Mullings from #ClimateWeekNY
We’re running out of time, we have no true north for adaptation, and we need a currency for the collective impact we seek to have
As I wait for my flight back to London from Climate Week in New York a few thoughts and insights are mulling in my head.
Urgency, speed and scale
After a brief reprieve in the early days of COVID our CO2 emissions roared back to even higher levels.
Given we are running out of time to slash emissions in half by 2030 (7 and a bit years) this is not a positive development. While highlights like the US IRA bill, California’s recent slate of legislations, countries like the UK seeing their CO2 footprint drop year on year, conversations in New York felt like they had a new sense of urgency for speed and scale. The technologies, many agreed, are available to have significant impact so what’s holding us back? An interesting debate at one event on whether it was finance or user/business choice.
Adaptation has a KPI problem
Whether it was called adaptation outright or veiled under “biodiversity” or “human resilience” there was an underlying tone about the conversation we are not having around climate. 90% of climate finance is flowing into mitigation… the hopeful assumption that we can fix this. 7% flows into adatation, the need to ensure our cities, citizens, roads can survive if we don’t.
At a World Economic Forum discussion with true experts on adaptation I raised a naive question: What is the metric to measure, forecast, deem success for adaptation. We have centered on CO2e for mitigation and there is plenty of money flowing into finding potential Gigacorns. But it does not feel like there will ever be a similar metric for adaptation. Is it lives saved, less fires burning, less floods inside city walls, less deaths from air pollution… or all of the above.
In 2018 Bill Gates and Ban Ki Moon launched an appeal for how $1.8 trillion deployed into adaptation could generate $7.1 trillion in value. More critically — just in case ( NB: irony) we miss our 2030 targets and create systemic shocks — adaptation infrastructure needs to be planned today and deployed tomorrow to be ready and available by 2030…and yet we’re all still rosy eyed on mitigation or silent (with notable exception of USV who published their adaptation thesis openly this summer).
Built environment is a key lever
Clearly biased as it is what I have decided to focus on, but enough conversations this week helped confirm that if we want to decarbonize NOW and AT SCALE the vector of attach is the built environment. It is the world’s largest asset class ($6 trillion), houses half of the world’s population, and buildings alone generate 40% of world greenhouse gas emissions.
But this is not a problem aspirational venture can solve alone. We can find and back sustainable technologies for design, building and operating of cities, but these will only have the necessary impact if the real estate sector demands it, the construction industry skills up to deploy it, and the insurance sector encourages it.
There was a lot of conversations around New York Local Law 97… a landmark 2019 law which comes into effect in 2024 which places a whopping $268/tonne CO2e tax on the operational carbon on New York buildings.
This is massive and will lead to action. But we need LL97 duplicated across all major C40 Cities… and quickly. We also need to ensure the same incentive exists for embodied carbon, especially in the Global South where the megacities of the future (and their required cement and steel) are yet to be built.
We lack a climate currency
Without wanting to sound all Kim Stanley Robinson on crypto and planet, I had enough conversations about blockchain use cases to incentivise collective action. A few weeks ago millions of Californians received an SMS asking them to help lower the load on the grid… and they did… and their communal action likely saved the grid. Should those who took action have received some recompense in return for their goodwill? How could it have been tracked, paid and balanced?
As a famed architect put it (I paraphrase): Economy and Ecology come from the same greek root for home… and yet for our economy we have a currency which provides the general value of a transaction or an action, while for ecology we have nothing but goodwill and feelgood.
So as I fly out of New York my mind is puzzled, excited, concerned about these various themes and points… and thoughtful of a quote I heard today which made me realise the folly we face:
“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshiping.”
― Hubert Reeves