Climate change and its effects are accelerating. Extreme weather events have increased dramatically in the last decades while climate-related disasters went up by 83% in 2000–2019. In 2017, the world saw 68.5 million “climate migrants”. This is more people than at any point in human history. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that there will be 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.
Season after season the conditions of livability on the planet are worsening. For 6000 years humans have thrived within a narrow “climate niche”, which has allowed societies to develop. If we don’t cut emissions drastically, this climate niche will shrink irreversibly in the next half century and large swaths of the planet will become unliveable. The security of our food systems and water resources is already at risk. If climate change is an existential threat to the survival of the human species, then we need a “whatever it takes strategy” to tackle it.
The role of technology, innovation and research policies will be crucial. The Paris Agreement stipulates that accelerating, encouraging, and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long-term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development.
But technology alone will not suffice. Our best ally is nature. Nature-based solutions are effective, cost-efficient weapons in our fight against climate change. To survive and thrive, humankind needs to mend its broken relationship with the planet.
In the new eco-economy, industries and human systems operate within the planetary boundaries. This is not a challenge that we can overcome in isolation. No one state can do this alone. Climate action requires collaboration, cooperation, and technological convergence. Yet the climate change regime complex has been deeply fragmented.
To win the race, global emissions will have to fall by 7.6% per year until 2030; this is an impossible feat unless the economic system changes profoundly. To provide some semblance of the effort required, think that in 2020, emissions dropped by about 7% due to COVID-19.
There are signs of hope. 2020 was a watershed; the international context on climate has changed. There is the political will to act. In just a few months, results unthinkable for 30 years have been achieved.
The EU, China, Japan, Korea, and the UK have made unilateral commitments for climate neutrality. The US announced its “Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” plan and rejoined Paris. Those developments are breaking a thirty-year deadlock of climate negotiations.
The EU, UK and China have started to mainstream climate neutrality and sustainability principles in sectoral policies and international trade and investment agreements. Such progress can serve as a blueprint for reform of the World Trade Organization, accelerate the energy transition, and aid a more rapid transition to an economy that is aligned with the Paris Agreement, the United Nations SDGs and biodiversity goals. The novelty lies in the definition of minimal standards that help achieve economic convergence and create a “level playing field”.
However, this opportunity occurs amid the backdrop of the crisis of multilateralism, geopolitical and trade tension, protectionism and supply-chain decoupling, post-pandemic recovery, currency conflicts and social tension.
From a research and innovation perspective, we need to bridge the gap between the available solutions that we must deploy at scale now and the breakthrough technologies and disruptive innovations that will take us to the 2050 zero-emissions objectives. The missing links to the ecological economy must be identified.
The technology framework, which provides guidance to the work of the Technology Executive Committee (TEC) in connection with the Paris Agreement, “recognises that there is a pressing need to accelerate and strengthen technological innovation so that it can transfer environmentally and socially sound, cost- effective and better-performing climate technologies on a larger scale.” It also indicates that fostering innovation could be done also through new collaborative approaches to climate technology research, development and demonstration (RD&D).
The goal is to identify good practices and lessons learned, to facilitate their uptake and the sharing of information on international technology RD&D partnerships and initiatives. Technology transfer and knowledge exchanges are needed to facilitate the effective participation of developing countries in collaborative RD&D initiatives on climate technologies.
Today, the EU is leading the way at global scale. Our industries have the greatest economic opportunity of all times, as well as a significant competitive and technological advantage.
However, the EU needs to ease the burden of bureaucracy to accelerate the energy and ecological transition. Administrative and permitting procedures still hinder the deployment of renewables across Europe.
Innovating public procurement procedures is a necessary step towards the green and digital transition. In the EU, public procurement accounts for over 14% of the total GDP. Almost half of Cohesion policy funding is already channeled through public procurement; recovery and resilience funds will follow suit.
Climate leadership is science-based politics, as it is called to accelerate the energy and ecological transition by selecting, promoting, and facilitating the uptake of technologies able to sustain high-paced change across all industry sectors. Such leadership requires comprehensive knowledge of the impacts of policies, thorough understanding of technologies, sector specific challenges as well as the solutions available and in the making. This requires a mix of realism and vision, and a focus on industrial value that is based on the principles of the upcoming eco-economy.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides a damning verdict. Humanity lost every policy target since the conference of Sundsvall in Sweden 1990, where the then newly created International Governmental Panel on Climate Change released its First Assessment Report on Climate Change. “Panels warns of Disasters from Global Warming”, the headline declared. There is no time left for doubts and lies. Unless this generation makes a difference, change will be irreversible.
In the 1990’s, the international community aimed to reduce emissions by 20% by 2005. If this had happened, the rise in temperature would have been contained below one and a half degrees. And we might have avoided the spiral of events we are currently witnessing. But we failed.
As the U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry reminds us, saving the planet’s climate is a unique “moral responsibility”. Until now, we haven’t lived up to it.
*The text was written in preparation for the panel discussion “Innovative Technologies for Climate Action” organised within the Prague European Summit 2021.