‘Mission Possible’: Can green growth solve the climate crisis?

Powerful players are lining up to propel talk into action, hoping to decarbonise the economy faster and further.

Amina Mohammed and Hello Kitty
United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed, left, has aimed to jumpstart investment in global growth consistent with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, including climate action and reduced inequality [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

United Nations, New York City – With the United Nations Climate Action Summit a fait accompli, environmental advocates are busy outlining what comes next on the path to abate an evermore existential crisis.

At the international gathering in New York City on Monday, country delegates and titans of industry traded insights and strategies for how to push the needle forward.

But with so many interdependent tracks – nine, to be exact – to accelerate the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement, where should energies be focused now? Resilience, nature-based solutions or all of the above?

UN Special Envoy Luis Alfonso de Alba, appointed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as summit chair, sounded positive notes afterwards about the number of countries on the path to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Yet he said commitments would mean little without follow-through.

“We need to see that they deliver,” said Ambassador de Alba, referring to nationally determined greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030 that demand “scaling up the level of ambition”.

“It’s a very complex process,” he told Al Jazeera, “requiring a lot of coordination between different agencies in a government and … consultation with the private sector and business”.

De Alba said most of the specific initiatives to address everything from air quality to youth mobilisation were “very encouraging” but admitted that “we are still far from where we need to be”.

For most countries, the transition to a low-carbon economy will be achieved through a combination of national political leadership and big investments in green growth.

Such growth can range from small local efforts to massive public works. While developed economies generally must remake high-polluting businesses, developing ones can often just start green.

With the wheels of diplomacy slow to move – and some fossil fuel majors resistant to change – much of the challenge is left to those standing ready to spend money on decarbonising sectors that have long been reliant on oil and gas.

Climate activists may often be sceptical about the intentions of financial institutions to propel the clean-energy transition, but the UN is relying on the support of the World Economic Forum, World Bank and other international organisations to lead the way.

‘The money is there’

The Geneva-based World Economic Forum was invited to join India and Sweden in creating a blueprint to convert the hard-to-abate industrial sectors such as cement and steel to renewable energy sources.

With the Mission Possible Platform, their task is to assess available technologies and work with a group of companies – in mobility fields ranging from aviation and shipping to iron and chemicals – to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century while turning the “brown” economy “green”.

“In most countries now, building out renewables is just as cost-effective, if not cheaper” than constructing new fossil-fuel infrastructure, said Emily Farnworth, the Head of Climate Change at the World Economic Forum.

Heads of states attend the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town
Heads of states attend the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa [Sumaya Hisham/Reuters]

“So it’s more of a political question,” Farnworth told Al Jazeera. “The money is there. But the economics still needs government support to help the private sector co-invest and make sure the right policy frameworks are in place.”

Farnworth said that plenty of oil and gas firms even have leaders “who are completely on board with the transition, but they get dragged down by the lowest common denominator”.

For the business and political domains, she said much of the climate progress is “in Europe and in the smaller nations that are feeling the impacts”. Large swaths of the planet remain underfunded, however, jeopardising success in hitting key climate milestones.

So, the UN says it tapped the World Bank to supervise “financial flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development”.

Mafalda Duarte is head of the World Bank-housed Climate Investment Funds (CIF), which is a $8.3bn mechanism for testing new business models to catalyse environmental action in developing and middle-income countries.

One of her main programmes focuses on new urban infrastructure and technology in about 20 mid-sized cities that are growing rapidly. The idea is to go straight to renewables and other clean technologies when the initiative launches next year.

“If we really want to see major advancements in energy transition and access, we need to invest more in storage solutions and smart management of grid systems,” Duarte told Al Jazeera, highlighting the $250m that the United Kingdom committed this week to battery storage.

“We support all of the value chain, from project development to investment,” she added about CIF, which aggregates the actions of banks while combining technical and financial capabilities.

Global Business Forum
At the third annual Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York City, business executives discussed the Climate Finance Leadership Initiative [Bloomberg]

At the Global Business Forum this week, UN Special Envoy for Climate Action Mike Bloomberg launched a partnership between his Climate Finance Leadership Initiative and the Association of European Development Finance Institutions to promote public-private collaboration and close the financing gap for emerging markets.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can achieve when government and business leaders work together on climate change,” Bloomberg said.

Notably, many corporate chieftains are calling for governments to impose a price on carbon emissions to fund the transition from within.

Nigel Topping, the CEO of We Mean Business – a coalition striving to accelerate the switch to renewables – believes that a high carbon price is crucial.

“This will be an important step towards driving innovation, efficiency and risk management, which will strengthen the global competitiveness of countries’ key industries to be market leaders in a zero-carbon world,” Topping said.

This taxation mechanism may be more viable in developed countries, but for many in the developing world, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) could be instrumental.

Established within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the South Korea-based fund helps with mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries and is currently on a $10bn investment drive.

Frank Rijsberman GGGI
Frank Rijsberman’s organisation, the Global Green Growth Institute, mobilises around $500m in capital every year for green projects [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

Also based in South Korea – and often working with GCF money – the Global Green Growth Institute emphasises sustainability in development. It selects projects dealing with energy, water, land use and green cities.

The institute’s director-general, Frank Rijsberman, says his organisation is preparing for the end of fossil-fuel use. He helps governments produce laws and regulations, then facilitates funding.

“Banks know perfectly well how to finance five-star hotels, but they don’t know how to finance renewable energy companies,” Rijsberman told Al Jazeera.

He likes to throw around pithy green phrases such as “electric mobility is about to disrupt markets” and “the best geoengineering is planting trees”.

Rijsberman’s institute takes an alternative approach, not competing directly for large-scale infrastructure projects that might be backed by the World Bank.

“For the longest time, the pitch was, ‘You should do sustainable development because it’s good for the world’,” he said. “But now, it’s ‘You should invest because it’s good for your wallet as well’. It’s commercially attractive.”

Source: Al Jazeera