from 38 percent to 0–2.5 percent by 2030. When it comes to agriculture (12 percent of global GHG emissions – or a quarter when considering those from associated land-use change), there is a need to peak and reduce agriculture’s global land footprint which “entails sustainably intensifying agricultural production through boosting both crop and livestock productivity, as well as changing food consumption patterns, including reducing food loss and waste and shifting diets high in ruminant meat toward plant-based foods.” There is also a need to peak and reduce agricultural production emissions (e.g. those from livestock, fertilizers, rice production, and energy use); to double the recent rate of yield growth (crop yields per hectare); halve the world’s rate of food loss and waste by 2030; and reduce ruminant meat (e.g. beef, goat, and sheep meat) consumption to the equivalent of 1.5 burgers per person per week (from 2.3 burger-equivalents per person per week in high-consuming countries). The report highlights the kinds of conditions that will enable a systems-wide change, ranging from supportive policies, innovations, strong institutions and leadership, to shifts in social norms.

For more, see World Resources Institute, UN High-Level Climate Champions, Climate Action Tracker, ClimateWorks Foundation and Bezos Earth Fund, State of Climate Action 2021: Systems Transformations Required to Limit Global Warming to 1.5°C (October 2021)

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