Perspective  |  October 17, 2023

To solve climate change, those who can must do more

by Tina Swanson, PhD

Tina OpEd Image.jpg

A woman holding a sign that reads "Act Now or Swim Later"
Mika Baumeister / Unsplash

Each and every one of us contributes to climate change – but some of us are going to need to do more to fix it. 

Every day, individuals, communities, businesses, industries, and governments do things that release greenhouse gases into the air, whether it’s carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, methane from landfills, or nitrous oxide from overuse of fertilizer. The buildup of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is warming our planet and driving costly and deadly heat waves, fires, droughts, and floods. 

Climate change is not just threatening our children’s future, it is harming us right now. This summer’s record-breaking extreme weather has made this abundantly clear.   

We know exactly what we need to do to combat climate change. My organization, Project Drawdown, provides a list and roadmap for these actions. We also know that we need to do it fast, before climate damage becomes catastrophic and irreversible. Science has provided us with a roadmap and a target for this, too. Globally, we need to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050, bringing the rate at which we collectively emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere into balance with the planet’s capacity to remove those emissions. 

But right now, despite enormous progress, we are still far off track from achieving this critical target. Without vastly accelerated action, it will soon be out of reach, leaving us, our children, and our grandchildren a damaged and more dangerous world.

If some of us can’t or won’t step up to reduce our own emissions, then the rest of us are going to need to do more than “our share.”

Many individuals, businesses, and governments are rising to this challenge, setting targets and taking real actions to reduce their own emissions. But many more have not, either taking no meaningful action or failing to follow through on public commitments. For some climate laggards, it’s a short-sighted decision to continue growing or profiting from emissions-intensive practices. For others, particularly in emerging economies, a lack of resources – usually money – prevents them from making the changes needed to reduce their emissions. 

But getting to net zero is a global endeavor: effective climate action must encompass all regions and all sectors of society. If some of us can’t or won’t step up to reduce our own emissions, then the rest of us are going to need to do more than “our share.” This is the simple and unforgiving math of the greenhouse gases accumulating in our atmosphere and the shrinking window of time we have for action. 

Done right, these additional climate contributions can be an invaluable opportunity. Because they go above and beyond anyone’s or any organization’s own net-zero commitments, they can be designed and targeted to have maximal climate, environmental, and societal benefits.

Here are four principles and priorities, based on science and social responsibility, that should guide these supplemental climate actions. 

First, the climate action must be real, producing quantifiable and verifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or increased atmospheric carbon dioxide removal. There are a number of standards, verification methods, and evaluation resources, such as the United Nations Framework of Climate Change’s Clean Development Mechanism or the Carbon Credit Quality Initiative, that can help identify credible climate actions.  

Second, since we don’t have much time, we must prioritize climate actions that are available now and have an immediate impact, so-called “emergency brake” solutions. For example, we can combat deforestation, which currently produces 11% of global emissions. Or we can plug leaks and reduce excessive fertilizer use to reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, which, within our net zero window for action, have more than 80 and nearly 300 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide, respectively. In a global crisis where time is of the essence, these are real, high-impact actions that we can take much more quickly than we can scale up carbon removal technology or even replace coal or gas power plants. 

Third, focus on supporting climate actions that are underfinanced or located in regions where project developers or governments are less able to obtain funding. For example, in the United States, the electricity sector accounts for about one-quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions. Yet almost two-thirds of the money allocated by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is aimed at this sector. In contrast, less than 6% of IRA funding is directed toward agriculture, which is responsible for 10% of U.S. emissions. Even worse, the agriculture-related climate interventions that would have the greatest impacts, methane and nitrous oxide reductions, are largely overlooked by this program.   

A graphic showing the mismatch between what climate solutions have the greatest emissions reductions and which are currently being financed

Some of the most urgent climate solutions are underfinanced relative to their impact on reducing emissions.

Project Drawdown

Finally, consider the synergies and trade-offs between climate actions and human and ecological well-being. In addition to reducing the risks associated with climate change, most actions to reduce emissions or enhance carbon-absorbing ecosystems provide immediate tangible co-benefits for people and nature. For example, replacing fossil energy with clean, renewable energy would dramatically reduce millions of premature deaths per year caused by air pollution

There is some progress toward supporting supplemental climate actions that are beyond individual or organizational net zero efforts, but the pace and scale are, according to the United Nations secretary general, falling “abysmally short.” For example, under the 2015 Paris Agreement, wealthy, high-emitting countries pledged to provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change, but this funding target has yet to be met in any year. Climate funding from philanthropy has increased, but it was still less than 2% of total global philanthropic giving in 2020. 

Corporations, which have the financial resources and growing business- and social license-related incentives to take climate action, are also being challenged to go beyond efforts to reduce solely their own emissions. Our own Drawdown Labs program has shown how every part of a business can take climate action, supplementing emissions reductions with actions that leverage financial, operational, political, and cultural influence to help others drive climate action. And now, the Science Based Targets initiative, which helps develop and validate science-based emissions reduction targets for corporations, is also calling for companies to support additional emissions reduction actions beyond their value chains and contribute to societal net-zero.

The relative contributions from each of us – individuals, businesses, governments – to the growing greenhouse gas inventory in the atmosphere are vastly different. Many of the biggest emitters are the worst laggards on climate action. 

That’s why asking some of us to do more than “our share” to reach global net zero isn’t fair or equitable. But neither is climate change, which is already disproportionately impacting those who have contributed to it the least

Our responsibility to act, however, is not negated and must not be abrogated by someone else’s failure to act. We all have to live with the results of our actions – or inaction.  

So, the reality is that some of us – those of us that can – are going to need to give and do more to combat climate change. Our actions now affect the future, when our children and grandchildren will judge us and those that were able but failed or refused to do more than just enough. It’s our choice.

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