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Footsteps Toward Sustainability, 2016–2030

People will definitely achieve some success in decarbonization by 2030—but how much, asks the 2016 Masdar Engage blogging competition?

Globally and locally, the answer depends on finance and political will.

Both vary widely by nation, as the successful bottom-up INDC process of 2015 has shown us. In a centrally controlled country like China, it takes only minutes to enact reforms like banning coal power within cities and mandating jail time for energy managers who fail to reach pollution control goals. Developing countries can only fund energy transition with help from development banks, richer nations, and private capital. Industrialized democracies pay the price of their freedom in terms of haggling time. Deception by vested interests and congressional deadlock in the United States are probably the most egregious examples.

Sustainability, low to zero carbon attainment, resilience, and flexibility overarch the concerns of individual nations or states. For a sustainable future, the entire world economy needs to move from depending on fossil fuels for energy to setting up less harmful, more effective electrification. An energy shift is nothing new: two centuries ago, we shifted to fossil fuels (now 80% of the world’s energy), enabling the Industrial Revolution. It’s now time to reverse our use of coal, oil, and gas (stock value, $5 trillion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance) to renewables, currently worth about $300 billion. Time-wasting, exorbitant measures such as “clean” natural gas development, unproven carbon capture, and costly new nuclear technology don’t figure into the equation.

The LPAA initiative begun in Lima showcases fruitful energy partnerships of national governments and subregions, cities, business, nonprofit/special interest groups, and ordinary citizens. Almost 11,000 commitments to the NAZCA platform involve 2,250 cities and 150 regions (1.25 billion people in all), 2,025 companies, 424 investors, and 235 nongovernment and citizen organizations. Dozens of major cooperative initiatives have come from almost 10,000 players in 180 countries. Policymakers need to continue encouraging this work.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide good models for interaction of governments and involved parties. The unprecedented Paris Agreement has poured hundreds of billions into developing countries that seek low-carbon, sustainable economies. A third of the world’s largest companies have committed themselves to climate action equivalent to the combined GDPs of China, Germany, and Japan.

Paris also showed the world the necessity of universal input. Subnational groups, like the C-40 cities and the international Compact of Mayors, and regional alliances such as the EU’s cap-and-trade system and regional energy alliances have already begun to outpace tardy national actions. Exemplary corporate groups like B Team now embrace renewables. Their efforts go far beyond superficial installation of solar panels on warehouses into the sustainable extraction, processing, and transportation of product raw materials and zero-carbon pledges within the next couple of decades.

Nongovernment organizations and citizen groups must continue prodding other players out of complacency and into solutions. Guidance from Pope Francis and other religious leaders over the past year has informed previously uninvolved faith groups. All these influences have helped drown out the vocal minority that does not accept current climate science and or the need for new energy modes.

What we need—especially in developed countries like the US, Australia, and Canada—is long-term sustainable policymaking that can survive short-term politics. The biggest determinant of renewable success will be the long-term signals that good policy relays to energy investors. Ending fossil fuel subsidies and taxing carbon are also fruitful steps on the road to deep decarbonization. Current national energy promises and the 2-degree temperature goal will not prevent environmental damage by 2030—but they do make a pretty good start.

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