We have grown accustomed to grim climate news. Despite scientists’ warnings and communities’ protests, catastrophic floods, record-breaking heatwaves, devastating wildfires, and famine-inducing droughts are becoming increasingly frequent.
But, occasionally, a pleasant political surprise encourages policymakers and activists to press on in the fight against global warming. The recent passage of the United States Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which will accelerate America’s clean energy transition, is a case in point.
We have experienced similar uplifting moments before. In the months leading up to the adoption of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, US and China announced a joint plan to slash emissions that helped pave the geopolitical path to that historic deal. In 2014, hundreds of thousands of Americans participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City, confounding all turnout estimates and prompting then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to speak out and emphasise how important protests are.
Like the IRA, these victories seemed to come out of the blue. But social movements help to bring about such progress, and can grow stronger when the political winds shift in their favour.
Moreover, the new US law could not be better timed, because the pace picks up for the climate movement at this time of year. A few weeks from now, heads of state will gather in New York for the UN General Assembly, which will be followed by a mayoral summit in Buenos Aires, the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
Climate negotiators are used to entering such gatherings determined to declare progress at any cost and use sheer force of will to keep the focus on climate justice. In recent years, youth activists have called our bluff: One cannot say that efforts to tackle the climate emergency are sufficient when politicians do little more than talk.
But the IRA’s passage means that at this late hour in the fight against global warming, we can prepare for forthcoming meetings with something new and tangible in hand. The US is the largest historical emitter of planet-warming gases and in recent years has been one of the main laggards in international fora aimed at addressing the problem. But the IRA keeps the Americans in the game in the run-up to this year’s international climate talks.
The new law not only puts the US on course to reduce its own pollution sharply, but also will likely drive down the prices of renewable energy. That will make it easier for many emerging economies and low-income countries to adopt renewables rather than build more coal-fired power plants.
Notwithstanding political obstacles to progress, there are signs around the world that things are moving in the right direction. The European Union wants the share of renewables in its energy mix to reach at least 40 per cent by 2030. India’ transport sector, which accounts for 14 per cent of the country’s overall emissions, has leapfrogged ahead by joining the First Movers Coalition, which aims to decarbonise heavy industry and long-distance transport sectors responsible for 30 per cent of global emissions. Colombia’s recently elected government has laid out a hugely ambitious climate and environmental justice agenda that promises to end the country’s destructive model of resource extraction.
Significantly, China’s solar industrial boom has enabled the price of renewable energy to fall to new lows. In Brazil, wind and solar energy generation increased in 2021 and now account for over 13 per cent of the country’s energy mix, exceeding the OECD’s clean-energy indicator for that year.
Political breakthroughs on climate issues can happen overnight, unforeseen. For years, the fossil-fuel industry has been determined to convince us that we can’t live without coal, oil, and natural gas. But the spike in energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that we simply cannot continue to feed our addiction.
While fossil-fuel companies reap unprecedented windfall profits, soaring energy prices are causing misery for the world’s most vulnerable people and have driven millions more into poverty for the first time. Even in developed countries, lower-income families may have to choose between food and heat this winter.
Just as the IRA seeks to protect the US population from volatile fossil-fuel prices and their knock-on effects, every other government must fulfill its responsibility to safeguard its citizens. If they do, historians will regard this moment as the time when the US unleashed a massive anti-poverty program and people everywhere forever connected climate policy with their well-being.
We are still far from where we need to be in addressing climate change, but we are a big step further along from where we were at the beginning of 2022. The IRA is not perfect – a glaring flaw is the absence of funding to help poorer countries adapt to climate change – but it demonstrates that enormous domestic obstacles can be overcome. COP27 is around the corner, and leaders must come to the table with a sense of responsibility and tangible evidence of their commitment to act.
Christiana Figueres is a former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where she oversaw the landmark Paris agreement on climate change. May Boeve is Executive Director of 350.org.www.project-syndicate.orgCopyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.