When a ‘Race to Zero’ is a race to the top

Dr Alison Doig discusses why the launch of the 'Race to Zero' is a big deal

By Kathy Grenville

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As we mark World Environment Day and count down the 17 months to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, we have an opportunity to reflect on the other global emergency which continues to rage alongside the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the global lockdown has produced a dip in global carbon emissions, it is likely to be a very temporary dip unless governments and businesses rebuild out of the coronavirus crisis with reducing emissions as a focus.

Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Muñoz
‘Race to Zero’ is led by Nigel Topping (left) and Gonzalo Muñoz (right), the UN High Level Climate Champions for the UK and Chile.
So today’s launch of the ‘Race to Zero’ led by Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Muñoz, the UN High Level Climate Champions for the UK and Chile, is a big deal. It is a challenge to countries, states, cities, businesses, investors and all ‘real economy’ actors to commit to the same overarching goal: achieving net zero emissions by 2050 at the very latest, which science shows is the minimum needed to limit warming to 1.5oC.

Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Muñoz are firing the start gun on a race to the top on climate action, to get as fast as possible to net zero carbon emissions. They aim to accelerate the groundswell of climate ambition we are already seeing across the real economy as we invest in the recovery from the pandemic.

Leading from the front

The Paris Climate Agreement set the global goal of keeping the global temperature rise ‘well below’ 2oC, and doing everything possible to cap it at the far safer level of 1.5oC. But commitments to set action on track to these targets have been very slow in coming, with country pledges leading to over 3oC of warming this century. Race to Zero aims to create front runners and leaders towards a new net zero economy that is needed to stay climate safe.

And for many entrants in the race, it’s entirely the logical thing to do for other reasons too – for businesses wanting to safeguard their supply chains against climate impact shocks, for states keen to get ahead in building the technology of the near future, for governments anxious to show voters that they’re responding to the growing public concern about climate change.

Race to Zero won’t re-invent the wheel – the model is to work with and through collaborations that already exist. So far, 120 countries are part of the Climate Ambition Alliance, with some countries including the UK, New Zealand, Bhutan, and France having net zero targets already in law. There are similar alliances for cities, businesses and universities.

ECIU Net Zero Tracker
ECIU's Net Zero Tracker monitors the long term 2050 targets and commitments and will also start to monitor the plans of action needed to travel down the global emissions curve.

ECIU’s Net Zero Tracker shows that the group of ambitious countries, along with states in (for example) the US and Australia, and cities in places such as China and Brazil, represents over 2.6 billion people, 23% of current CO2 emissions and 53% of global GDP.

Already over 1000 companies - including retailers, manufacturers, and hospitality - plus 35 big investors and 105 universities have joined the campaign, pledging to align their businesses to a 1.5oC climate pathway. The International Chambers of Commerce will work with millions of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to support them to take action towards becoming net zero.

Getting on with it

This is not however about pushing emissions reductions to some date in the future; it is about setting a direct course and acting right now.

No entity can reach net zero in 2050 without starting now, and so it is essential that in order to qualify for entry to the Race to Zero, participants should have to present delivery plans, including setting interim targets for the next decade, by the time COP26 opens in Glasgow next year.

Relay runner
The Race to Zero aims to create momentum in the transition to building a net zero carbon emissions economy. Image: Relay runner by Braden Collum, UnSplash.

The Race to Zero is designed to create momentum for many more actors to join in, and for those involved to sharpen up their plans.

For the Paris Agreement to flourish, more countries will need to come on board, presenting revised NDCs (carbon-cutting pledges to 2030) and long-term strategies to the UNFCCC ahead of COP26. There needs to be financial and technological support available for low-income and vulnerable countries to join the race and become part of the global zero carbon future.

In addition to monitoring the long term 2050 targets and commitments, ECIU’s net zero tracker will also start monitoring the plans of action needed in order to travel down the global emissions curve at the necessary pace.

Some countries will of course take their time to join the race (and November’s election in the US will be a critical factor for this major global emitter). In addition, the advent of Covid-19 is giving a new context. The emissions trajectory of nations, states and cities will be shaped by post-Covid recovery measures. Already, some are showing that it will not be business as usual, instead they are setting a new global direction for a cleaner, healthier and safer future.

Building back better. The race is well and truly on.