Humanity has been in many last chance saloons with climate change, but there are now reasons for optimism.
Few commentators have been able to resist the temptation, when writing about the environment, to reference the last chance saloon. The cliché that the next summit or election is the final opportunity to avert climate or biodiversity crisis, and if it is lost, all is lost.
But as 2021 gets into its stride, there's a good chance that we may have seen the last of the last chance saloon as there are increasing signs that humanity spent much of last year sat in that particular bar, drank its fill, stared at the bottom of the glass and finally decided it was time to quit, says New Scientist.
There is definitely a whiff of green optimism in the air. Much of it is emanating from the silver linings of a dismal 2020. It gave us all the chance to reflect on the past and cogitate on the future.
Back then, we were just months away from important global negotiations on climate and biodiversity. The pandemic meant both had to be postponed. They are now tentatively rescheduled for later this year - and maybe for the better. If they had happened as planned, in the middle of a business-as-usual 2020, they probably would have produced a business-as-usual outcome: warm words but little action.
But times have changed. The pandemic not only exposed how close we are to the environmental precipice, it also proved humanity is actually capable of responding to existential threats. It is perhaps no coincidence that 2020 saw some of the most significant climate commitments ever made by national and transnational bodies: net-zero pledges by China, Japan and South Korea; the European Union’s Green Deal; the UK’s lead on green finance, including compelling big companies to come clean about their exposure to climate risks. On top of this, renewable energy continued its drive to outcompete fossil fuels, while the desire to build a better post-pandemic world exploded and remains strong.
There was also a changing of the guard in the US, still the key player in the global carbon casino. And with the ousting of Trump and the arrival of Biden, America's stance on the climate is now where it needs to be. Even better, Biden’s party hung on to the House of Representatives and won a controlling vote in the Senate.
With the presidency and both houses of Congress under progressive control - and in possession of a clear mandate for climate action, at least until mid-term elections in late 2022 - there will be no knuckle-dragging. The US has now officially rejoined the Paris climate agreement and there's a fair wind for pro-environmental policies.
Taken together, these national political tremors of 2020 promise to deliver an international earthquake in 2021 and beyond. According to a perceptive analysis by Bloomberg Green journalist Akshat Rathi, they are signs that the world is finally moving decisively towards a low-carbon future. Climate action, he writes, “is starting to be ‘institutionalized’ - that is, getting deeply embedded into how the world works”.
This year will also see a ramping up of pressure from those decades-long (and hitherto frustratingly unsuccessful) international efforts to institutionalise environmental action. On the climate front, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected to release its latest scientific assessment in July, which can only strengthen the scientific case for urgent action. November will usher in the postponed COP26 climate summit, at which that action should materialise in the form of even more ambitious national carbon pledges.
The race is on! And, as Bill Gates has described in his new book - How to Avoid Climate Disaster - it's still a case of Mission Possible.