The Race to Sustainable Abundance
Abundance in a zero-emissions world means no longer exploiting and wasting finite resources, but rather valuing the nature that sustains and protects us. And three upcoming United Nations summits give governments the opportunity to listen to a chorus of calls for a healthier, more resilient future.
DHAKA/NEW YORK – The global race to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions as soon as possible is also a race to realize a new kind of abundance: of public health, vibrant nature, good jobs, greater equality, and more opportunity. To build this world of plenty, we must simultaneously speed up our fight against the causes of climate change and build resilience to its effects. And we need to do it now.
As three of the nine Global Ambassadors for the United Nations’ Race to Zero and Race to Resilience campaigns, we are working to mobilize cities, regions, businesses, investors, and the public behind major efforts between now and 2030. The aim is to halve GHG emissions, regenerate nature, and ensure that the four billion people most at risk globally can withstand the effects of climate change and thrive in spite of them.
We all have different backgrounds. But we agree that the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating health and economic effects highlight our responsibility – and create a unique opportunity – to imagine a more prosperous future for both people and planet.
Abundance in a zero-emissions world means no longer exploiting and wasting finite resources, but rather valuing the nature that sustains and protects us. It’s about living with an abundance of clean air and water, biodiversity, jobs, healthy food, equality, and justice.
To that end, the 2015 Paris climate agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2° Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, and to strive to keep it to 1.5°C. The science makes clear that every fraction of a degree of warming results in many more deaths and economic damage around the world. The private sector, local governments, communities, and individuals therefore have strong incentives to act on the Paris goals, even if it means stepping out ahead of their national governments.
These efforts will address factors contributing to major health problems and premature deaths – including air pollution from fossil fuels, extreme heat, and unhealthy diets – while promoting economic growth and creating millions of jobs. For example, by rethinking the food system – from the way food is produced, marketed, and sold to how it is disposed of – we can reduce GHG emissions from a sector that currently accounts for one-third of the global total while creating a source of employment, health, and carbon sinks.
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One approach, which the UN Food Systems Summit is driving forward, is the Food and Land Net Zero Country Alliance, a voluntary coalition of countries that commit to net-zero GHG emissions from food and land use by 2050. The alliance seeks to achieve this in a manner that increases productivity for smallholder farmers and enables them to produce more nutritious and sustainable products.
Work to cut emissions is well underway. Although it needs to accelerate, the solutions are largely known. Less understood is the Paris agreement’s call to set out national plans for enhancing climate adaptation capacity, strengthening resilience, and reducing vulnerability to climate change. But the two goals – mitigating climate change and preparing for its effects – are interdependent.
After all, the rollout of solar energy and wind farms, electric transport networks, and other clean infrastructure is a crucial part of the transition to a zero-emissions economy. But we need to build that infrastructure to withstand extreme heat and cold, floods, droughts, and wildfires. We also need to develop it in the most climate-vulnerable countries to power more resilient and profitable livelihoods, such as sustainable food systems.
Building resilience starts with local, community-tailored solutions, from early-warning systems for extreme weather to the restoration of natural capital such as forests, mangroves, and ocean ecosystems. But the lessons from these locally led projects must be shared around the world.
Finance will be crucial in this race to abundance, and – as UN Secretary-General António Guterres has advocated – needs to be split evenly between mitigation and adaptation. Doing so will unlock benefits, much like financing clean power does. According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, investing $1.8 trillion this decade in projects such as early-warning systems, mangrove protection, and water management could generate $7.1 trillion in net benefits.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the dangers of being unprepared, and the vulnerabilities in our current economic and health systems. It has demonstrated how public, economic, and planetary health are inextricably linked – and that we must now restore all three together. And this year offers three opportunities to advance that agenda.
In September, the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit will galvanize governments and the private sector to commit to sustainable solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges: poverty, gender inequality, hunger, and climate change.
That will set the stage for October’s UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Kunming, China, where governments will create a framework for reversing biodiversity loss this decade. Then, at the UN’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, they can leverage these new commitments to transform food systems and regenerate nature to develop strengthened climate action plans that match the Paris agreement’s goals.
The three summits give national governments the opportunity to heed the chorus of businesses, investors, cities, regions, and citizens calling for a healthier, more resilient future. We can all be winners in the race to sustainable abundance. The starter pistol has sounded.