Climate Week NYC saw the UN declare the 2020s “the decade of delivery.” But while progress has been made, are we too self-congratulatory, staying comfortable within our own echo chambers? Are we really delivering enough at the scale and pace needed?
Last week, Climate Week NYCbrought thousands together to showcase climate action and highlight the need to do more. Discussion ranged from energy and food transition to health, livelihoods and equality.
It was an inspiring week; one that saw the United Nations declare the 2020s, "the decade of delivery." But it was also frustrating in parts: Time is running out; and while progress has been made, are we too self-congratulatory, staying comfortable within our own echo chambers? Are we really delivering enough at the scale and pace needed?
Against a backdrop suitably chaotic for the city that never sleeps, it was a stimulating five days, with much-needed discussion and debate — but of course, the irony of thousands flying to a climate summit is not lost on anyone, begging the question: Just how impactful was Climate Week?
The value comes in what’s next. We’ve talked about what needs to be done, now the conversation needs to move on to the how. Where do we focus our efforts to ensure meaningful delivery? Reflecting on what we saw and heard, we see six areas as critical to addressing the climate crisis, some of which came through loud and clear at Climate Week; others, not so much.
1. Raising awareness and deepening understanding of how to deliver system change for sustainability
While the need for system change was on everyone’s lips last week — referenced at least once during every event we were at — the interventions discussed were too often not systemic at all.
In fact, they were typically isolated or short term, lacking the potential to deliver transformational, long-term change. They frequently failed to address the root cause of an issue, or to attempt to change the mindsets, values and behaviours that drive our currently unsustainable trajectory.
We need to bridge the gap between system change rhetoric and real action. This means looking at the fundamental systems on which we rely – food, energy, shipping, health – with a focus not on the individual parts, but on how they are interacting. Our world is dynamic and complex, and a system change approach recognises this.
It means reconfiguring the relationships between different aspects within a system towards sustainability outcomes. I’ve previously covered six steps to delivering a systems-changing strategy, as well as how you can tackle common barriers that may hold you back. So, there’s no excuse to not get started.
2. Recognising that the goals of a system need to fundamentally change
Embracing system change means recognising that our current systems are no longer fit-for-purpose. Consider our global food system and how it’s putting relentless pressure on the very land that sustains it; or our energy system, and its fuelling of carbon emissions and climate breakdown.
We all need to acknowledge what changing the goals of our systems might look like. It’s a daunting prospect and one that forces us to challenge our preconceptions of how the world works, but it’s vital to delivering change. For example, what could a commercial model that prioritises long-term economic, social and environmental viability over short-term profit look like? And crucially, how can we align the incentives needed to make it happen?
3. Recognising the interconnected nature of climate-related risks across multiple systems and sectors
There is still not enough conversation about the raft of indirect impacts of climate change. From impacts on human health to the disruption of food supply to triggering mass migration and social upheaval, there is not yet a widespread awareness that the impacts of climate change go well beyond adverse weather conditions.
We need everyone, everywhere, to recognise the dependencies between the world’s sustainability issues, and therefore the potential of their interventions to have multiple benefits across multiple systems.
4. Putting people at the heart of the transition
Probably the biggest shift in people’s thinking at Climate Week was widespread recognition of the need to put people at the centre of change. There are real signs of hope that this is possible: Millions are marching across the world and we’re seeing people-led climate innovations at local, national and international scale.
5. Walking the talk around collaboration
We know that the world’s issues are too big for any one person, company or government to tackle alone, and while we’re all talking — a lot! — about collaboration, are we actually doing it? What became clear at Climate Week was just how similar many initiatives, campaigns and innovations — often developed in isolation of one another — there now are.
The result? Intense competition for attention and for the resources needed to fund the work.
We need more collaboration between markets, sectors and industries, pooling ideas and resources while openly sharing learnings. Only then can we avoid duplication and maximise efficiency. Examples of successful collaborations abound, each bringing together wide-ranging players in pre-competitive initiatives capable of prototyping innovations and scaling up existing activities for impact. Right now, there is an urgent and critical need to align similar initiatives to bring additionality and acceleration of impact.
6. Striking the right balance between appealing to the head and the heart
This year, with the spotlight on the climate crisis, there has been more mainstream media attention and public outcry than ever before, but we need to recognise that an emotional appeal only goes so far in creating the space for change.
There’s no doubt that emotive moments such as the millions marching in the Global Climate Strike help make demands for urgent and decisive action. However, we then need to bolster these with rational cases for change, made so well by successful initiatives such as the RE100 — a group of the world’s most influential companies committed to 100 percent renewable power. We need game-changing sustainability strategies that respond to the scale of the emergency with solutions that deliver rapid and deep decarbonisation throughout the 2020s.
Our strategy is evolving. Is yours?
As the decade of delivery hits, we all need to ask ourselves how we can create the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time. We need ambition and alignment. A more sustainable future is still within our grasp, but only just.