The race for global climate leadership gathers pace

top picture


20 November, 2020


Insights from the CEO



Peter Bakker

But only together can we win

As the end of the year draws closer, we are about to mark the five-year anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement at COP21 in December 2015. This is a strong reminder that, in addition to the pandemic that is still raging in many parts of the world, we are increasingly confronted with the necessity of radical, collective action to halve global GHG emissions in the next decade – and again each decade up to 2050 – to keep the world at a 1.5°C safe operating space. This demands that governments, businesses and civil society work together like never before to transform all systems. At the same time, COVID-19 has exposed the severity of the risks to our systems – and has bolstered the case for a transformation of such systems to a model where a green and sustainable recovery creates positive value for people and the planet.

This is the harsh reality that we need to deal with, yet there are some reasons for optimism. Indeed, we have seen a growing trend of countries stepping up their climate ambition and making public announcements, thus adding momentum to the global climate leadership “race”.

Particularly, we have seen strong leadership from Asia, starting with China’s climate commitment during the last United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September that marked a historic precedent, followed by the recent carbon neutral pledges of Japan and South Korea. Both countries are now a step closer to aligning themselves with the Paris Agreement, with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in publicly committing to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Earlier in July, the South Korean government revealed its Green New Deal initiative, which will focus on building eco-friendly infrastructures, decentralizing energy and promoting green industries. And just this week, Japanese lawmakers symbolically declared a climate emergency, following fellow G7 countries Canada, France and the UK, as well as the European Union.

We have also seen the European Union (EU) take important steps to increase its climate target significantly, with expectations growing that the bloc will agree a new reduction target of at least 55% by 2030. The EU’s stimulus package of EUR €1.8 trillion puts climate action, resilience, just transition and biodiversity protection at the forefront of the agreement.

And more recently, the news that the second biggest global GHG emitter, the United States (US), has elected a President committed to climate action is extremely encouraging. With President-elect Joe Biden at the helm, many are looking to the US to undertake a major shift on climate action to set in place the proposed most progressive climate policy the country has ever had and re-join the Paris Agreement. If it announces plans to become carbon neutral, like neighboring Canada did this week, the US can rebuild the much-needed leadership to tackle the climate emergency and join the other G7 countries who have already announced their carbon-neutrality ambitions.

Additionally, the United Kingdom (UK) has committed to strengthen climate-smart decision-making and make transparency on climate risk the norm within the next five years. The first major economy to mandate disclosure in line with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD), the UK is accelerating the transition to a low-carbon, resilient economy. Recent years have seen increasing investor demand for financial data on climate-related risk, but there hasn’t been an adequate and uniform way for business to disclose and discuss it. The TCFD recommendations are an extraordinary effort to bridge the gap.

However, we must remember that while good will and public announcements go a long way, we aren’t there yet; only through international, collaborative and cross-institutional efforts can we successfully tackle the global climate emergency.

All countries around the world, not just some of them, are expected to update their pledged nationally determined contributions (NDCs) before the next COP in 2021, setting clear plans for how they will meet objectives that contribute to achieving the targets of the Paris Agreement.

The responsibility for radical action is also on business: all companies need to progress their climate action significantly to stay on track to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.

Luckily, we see that not only governments are upping their climate action. A rising number of businesses have committed to increasing climate action, including pledges to become carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner, and keeping the pressure on  governments to also make strong, science-based decarbonization plans.

As the leading business and sustainability organization for 25 years, WBCSD supports companies to deliver on their responsibilities. Recently, our 200+ global leading business members have backed a set of new membership criteria, thus setting a new benchmark for sustainable leadership through ambition and action – this benchmark includes the necessity to “Set an ambition to reach net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, no later than 2050 and have a science-informed plan to achieve it” and to “Operate at the highest level of transparency by disclosing material sustainability information in line with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and align Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) with environmental, social and governance-related (ESG) risks.”

Through our projects and programs designed to help companies address the three biggest societal challenges – climate emergency, nature loss and inequality – WBCSD and our members are demonstrating to be serious about getting sustainability done and are committing to the ambition and action we need to achieve the Paris Agreement goals and other critical sustainability challenges as identified by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As stated, to successfully reach a sustainable, net-zero economy we need massive, continued government and business action. Between now and COP26 in Glasgow next year, global leaders must step up with bolder policies and plans to set the course for our transformation to net-zero – calling for G20 leadership on a fair and just recovery. And they must work with businesses who have the critical role of supporting them with bold solutions and economic proof points to bring confidence that the transition is underway and to lead on innovations and the implementation of those. 

As part of a united group of business and labor organizations, we welcome efforts from many governments to address both the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic. However, as we move from emergency response to long-term economic recovery, we must ensure a commitment to multilateralism through globally-coordinated efforts that squarely address the fragilities and put us on a path to sustainable and inclusive growth.

The race for climate leadership has clearly gathered pace and will continue, for both governments and businesses. But it is only together that we can win.