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Climate Week NYC Opening Ceremony

20th September 2021 Anita Hawser 6 min read

Industry, financial and political leaders shared that they are ready and willing to go beyond the Paris climate accords by taking more urgent and immediate actions.

“The message is clear, 2030 and 2050 carbon emission reduction targets are necessary, but they are not enough. We don't just want commitments and plans, we need delivery and action,” Helen Clarkson, CEO of The Climate Group stated at the opening ceremony of the 14th annual Climate Week NYC.

We are already in code red on Climate Change

Terms such as climate change, climate crisis and climate action are now used by everyone, but Clarkson said it is time to turn the talk into action. “This week is about getting it done,” she said. “Despite the clearest blueprints for action from campaigners and scientists, the fires and floods are raging on. We know there's a lot more to do. There's no time for one last fossil fuel investment or one last coal mine. To get change at the pace and scale we need, we need to be thinking about shifting whole systems.”

During the opening ceremony, a range of influential climate leaders articulated their visions for how to drive this vital transformation.

Getting big emitters to do more will need to be a central focus

Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) latest report creates a new sense of urgency. “It is very clear about the impact of human activity on global warming. Climate change is manmade. The good news is that we can do something about it,” she said. At COP26 in Glasgow next month, von der Leyen said the Commission would like to see new commitments by major emitters to reduce their emissions further and faster.

Energy systems were identified by more than 40% of audience members as the area needing the most urgent attention. Badar Khan, president of National Grid US, was asked what tangible actions his company was taking beyond their commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. “Getting it done isn't about 2050, it's about what we're doing today,” he replied.

Khan said National Grid US had already lowered emissions by 75% compared to 1990 levels. The company thinks about lowering emissions in three broad categories:

  • Energy supply: It aims to achieve 80% zero carbon energy by 2030 and is looking to double down on existing efforts to connect offshore and onshore wind farms to the grid by 2030
  • Transportation electrification: It aims to get roughly 10 million electric vehicles on roads by 2030, up from 100,000 today
  • Heating buildings: It has already invested more than $4 billion in helping customers make their homes more energy efficient and needs to double the rate of energy efficiency retrofits by 2030

New York is going all the way with solar

New York's first female governor, Kathy Hochul, detailed a series of measures she said would turn the page on the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. “We're going all the way with solar,” she announced during the opening ceremony, increasing the state’s goal of producing six gigawatts of electricity from solar by 2025 to 10 gigawatts by 2030. She also signed into law legislation setting the goal for all new passenger cars and trucks sold in New York State to be zero emissions by 2035. “We're going to walk the walk and get it right this time,” Hochul said.

Financing of fossil fuels is no longer acceptable

Ambroise Fayolle, VP at the European Investment Bank (EIB) announced that the company would no longer invest in fossil fuel projects or new airports. Instead, money will be invested in renewable energy, innovative clean energy projects in the transport sector or projects aligned with the Paris climate goals.

L'Oréal's CEO Nicolas Hieronimus said it planned to achieve carbon neutrality across its global operations by 2025 and net zero by 2050. It is also looking to eliminate virgin plastics in its products, and encourage more recycling and reuse of materials in the industrial process. “We have to make more ambitious commitments even where we do not have solutions for everything,” added Alexandra Palt, the company’s executive VP and chief corporate responsibility officer.

A just and equitable transition to net zero is essential

But addressing climate change is not just about carbon reduction targets. Policymakers and industry leaders also need to ensure the transition to net zero is just and equitable for everyone. An audience poll showed a 60/40 split between those who were mostly optimistic and those who were mostly pessimistic about whether there would be a just transition to a net zero world.

Senior Partner and Global Leader of the Sustainability Practice at McKinsey Sustainability Dickon Pinner said hundreds of millions of jobs will need to be created due to social dislocation and the impact of climate change on economies. He estimates that $4 trillion to $5 trillion of annual investment for the next 30 years will be needed to address the societal and economic impacts of climate change.

“A figure probably many times bigger in investment needs to go into the developing world,” Pinner said. “It's the largest reallocation of capital in human history.” He warned those assembled that massive amounts of funding will be required upfront to lift people out of poverty and socioeconomic dislocation as they transition to net zero carbon economies.

Financing will be integral to adaptation in developing countries

The focus at COP27 in Africa next year is helping developing countries transition to a zero carbon economy. But the elephant in the room, says Clarkson, is the $100 billion in funding needed for the Green Climate Fund to support developing countries' response to climate change. “The real problem is access to finance,” said Dr. Yasmine Fouad, Egypt's environment minister. “It needs to be streamlined, simple and efficient and linked to adaptation actions.”

A number of African economies are dependent on the export of fossil fuels, the East African Development Bank’s Director General Vivienne Yeda Apopo said. “These economies are heavily indebted in terms of the pipelines and refineries that have been developed to exploit those resources.” This infrastructure will now need to be written down in value over a much shorter period or abandoned altogether, she stated.

“The question is how do we work with the private sector to recover the necessary financing and diversify the economy?” she said. “Can we reuse some of the technologies we use for other economic activities to recoup some of the investment already made in economies dependent on fossil fuels?” Yeda Apopo hopes to see a concise roadmap coming out of COP26 in Glasgow with respect to how developing economies move forward on climate change. She’s also hoping for airtight deadlines around financing to help countries diversify their economies.

The best solutions will require both big money and genuine concern for our fellow humans

The challenge right now is the magnitude of capital that needs to flow into the developing world, said Pinner of McKinsey Sustainability. “We're not seeing money flow into adaptation at the scale it needs to,” he noted. “We're not seeing it move into the installed base, which is carbon intensive, to decarbonize it. There needs to be more wood behind the arrow of ambition.”

Gloria Walton, CEO and president of The Solutions Project, which invests $10 million annually in communities that have historically been disinvested and underinvested, such as women of color, migrants and indigenous communities, said these groups need to inform what carbon-reduction solutions look like to ensure everyone is benefitting from the climate economy. “Industry leaders need to see the social infrastructure and grassroots organizations as resources and partners to invest in,” she explained.

Racial and social justice need to be at the center of climate change

Nancy Mahon, senior VP of Global Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability at The Estée Lauder Companies said companies need to take more of a 360-degree approach to climate change, looking at not only scientific targets, but how climate intersects with other issues such as girls’ education and the ability to move beyond poverty.

When Walton thinks about transitioning to net zero, she says she is somewhere between very optimistic and mostly optimistic. “As long as we have industry, governments and communities joining forces, we can do our part to achieve a carbon neutral society,” she said. “Reducing carbon is important for sure, but if we're wanting to center on racial justice and those communities that are on the frontline of degradation, going carbon neutral means they are still going to be disproportionately impacted. Let's lean into what this moment is calling us to do and really transform our society.”