Hope and challenge at New York Climate Week

By George Ames

I’ve just returned from New York Climate Week – jam-packed with events, talks, discussions and powerful exchanges about the state of the world and what is being done, and needs to be done, to try and keep us on track to 1.5.

There’s always a worry that a conference of this nature, especially when you consider the prospect of more than 500 talks going on across the city in five days, will become numbed echo-chambers of blah. But taking that view would be too cynical and actually a long way from the truth.

While it’s true that panel-fatigue is real, and that there was a great deal of repetition around the need to collaborate, go faster, build partnerships etc, there are positives to take from this. Surely we need to find hope in how business leaders, policy makers, climate scientists, governors, mayors, manufacturers and consumer experts are in agreement about the need to go harder and faster on climate. Similarly, we should support and encourage businesses that break cover in an environment like this to say ‘we’re working hard on this, we can’t fix it alone, but we’re here for the fight’.

Does this mean that we can stop worrying as all is in hand and the situation will look after itself? Hell no.

Here are some stats from a few of the talks that show both the hope and the challenge of our current situation:

  • Approx 76% of your personal emissions can be reduced by changing banks
  • 25% of all car sales in California are now EV
  • Only 1% of fossil fuel companies’ budgets are invested in renewables
  • 40% of all global energy is for heating and cooling

Change is possible, and action is powerful, but there is still a long, long way to go.

There was a lot of talk about how we’re impacting the curve of our trajectory away from 1.5, but how this is only a slight bend when a nosedive is required. So it was no surprise that Rishi Sunak’s back-pedal on climate, just when this global climate conference was mid-flow, was something of a talking point: ‘oh, you’re from London, we just heard about Rishi’s announcement’ – cringe.

There was a unanimous sense of the need to move beyond fossil fuels. And it was interesting to hear about the power of corporate banking and how companies moving their money out of banks that invest in fossil fuels can see their footprints significantly reduce. Topo Impact and Clean Creatives highlighted The Carbon Bankroll and Exponential Roadmap to provide more guidance here.

Other outtakes included:

  • The role of local: the power of mayors and civic authorities to implement change that affects residents and consumers, through local infrastructure, investment and incentivisation that supports and empowers behaviour change
  • How AI and machine-based learning can translate into real world action. Starting with the reality of what people are doing and searching for online, and translating it into consumer-focused behaviour change programmes
  • How crucial CFOs are for driving corporate change. How it’s time for decarbonisation and sustainability to be unashamedly about commercial focus and potential. Should it be that CSOs aim to work themselves out of a job by making their role part and parcel of everybody else’s? And don’t underestimate the power of the lawyers…
  • The importance of science, rigour, and facts to cut through the relevant but repetitive corporate narratives. This also helps ensure the room sits up and pays attention
  • How this conference didn’t have a particular ‘type’ of delegate. Especially when moving beyond the core areas of The Hub and The Nest and heading into the events spread around the city. From old school finance to on-the-street protestors; from policy makers to business leaders; from NGOs to consultants. When climate is everybody’s business there is reason to be positive
  • The best bits were often off stage and away from the limelight. It was less about grand announcements and press releases, more about a coming together of a determined crowd to share and learn from each other

So where to from here? Talk naturally starts to turn to COP28, who will be there, and what will be said. But to think about the next diary date is a distraction from what really needs to happen.

We mustn’t risk rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic as the melting iceberg approaches. We need hard work, from everyone everywhere, to keep the 1.5 ambition alive. We’re in the crucial moments now and need system change, not feel-good fussing around the edges.

And my advice to anyone who goes to New York next year? Take the subway, pack some plasters for your blistered feet, stay downtown and try and get a meeting with a view at the top of a skyscraper. Oh, and there is a good chance you’ll fall in love with the place – don’t forget to go home.

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