At a recent ceremony in Iceland, mourners laid a plaque atop a volcano commemorating the loss of the Okjokull glacier. Back in 1890, Okjokull covered 16 square km (6.2 square miles) and now—as the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status due to climate change—is reduced to a few patches of ice. The plaque reads: “in the next 200 years all our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
This macabre event comes as scientists confirm that last July was the hottest month ever recorded. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report says that the world risks overshooting 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming in roughly a decade unless countries cut emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 2050.
As countries’ current targets to reduce emissions put us on a path to 3 degrees Celsius of warming this century, we have even less time. That is why the next 18 months will be critical to advance the fight against climate change if we are to make it to the 2030 deadline.
Taking action now
Next September, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will host a climate action summit in New York City. Mr. Guterres has written to heads of state asking them to announce commitments to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. In other words, Mr. Guterres is asking countries to stop putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we are able to remove. And in December, Chile will host the UN climate talks to build momentum for greater ambition and the 2020 talks, likely hosted by the United Kingdom, will serve as the deadline for submitting renewed plans.
Fortunately, parallel to these international conferences, countries are stepping up their domestic plans. Costa Rica has announced a decarbonization plan to become a zero-emission economy by 2050, focusing on 10 sectoral areas including nature-based solutions such as reforestation and the expansion of electric transport to reduce emissions and transform the economy. The UK recently legislated for net zero emissions by 2050, and Chile is aiming to do the same, by enshrining its own goal into a new climate law this year. Mexico already has a plan to halve its emissions by 2050 while Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador are aiming to publish their strategies next year.
More, as part of the Paris Agreement, all countries are invited to submit long-term strategies as well. By aiming for net zero emissions by 2050, countries can backcast from these long-term goals to establish targets over the short and medium term to ensure they are on the right path. These long-term strategies and decarbonization plans can play a vital role in helping countries manage potential transition risks and identify and implement measures to maximize the opportunities of a low-emission and climate-resilient economy.
Recently, the Inter-American Development Bank President, Luis Alberto Moreno, said that climate change could represent the greatest threat ever known to the region as more extreme weather events, including stronger hurricanes continue. The Bank of England also warns that a disorderly global transition to a low carbon economy could result in losses of up to $20 trillion. The investment decisions made now in terms of how we power our cities and use natural capital will therefore determine whether the 1.5 degrees goal remains viable or not.
Governments and investors can anticipate potential risks, and can act to minimize them for exposed and vulnerable communities. For example, to complement the 2050 decarbonization goal, the Chilean government and the country’s four largest power generation companies signed an agreement to phase out all coal power generation by 2040. While abandoning coal could prove a boon to Chile’s renewable energy market, the long-term strategy provides time to ensure different stakeholders are on board. This strategy would also allow for the creation of possible compensation mechanisms for communities that are heavily reliant on coal for employment.
For governments that act now, aiming for net zero emissions presents an investment opportunity rather than a cost. Long-term strategies supported by comprehensive plans can boost investor confidence and stimulate economic growth. Actions to improve innovation and develop domestic markets for low carbon and resilient technologies can also create jobs and business opportunities.
The OECD also argues that scaling up climate-related policies and boosting investment in sustainable infrastructure could increase GDP in 2050 by up to 2.8 percent on average across G20 countries, including Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. In Costa Rica, the goals to electrify the transport system will improve the lives of Ticos and help avoid the health costs of pollution generated by conventional vehicles and congestion, estimated at 3.8 percent of GDP.
Our collaboration with Costa Rica, which involves supporting the government to prepare their 2050 decarbonization plan through the IDB’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways LAC (DDPLAC) project and NDC Invest platform, signals how new funding opportunities can be created. We are now working with the government on the first ever “decarbonization policy based loan” to help implement its decarbonization plan and support the introduction of electric buses.
At the Latin America and Caribbean Climate Week this week in Salvador, Brazil, we are making the case that getting to net zero emissions is possible. While achieving this goal will be tough, designing long-term strategies can help boost investment and generate new economic opportunities. Those looking back in 2050—especially those that read the Okjokull plaque 200 years from now—will likely be glad that countries in Latin America worked tirelessly to achieve net zero emissions.
Dr. Amal-Lee Amin is Chief of the Climate Change Division at the Inter-American Development Bank. She is currently participating at the LAC Climate Week in Brazil. Follow her @AmaleeAmin