Climate Change: From Vision to Reality, Getting the Job Done

Published on 6th February 2024

I want us to start in 2050, imagining what the world will look like if we do succeed in both limiting global warming to 1.5°C and protecting all peoples from climate change impacts.

Of course, it will be no utopia, and there is a potential extinction to contend with, but I will come back to that.

In this vision of success, global energy systems are at net-zero emissions. Countries – or at least regions – will largely be energy self-sufficient.

Renewables have made energy accessible, affordable and predictable for all. That means we avoid the shocks and inequalities that have shaped economic trends and conflicts in the past.

The global financial system has prioritised human wellbeing over servicing only the bottom line.

The trillions previously spent on fossil fuel subsidies are available for better purposes: health care, education, safety nets for those who fall behind.

Our resilient societies have moved from an extractive to a regenerative relationship with nature.

It’s no longer medically hazardous to go outside in major cities due to air pollution. Millions of lives are saved each year as a consequence.

25 years of building investments in climate resilience and adaptation, changes in agricultural practices and harnessing nature have blunted the damage to people and property from extreme climate events.

You don’t need to be a fortune-teller to see that the multi-decade decarbonization journey will be among the greatest global economic transformations of our age.

In full flight, it will be comparable in scope to the industrial revolution or the advent of the digital economy.

Meaning it is also among the greatest commercial opportunities of our age, and – if we get the transformation right – it will be the advent of profound societal changes and real-world benefits for the 9.7 billion people expected on our planet in 2050.

I want to make one thing clear: this vision is not bright-eyed wishful thinking.

It is reflected across the full gamut of the Paris Agreement and in agreements negotiated line-by-line, word-by-word, comma-by-comma, at subsequent UN climate conferences.

It is neither utopian nor dystopian.  It is utilitarian, pragmatic and achievable, based on existing but not yet fully scaled technologies and implemented policies.

2030

So let’s work our way backwards. We are now in January 2030.

The country progress reports, formally referred to as Biennial Transparency Reports, show global emissions have been reduced by 43% by 2030.

They also show the emission curves can be bent further downwards where gaps remain in implementation, particularly if support continues to ramp up.

Renewable energy is abundant and affordable, including in developing countries, delivering fully on the COP28 agreement to triple renewables.

Record investments are going into national and regional grids, and demand-side solutions to drive investment certainty.

A fair price on carbon – traded globally with integrity – is further driving investments towards renewables, super-charging innovation.

We have broken the investment cycle in fossil fuels.  Economies have diversified, their individual pathways away from fossil fuel production are creating more jobs, stronger supply chains and more stable economic growth.

Methane emissions are negligible, through simple but rapid action across all industries.

Billions more people have the practical tools to adapt and withstand climate impacts. Early warning systems have covered all people on Earth since 2027.

The Loss and Damage fund is rapidly responding where losses and damages are occurring – demonstrating that innovative approaches – such as the Transitional Committee established by UN Climate Change after COP27 – can yield real-world results.

2025

Now move your imaginations with me to the closing plenary of COP30 in Belem, Brazil, where we celebrate having secured “Mission 1.5”.

Earlier in the year, all countries put forward a new national climate plan – these Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs version 3.0 – are markedly different from those that went before.

For starters, their pledges are 1.5-aligned, they cover every greenhouse gas, and they lay out how each sector of the economy will transition.

Secondly, they address how each country contributes to the outcomes of the Global Stocktake of 2023.

The United States, China, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Germany, India, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, France, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Italy, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the European Union and Türkiye as the G20 –  together responsible for 80% of the world’s emissions in 2025 –  have seriously re-engineered their targets on this basis.

Because they know that PR spin, re-branding or tinkering around the edges won’t cut it to meet their climate responsibilities, and that it would also leave them badly behind the innovation curve, not at the cutting edge.

These national climate plans aren’t just pieces of paper, they must be backed by robust policy instruments, costed out and translatable into shovel-ready investment opportunities.

Every country has also delivered a National Adaptation Plan – simply speaking – a resilience plan for each country to protect its people, their livelihoods, and nature from spiralling climate impacts.

Countries are embarking on climate-resilient development.

During 2025, UN Climate Change has produced a report, synthesising the Biennial Transparency Reports submitted before the end of 2024.

This report is a significant milestone –  the first progress report from countries on their implementation of the Paris Agreement since its adoption 9 years previous.

It demonstrates that the ‘implementation gap’ is just as important as the ‘ambition gap’ and shows the critical role of international cooperation in closing it.

So, countries responded by overhauling their standard operating procedures.

Bold climate action must be mainstreamed across all functions of government and all aspects of business and investment, with public and private sectors working in concert, together with communities and experts, leaving no one behind.

We see the Just Transition moving from concept to lived reality, for real people everywhere.

2024

Now, take a mental walk with me, a few miles down the road here in Baku, to COP29 in November – a critical enabling COP in the climate ambition cycle.

What must we do this year to ensure the world’s shared goals remain within reach?

We must spend the year working collectively to evolve our global financial system so it’s fit-for-purpose, with a clear plan to meaningfully execute the climate transition.

Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that to achieve this transition, we need money, and lots of it.

$2.4 trillion, if not more.

$2.4 trillion is what the High-Level Expert Group on Climate Finance estimates is needed every year to invest in renewable energy, adaptation, and other climate-related issues in developing countries, excluding China.

Whether on slashing emissions or building climate-resilience, it’s already blazingly obvious that finance is the make-or-break factor in the world’s climate fight – in quantity, quality, and innovation.

In fact, without far more finance, 2023’s climate wins will quickly fizzle away into more empty promises.

We need torrents – not trickles – of climate finance.

The New Collective Quantified Goal on Climate Finance must be agreed. Countries must be confident that they will be able to rapidly access sufficient concessional support.

With finance, as with other commitments, transparency is essential for building trust, delivering impact and therefore forging more ambitious commitments.

Climate finance must not be quietly pilfered from aid budgets. And it must be designed to be leveraged, driving and protecting development gains, whilst delivering concrete implementation of climate action.

In parallel, clear progress must be made to address the assessment of investment risk, the allocation of Special Drawing Rights, innovative sources of financing from sectors, and creative mechanisms to tackle unreasonable debt burdens.

2024 is the year multi-lateral development banks must demonstrate - with concrete actions - their centrality in the world’s climate fight, and their determination to deliver impact at scale.

They should take bold steps towards financial innovation that will double, if not triple, their collective financial capacity by 2030 - particularly with respect to grants and concessional finance.

Furthermore, they should commit to leveraging their engagement with the private sector to double and triple the overall rate of private capital mobilisation.

Today

Which brings me to today. I stand before you at, what is now estimated to be above, 1.1 degrees of warming, coming out of the hottest year on record by a huge margin.

It will take an Olympian effort over the next two years to put us on track to where we need to be in 2030 and 2050.

In fact, the action we take in the next two years will shape how much climate-driven destruction we can avoid over the next two decades, and far beyond.

The Olympic motto “faster, higher, stronger” should be our shared climate mantra.

UN Climate Change will be stepping up to help coordinate the support available for countries to build the capacity needed to deliver NDCs, NAPs, and BTRs, working with all those active in this space.

We have already proven we can meet the challenge ahead, having bent the curve of expected global temperature rise from nearly 5 degrees, to 3, closer to 2.5 through UN-convened global cooperation.

Whilst last year’s agreement on the Global Stocktake at COP28 was far from perfect, it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, and sends a very strong signal about the inevitability of global decarbonization.

But now is no time for victory laps. It’s time to get on with the job.

Likewise, hiding behind loopholes in decision texts, or dodging the hard-work ahead through selective interpretation, would be entirely self-defeating for any government, as climate impacts hammer every country’s economy and population.

To citizens around the world, I say directly, we need you. Your voices – demanding bolder climate actions now – need to be heard clearly by your representatives.

At UN Climate Change, we will not rest in pushing for the highest ambition – in accordance with the science – working side-by-side with all governments, businesses and community leaders.

Which brings me back to the extinction in 2050 I mentioned at the start of this lecture.

Having completed its core mission, that is the extinction of UN Climate Change as we currently know it.

In a functioning era of implementation, I can foresee our organisation existing only as a data repository, accurately reflecting the numbers, as countries deliver on their commitments, in line with the already agreed global targets.

It is my earnest hope that by 2050, this organization will be rendered redundant, in a net-zero, climate-resilient global economy.

Consigned to a place in the history books: a chapter about how humanity saved itself and its only home.

By Simon Stiell

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary


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