Climate Action

How can we avoid a climate change catastrophe? Al Gore and Davos leaders respond

Children play amid icebergs on the beach in Nuuk, Greenland, June 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alister Doyle     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX2FY2Z

The mismanagement of our environment is the one global threat that just refuses to go away. Image: REUTERS/Alister Doyle

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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Every month, it seems, we are confronted with fresh data that shines a light on the perilous state of our natural environment. Ninety-two percent of people worldwide live in places where air pollution levels exceed suggested safety limits, at least 1.8 billion people still lack reliable access to safe drinking water, and 2016 was the warmest year on record – around 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. Meanwhile, our oceans and forests aren’t faring much better.

As highlighted by the latest edition of the Global Risks Report, the mismanagement of our environment is the one global threat that just refuses to go away.

And while there are clear signs that the world is fighting back, there is still a great deal of work to do to avert climate catastrophe. We asked global leaders gathering in Davos — what should our priorities be? Here’s what they had to say:

Al Gore, Vice-President of the United States (1993-2001), Chairman and Co-founder, Generation Investment Management

Our efforts to solve the climate crisis are in a race against time, because we are still using the Earth’s atmosphere as an open sewer, adding 110 million tons of man-made global warming pollution each day, and we are moving closer to several potential thresholds of unrecoverable damage. However, businesses and investors – alongside governments – are making significant progress on solutions. Markets are recognizing that fossil fuels are a bad bet; governments are acting to reduce their national emissions; and people are demanding action. The implications of these changes for business and society justify renewed hope that we will act in time to avoid the most catastrophic damage and build a sustainable future.

We’re seeing continued, stunning declines in the cost of renewable energy, energy efficiency, batteries and energy storage — giving nations and communities around the world dramatic new opportunities to embrace a sustainable future based on a low carbon economy. In many parts of the world, renewable energy is already cheaper than that of fossil fuels, and some developing countries are leapfrogging carbon-based energy altogether.

Similar developments are likely to occur elsewhere throughout the world, with new advancements in electric vehicles, smart grids and micro grids, advanced manufacturing, and as other areas continue to accelerate climate action. We are going to prevail in our effort to solve the climate crisis, but we must continue to invest in these technologies and ramp up our transition to a clean energy economy at a pace previously unimaginable.


Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Canada

Today, the stresses of climate change—the decrease in biodiversity, rising sea levels—present a significant global challenge. This challenge requires Canada’s resolve to do one thing to address climate change.

We must show leadership at all levels. We are working with the provinces, territories, and municipalities whose leadership is the foundation on which we build our future actions. And we value the work and traditional knowledge of Canada's indigenous peoples. Their leadership on climate change is well established.

Canada is leading by example and there is still more work to be done:

  • Putting a price on carbon pollution and expanding carbon markets globally
  • Ramping up momentum for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and building momentum for the ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (phasing down hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs)
  • Working with our partners to unleash private sector investment and business entrepreneurship for the innovation needed to transition to a low-carbon economy
  • Supporting vulnerable communities and workers to maintain and even enhance their participation in a low-carbon economy

Combined, these measures will help reduce emissions at home and abroad, and make Canada and the world more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Our goal is to position Canada as a global leader in the clean-energy economy.

Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment

We do not lack the technology or the finances to resolve environmental issues. If we need more of one thing to tackle the problem, it is political will. A government can create the conditions for solutions like nothing else.

Yet political will flows from the will of the people. When people care, politicians act. So by bringing environmental concerns close to people and speaking a language they understand, we get them to care and politicians to act. For example, few can relate to carbon dioxide emissions. But everyone can relate to air pollution - we can see it, smell it, taste it. Fixing air pollution is an easy cause to get behind. The triumph is that in doing so, we also help heal the climate.

Political will can make sustainability the norm. But if protecting the environment is not a dinner table conversation from Kansas to Kazakhstan, we are failing to drive that change.

Naoko Ishii, Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson, Global Environment Facility

It is increasingly evident that the stability and resilience of Earth is being pushed to the limit. Several planetary boundaries that are fundamental for human society to thrive have already been transgressed, as the global commons that we have so long taken for granted has come under irresistible pressure.

Fortunately the world has taken the first steps to begin to turn this growing tragedy of the commons into an opportunity. The Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement clearly recognize that the health of the global commons is fundamental to development and growth.

But, important as these agreements are, they are only a start: action is needed, and it must happen fast. Business as usual will take us nowhere. And incremental change will not suffice — the challenge is just too great for that.

The only solution is to fundamentally transform our key economic systems — our energy system, food production system, our cities, and our goods manufacturing system. We simply have no other option.

Jim Leape, Consulting Professor, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University

As environmental pressures mount, and some governments falter, we need to find ways to harness the disruptive power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the cause of sustainability. An explosion in transparency is a crucial antidote to “post-truth” politics. The proliferation of data sources and new tools for finding signal in the noise can create inescapable public accountability for controlling GHG emissions or protecting forests or even conserving groundwater. They can also provide visibility across global value chains — “made in the world” need not mean “made in the shadows.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can also enable the transition to sustainability. It promises new tools to manage public resources, even as ecosystems and resources are increasingly in flux. New tools for tracing products from origin to use to disposal can help small producers access global markets, enable buyers and consumers to support better management, and lubricate a circular economy.

Big markets are well-served by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Our challenge is to spark, nurture, and disseminate innovations, like the ones above and many others, that can help us meet the challenge of living within the limits of the Earth’s resources.

Johan Rockström, Executive Director, Stockholm Resilience Centre

2016 was an alarming year for those monitoring the stability and resilience of Earth. Temperature records were smashed month by month from January through to August making it the warmest year since records began. The Arctic was hit by an unprecedented heat-shock in November, halting the refreeze of sea ice.

We need emergency measures. The Third Industrial Revolution was driven by Moore’s Law. The Fourth Industrial Revolution must take place within planetary boundaries and be driven by a “Carbon Law” – greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors and all countries must halve every decade until zero by 2050. This is not only economically feasible, the good news is we have already started to follow the Carbon Law. The Global Carbon Project reports that annual emissions have not grown for three years running, even with strong economic growth globally, and renewable capacity is expanding exponentially.

What does this mean in practice? Current emissions are about 40 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtC). Following the Carbon Law we need to reach 20GtC by 2030, 10GtC by 2040, and 5GtC by 2050, when the world economy is net-zero for carbon with food production pulling out more than 5GtC from the atmosphere every year. Follow the curve and coal collapses to zero globally in the early 2030s and oil early in the 2040s. This is not a pipe dream: about 25% of all countries have already committed to become free of fossil fuels by 2050.

Encapsulating the Fourth Industrial Revolution within a global Carbon Law will not only enable the world to develop on a stable planet, it is also bound to unleash even more disruptive innovation and sustainable transformations.

Jean-Louis Chaussade, Chief Executive Officer, SUEZ

Considering the magnitude of the challenge we are facing, it is no less than a transformation of our economic model that is needed. The way we produce and consume raw materials, fossil fuel or gas, water, has to change. By going from a linear to a circular economy, we will be able to decouple economic growth from resources consumption and from greenhouse gases emissions.

The question, "how do we do it?" is a hard one. In my opinion, carbon pricing is the only way to trigger a technological momentum towards a low-carbon economy, by fostering the necessary investments. The price of carbon can give back imagination to finance and it can restore the growth of the world economy: green business is a true source of opportunities and it could be a key success factor for economic rebound. Again, it can generate jobs and wealth, both in the North and in the South.

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Climate ActionEnergy TransitionGlobal CooperationNature and Biodiversity
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