Dr. Frank Rijsberman and the GGGI Nepal team paid a visit to Mahalaxmi, one of GGGI’s green secondary cities in Nepal, to explore current water and sanitation projects and facilities. Photo by: Global Green Growth Institute

There she was, Greta Thunberg, speaking truth to power. She was not too impressed by the United Nations secretary-general sitting next to her, or all the world leaders sitting right in front of her in the great hall of the U.N. General Assembly, but said. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you.”

Hers were the most powerful words I heard at the U.N. Climate Summit 2019.

Not words of courteous diplomacy that are common currency in such meetings —  despite what the speakers might really think — but raw emotion stemming out of fear for the future of our world. Thunberg has managed to mobilize her own generation to stand up and demand “climate action now” and is shaming adults, parents, and world leaders into the same.

We have another 14 months left until the Glasgow climate change conference next year to live up to the expectations of Thunberg and her generation. How dare we fail them.

It is crucial to demonstrate that it is possible to take action now, decarbonize the economy, and maintain a high standard of living in an inclusive economy that leaves no one behind. While the costs of adaptation are estimated to top $7 trillion, a report by the Global Commission on Adaptation outlines key actions world leaders can begin to take now in order to tackle climate change. These include investing in:  

• Renewable energy that is commercially attractive.
• Electric cars, buses, and two-wheelers to end the combustion engine.
• Energy efficiency gains in buildings, district heating, and cooling, as well as appliances.
• Circular economy approaches to deal with waste streams.
• Nature-based solutions to protect and rehabilitate landscapes as well as sequester carbon.

Other actions include decarbonization, which will have to go hand in hand with increasing resilience of our society to adapt to the changes in climate that are already with us and unavoidable.

Nature-based solutions such as rehabilitation of degraded mangrove systems can sequester carbon while providing protection against storm surges or tsunamis, livelihoods for local people, and maintain biodiversity. Our food systems do need systemic change, not only to become climate-resilient but also to provide nutritious food for healthy populations to counter the surge in noncommunicable diseases from diabetes to heart disease.

Did Thunberg’s nudge leaders in the direction of some of these actions against climate change?

Via YouTube

Leading the way in climate action

Though nothing new was said by world leaders of the major economies, I saw many hopeful signs in meetings all over Manhattan. A group of investors led by Bill Gates committed $790 million for climate smart agriculture. At the U.N., some 70 countries committed to the new norm — a net-zero carbon target by 2050 — while some 87 private companies committed to aligning their actions to the 1.5-degree Celsius scenario, which also requires full decarbonization by 2050.

It was also encouraging to hear an increasing number of countries commit to doubling their contribution to the Green Climate Fund, which assists low- and middle-income countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change.

Most impressive was Denmark’s leadership. In many events, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen demonstrated the leadership Thunberg was calling for. Denmark has committed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but the new government followed that by setting its 2030 target to reduce emissions by 70%, marking the most ambitious national target in the world.

The Danish target should be perceived as President Kennedy’s call to go to the moon. The key is to set a clear goal and then chart the actions needed to achieve that. Relying on demonstrating our ingenuity and innovation seems impossible today but can become possible tomorrow.

In an effort to achieve this goal, Danish pension funds have pledged to invest $51.7 billion in green assets by 2030. Torben Möger Pedersen, CEO of PensionDanmark, said that the green deal will make Denmark an “absolute world leader” in its transition to a green economy. Danish business leaders were ready to back up their government convinced that taking such strong climate action now is not only necessary to save the planet, but is a must for businesses to if they want to survive.

However, the need to invest in climate action is in the trillions of dollars and that means the involvement of the private sector, asset managers, and institutional investors. Seeing pension funds such as PensionDanmark step up, and bring their colleagues to the table, is one of the first signs that this is now happening.

Dr. Frank Rijsberman meets with Kakembo Galabuzi Brian, one of the winners of the 2018 Greenpreneurs Program in Uganda. Photo by: Global Green Growth Institute

Looking ahead

Adding this up, it is not yet the decisive action Thunberg was calling for, but it is a growing momentum that can — and should — lead to more ambitious nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement that are due next year at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. That is shaping up to be a milestone of major significance like the Paris COP in 2015.

The NDC Partnership is bringing together over 150 countries, and organizations, including the Global Green Growth Institute, to ensure that there is strong support to deliver solid and more ambitious NDCs next year. GGGI has made the 2020 NDCs a priority in support of its member countries.

Decisive climate action is a critical part of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and both can only be achieved through strong partnerships between and among governments, businesses, and civil society.

We have another 14 months left until the Glasgow climate change conference next year to live up to the expectations of Thunberg and her generation. How dare we fail them.

About the author

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    Frank Rijsberman

    Dr. Frank Rijsberman leads the Global Green Growth Institute in supporting governments' transition towards a model of economic growth that is environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive. With over 30 years’ experience addressing the challenges of environmental sustainability and poverty reduction with leading international organizations and philanthropic foundations, Rijsberman was appointed as the director-general of the institute in 2016.