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Editor’s note: We said we’d build back better. We didn’t. Now what?

We can stop burning fossil fuels rapidly to preserve civilization and a livable climate

build back better

In the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Secretary-General, the heads of the International Monetary Fund and International Energy Agency, and many heads of state, including the current president of the United States, all said that we needed to build back better.

But we didn’t.

Instead, pandemic-recovery stimulus packages totalling US$17.2 trillion provided more support for dirty industries than green ones in 15 of the G20 countries, including the world’s three largest economies – China, India and the United States, according to the Greenness of Stimulus Index calculated by consultancy Vivid Economics.

Not surprisingly, after energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions plunged in 2020 when much of the world hunkered down inside their homes, they surged back to record levels in 2021, with Chinese coal burning the biggest hole in our carbon budget.

Late in February, after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its grimmest report yet, the world’s top diplomat, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, was anything but diplomatic. He warned we are “sleepwalking to climated catastrophe,” describing the report as an “atlas of human suffering.” Nor did he mince words on who is culpable for “forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction,” singling out the world’s biggest polluters and their underwriters for being “guilty of arson of our only home” and calling out the world’s leaders for their “criminal” abdication of leadership.

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Back in 1988, at the first major climate summit (held in Toronto), world leaders said in their closing statement, “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war.”

Speaking of which, the doomsday clock, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is at 100 seconds to midnight – the closest it has ever been to apocalypse, and that was before Russian President Vladimir Putin, his pockets bulging with billions in fossil fuel revenues (more so after his invasion spiked prices), decided to invade Ukraine on the doorsteps of several NATO countries.
Personally, I would rather avoid cooking the planet while lining the pockets of petroleum pugilists like Putin, reckless enough to play chicken with nuclear bombs.

Fortunately, there is a way. We can stop burning fossil fuels; not immediately in one fell swoop, but rapidly in one decade.

We can save two birds (civilization and a livable climate) by dropping one stone (fossil fuels).

I would rather avoid cooking the planet while lining the pockets of petroleum pugilists like Putin, reckless enough to play chicken with nuclear bombs.

The people in charge of countries (more than 130 leaders, including the entire G20), financial houses (US$130 trillion worth) and corporations (more than 5,000, with a collective worth exceeding US$23 trillion) say they want to, all having declared they’re going to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or thereabouts.

The solutions to getting off fossil fuels are on the shelf. We can decarbonize the grid and electrify almost everything with renewable electricity, batteries, electric vehicles and heat pumps.
And we have the cash to put the solutions to work, with households, corporations and governments holding US$510 trillion in financial assets like stocks, bonds, pension funds, and cash and deposits. That’s triple the amount of 20 years ago, and more than five times global GDP.

So what is the problem?

It’s a combination of inertia and vested interests who are perverting our political systems to protect their profits, which they care about an awful lot.

Our political systems are marinated in oil and cooked by coal.

Swedish youth climate leader Greta Thunberg and her peers continue to inspire, and we need more people in the streets, but for this to change we also need the captains of industry on the winning side of the energy transition to care an awful lot.

These leaders already have more economic clout than the losers do, and now we need them to assert their political clout to break the inertia and cancel out the delay tactics of the losers.

They have the long-term interest, practical know-how and economic credibility to do this, and their leadership would help to create space for a new generation of political leaders with conviction and clarity on what needs to be done, and the courage to do it no matter what.

On the 52nd anniversary of Earth Day, we are launching Earth Index as a fundamental metric to keep score on whether countries are reducing emissions fast enough to get where they promised to be by 2030.

Starting this year, we will work the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World as a nucleus to illuminate this “say–do” gap revealed by Earth Index in the capitals of the G20, and what is required to close it.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, “Now is the time to turn rage into action.”

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