Marginal gains — what does a climate ‘win’ in 2020 look like?

“You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small — I mean one-half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One-half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it.”

Al Pacino’s epic half time team talk in Any Given Sunday probably seems an odd one to kick off an article on climate politics, but for me it holds some truths.

Like the fictional Miami Sharks — many of those involved in tackling the all-too-real climate challenge feel like they’ve seen better days — notably that chilly night in December 2015, when the Paris Agreement was won.

Since then the team has rolled with blows: first the election of Donald Trump wrought a savage blow to the UN and multilateralism; emboldening other leaders (usually old men) to head down the authoritarian route. Geopolitics hasn’t looked the same since.

Then the heavens opened (and closed) bringing deluge and drought. Fires across Russia, Indonesia, California, the Congo, Amazon and Australia. Floods and locusts. It’s biblical — and that’s before we even mention the non-climate related Coronavirus.

Then the scientists: like the analysts you see at sporting events monitoring players’ heartbeats and movement — warning in the 2018 UN IPCC climate science report the game for the planet is winnable — but slipping out of reach. The hands on the clock are accelerating, a carbon budget we thought we had disappearing.

One game at a time

2020 feels like a twilight zone. A team pinned deep in its half, losing by a margin, searching for a few big plays — desperate for a few big players — looking for a manager with a plan.

Al’s game of inches sticks with with me. Instinctively we’re always looking for that killer move, the clear-cut pass, the player that’s fast, strong, elusive. Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James.

Yet the best teams crank up the pressure as a collective, allowing stars to shine and opponents to crack.

I doubt it seems this way, but my take is that climate ground game — that game of inches — is working. It’s slow, because the opposition is exceptionally well-funded, connected, with deep roots to power. It set the rules, chose the referees, bought the stadium. Yet recently it has started to lose the crowd.

Think back to 2014. When a net zero emissions target was floated at the Lima UN climate talks, it seemed crazy. Oil giants and coal magnates dismissed it. Very serious people laughed at its audacity. Less than six years later, the concept of net zero emissions is a reality.

Over 120 countries have either adopted such a target, or are discussing it. The UK, birthplace of the industrial revolution, has signed it into law. According to a recent report, almost half the world’s economic output is now generated in areas where there are moves to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

Cemex, Indian Railways, Rio Tinto, German manufacturer Bosch and the world’s top shipping line Maersk are among those to have committed to slash emissions by 2030 and explore net zero pathways through 2050.

Oil majors BP and Shell are embarking on new climate strategies, as of 2019 Japan’s sloth-like leading industry group is working on a zero carbon roadmap, while Danish wind company Orsted has outlined plans to become the first renewable supermajor.

This week Wells Fargo became the third heavyweight US bank in the last three months to ban Arctic oil investments — following Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase.

2020s draft picks

It’s happening too slowly, but this is what systemic change looks like. The world is poised for an economic transformation as big as those driven by the first use of fossil fuels or — as Bank of England Mark Carney argued last week — the development of the internet.

Paris in 2015 is — no doubt — the high-tide mark for global climate diplomacy, but if we’re talking foundations of a global low carbon economy, we’re in far better shape in 2020.

The Energy Transitions Commission’s reports are worth a read. It reckons costs of renewables and a variety of storage systems have fallen fast enough to make ditching oil, coal and gas feasible.

More renewable power capacity has come online since 2015 than fossil power capacity according to analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This is a story of “technology disruption” its experts argue, with costs of solar, wind and batteries plummeting.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed, the amount of planned new coal plants has fallen by two-thirds, undercut by the falling cost of wind and solar power. Even US President Donald Trump, who thinks coal is “beautiful” can’t stop coal plants from closing.

Over the next 30 years, $10 trillion globally can be directed away from market-distorting and polluting energy subsidies, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Emptying the bench

That’s the playbook, but to exhaust the analogy — there’s still a limited roster of reliable running backs and wide receivers to make the yards. Green groups and teenage Scandinavians have done their bit to make some noise — delivery from politicians and CEOs is still lacking.

Still, one lesson of 2019 is that when change comes, it will be radical. Little over two years ago Greta Thunberg was a lone 15-year-old Swedish protestor. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was making cocktails in Flats Fix. XR were rebels with a cause but virtually extinct.

Expectations in the world’s largest single economic zone — the EU — have shifted markedly in under a year, with the bloc planning a 2050 net zero target, a new 55% emissions goal for 2030, carbon border tariffs, a green new deal and an end to EIB fossil fuel investment from 2021.

I repeat: none of this is enough. Yet the social licence of the oil and gas sector is palpably evaporating, joining coal as global pariahs. Dusk is settling on the era of UN climate negotiations. There is no more road to kick the can down.

This leaves the UK with a delicious opportunity. In 2020 a nation that has been at war with itself since 2016 gets a chance to play quarterback for the world, win back faith, write the plays on its own terms, show how it’s getting net zero done, fix support for developing countries who want to follow.

To be a credible lead — Boris Johnson needs a decent climate plan that the UK can rally behind. The PM’s not shy of big hits on the field. The bonus is that on climate, business, banks and domestic public opinion is with him.

The plans submitted by major economies to the UN ahead of COP26 in 2020 will — we know — not come close to signalling the true ambition required to limit warming to vaguely safe levels.

Yet as Bank of England governor Mark Carney has repeatedly warned, the financial sector is on a watching brief: when it senses the tipping point is close, it will move fast.

So the UK has a job to do to maintain momentum this year, cajole leaders in capitals and C-suites to make their plays, keep the pressure up on an opposition that has lost control off the pitch, and is starting to lose on it.

Marginal gains

Back to sport. Dave Brailsford is the coach credited with transforming British Cycling into a medal machine at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and leading Team Sky / INEOS to six Tour de France titles.

He lives by the philosophy of marginal gains: “if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

In addition to an intensive coaching regime, Brailsford had his team’s base painted spotless white, beds and pillows were designed for a perfect sleep, instructions were cascaded on washing hands to avoid illness.

It’s a useful framing when we think about the huge challenge facing us all. The big countries and sectors matter, but so do smaller countries, local campaign groups, tiny wins at community level. They all add up.

Climate change seems an impossible challenge, and the COP26 UN climate summit desperately needs some big players to step up and deliver.

That big break, major play. It probably won’t happen in the coming months. Even a Trump loss doesn’t take you all the way back up the pitch.

But every action, every inch — and yes, every degree matters. Recognising that could be the big win of 2020.



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