In 2019, climate strikes filled the streets worldwide. Time is running out, and after the catharsis of the protests, governments and industries must change tack. Radically so.
If we have learned anything from the recent UN climate conference in Madrid (COP25) it is that governments don't have our backs. By themselves, governments are not going to save us from dangerous climate change. The outcome of the conference is very far from an adequate response to the urgency of climate change, and seems to make a joke of the conference’s slogan "Time for action". At least some governments thought it was "Time for Delay". Major topics were largely kicked down the road, to be discussed again next year when the UN climate conference lands in Glasgow in 2020, including devising rules to govern carbon trading, securing mid- and long-term climate finance, and responding to questions about whether and how to compensate loss and damage due to climate change impacts.
The conference demonstrated a crisis of international cooperation. Big carbon players, particularly the U.S., Brazil and Australia, aimed to erode the 2015 Paris Agreement, shirked responsibilities, and tried to undermine the Agreement’s mechanism to increase governmental ambition. Other giants, in particular India and China, were lying low, awaiting how the world might look like by end of 2020 – after the U.S. election – rather than committing to anything now. Arguably, an even worse COP25 outcome has been prevented; for instance, more ambitious participants in the negotiations, including the EU, simply refused to agree to carbon trading that involves loopholes and tricks that would undermine the Paris Agreement. As the adage goes: no deal is better than a bad deal!
However, it’s not all bad news on the climate action front. During the same conference, thousands of people (500,000 according to the organisers) took part in a climate march in the Spanish capital. Worldwide, millions have by now taken to the streets demanding more climate action. For the first time, we are witnessing a global climate movement, largely led by youth. Ever since schoolgirl Greta Thunberg’s initial lonely protest outside the Swedish Parliament, school strikes have sprung up worldwide, with recent global strikes on 15 March and 24 May 2019, and again a weeklong one from 20 to 27 September, to coincide with a major UN Climate Summit in New York. In the wake of mass youth mobilisation, scientists, parents, healthcare professionals, and other groups organised themselves in ‘Scientists for Future’, ‘Parents for Future’, etc.
Such unprecedented mass mobilisation has sent a strong signal to politicians and decision-makers. For instance, the German Green Party’s massive win, becoming the second largest party in the 2019 European Parliament election, has largely been helped by mass youth mobilisation. Prior to the elections, German Youtubers circulated a video blasting ruling parties’ inadequate response to the climate crisis, and calling on young voters to cast their ballots for other parties than the ruling Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. To gain the support of a new (and divided) European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen (a German Christian Democrat) promised a ‘Green Deal’ for the EU during her first 100 days in office.
Indeed, during the climate conference in Madrid, the European Commission presented its Green Deal, declaring Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050, and introducing a package of measures including massive investments in technology, the redirection of funds, the deployment of carbon pricing mechanisms, and measures to enable a just transition that should ensure socio-economic fairness amid radical changes. The European Council has since largely backed the Green Deal. However, major questions remain. For instance, despite its green words, the EU in its role of a major trading power still negotiates trade agreements that are inconsistent with its own climate goals. A recently negotiated agreement with the South American Mercosur trading block, for instance, will result in more damaging trade and consumption of German cars and Brazilian beef. This example illustrates how the goal to become climate neutral cuts to the core of the EU’s existence as an economic partnership, single market, and a champion of international trade. Climate neutrality will not be merely achieved through a package of policy measures but through a reconsideration of the very purpose of the EU. It seems fair to say that the EU Green Deal represents an important initial signal, but its true value remains to be seen.
Climate action, however, should not only be seen in terms of governmental or EU action. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, an enormous number of businesses, investors, civil society organisations, cities and regions have made their own commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to help adapt to already occurring impacts of climate change. The UN Climate Secretariat currently records over 24,000 actions by more than 17,000 of such non-state and local actors.
The momentum for non-state and local action has proven remarkably resilient against the negative effects of political backlashes. For instance, the U.S. – despite a recalcitrant federal government – is still within reach of its initial commitments under the Paris Agreement, in no small measure due to the enormous mobilisation of an aptly named ‘We’re Still In’ coalition of businesses, education organizations, cities, states and regions. Indeed, the potential of non-state and local actors is enormous. According to a recent study, even a limited number of ‘cooperative initiatives’ between such actors worldwide – if fully scaled and implemented – could significantly help close the global emissions gap to limit global warming to 2°C.
Amidst gloomy climate headlines, the enormous increase of actions by non-state and local actors since 2015 provides a rare cause for optimism. However, we must keep in mind that non-state and local commitments are ultimately promises, many of which may not be kept. Contrary to governmental commitments, non-state and local commitments are rarely scrutinised by the public. The relative ease by which such actors make promises makes greenwashing, e.g. by large corporations, a real threat.
One of the few hopeful outcomes of the UN climate conference in Madrid is the fact that governments have agreed to prolong a UN agenda for climate action, emphasising the importance of tracking non-state and local climate actions to make sure they are effective.
Our best hope after an otherwise disappointing round of climate negotiations is that the EU translates its Green Deal commitments into real global climate leadership, and that action beyond governments will multiply exponentially among all actors, from every boardroom to every street. In 2020, the EU should ensure progress on the voluntary actions of the many bottom-up, local and non-state climate actions within Europe, while also pursuing the full implementation of the Green Deal.
 See: UNFCCC (2019) Global Climate Action/NAZCA. Website. (accessed: 18 December 2019).
 NewClimate Institute, Data-Driven Lab, PBL, German Development Institute/Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Global climate action from cities, regions and businesses: Impact of individual actors and cooperative initiatives on global and national emissions. 2019 edition. Research report prepared by the team of Takeshi Kuramochi, Swithin Lui, Niklas Höhne, Sybrig Smit, Maria Jose de Villafranca Casas, Frederic Hans, Leonardo Nascimento, Paola Tanguy, Angel Hsu, Amy Weinfurter, Zhi Yi Yeo, Yunsoo Kim, Mia Raghavan, Claire Inciong Krummenacher, Yihao Xie, Mark Roelfsema, Sander Chan, Thomas Hale.
 See: Chan, S., Boran, I., van Asselt, H., Iacobuta, G., Niles, N., Rietig, K., ... & Eichhorn, F. (2019). Promises and risks of nonstate action in climate and sustainability governance. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 10(3), e572.
 See: Chan, S. & J. Bencini (2019) Toolbox for Multi-Stakeholder Climate Partnerships. A Policy Framework to Stimulate Bottom-up Climate Actions. Study. European Economic and Social Committee.