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Numerous public and private leaders have committed to climate action with targets of climate neutrality or net-zero emissions. However, as we enter the year 2020, the world faces a fundamental trilemma of wicked, interconnected challenges: global warming, growing inequality, and rising nationalism. Therefore, a well-designed net-zero strategy must tackle the climate crisis and promote economic opportunities for the less privileged at the same time.

Global warming increases inequality

It has already made poor countries substantially poorer and its effects have hit the less privileged the hardest. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are, for instance, far less able to adapt to droughts than their counterparts in Switzerland. In the Middle-East, the root cause of the Syrian civil war and resulting turmoil was a severe drought in the years 2006 to 2011, worsened by a warming climate. This forced scores of farmers to abandon their cropland and flock to already crowded cities.

Similarly – as the 'gilets jaunes' (yellow vests) protests in France have shown – measures to combat climate change, however well-intended, may lead to increasing inequality. In this case an increase in fuel tax was perceived as overtly burdening disadvantaged parts of society. Although aimed at slashing pollution, the planned tax would have passed the costs on to drivers.

Rising inequality is driving millions of people to seek safer havens

Global warming and its effects on inequality are a toxic combination: due to rising sea-levels, tens of millions of coastal city dwellers may soon become displaced. Severe droughts could render vast amounts of agricultural land in Africa infertile, forcing farmers to earn their living elsewhere. Threatened by the unexpected rush of anguished newcomers, locals can and have reacted with strong protectionism, as seen in 2015 in Europe.

But responding to climate-related stressors with a push towards nationalism is a move in the wrong direction – one that risks us getting caught in a vicious cycle. Although we know that the climate crisis is fuelling growing global and local inequality, once nationalistic parties are in power, it is unlikely that their policies will accelerate investments into measures that mitigate climate change. On the contrary: as we have seen in the United States, growing nationalism and unwavering support for domestic fossil fuel production has, under President Trump, shifted public funding even further away from addressing climate change and the social injustice it is creating. Instead of dealing with the root cause, the government has focused on deploying military might against the impacts and unrest caused by a warming climate.

This vicious cycle can be broken

Investments in emissions reductions projects and clean technologies can provide opportunities to disadvantaged parts of society, thereby fighting inequality. Alongside reducing and avoiding greenhouse gas emissions at the source; these projects are also profitable.

Developing countries lack the means to realise a low-carbon economy. But if investments are not made today, these countries risk being locked into carbon-heavy infrastructure. Without additional financial backing, decisions to invest in centralised coal power plants, for example, may take precedence over improving grid infrastructure for decentralised renewable energy. Clogged, polluted megacities will become the norm if plans for clean public transport infrastructure and green buildings are not realised. We need to drive climate finance into emerging economies or we risk a future where it is impossible to reach the global goals of the Paris Agreement.

In very practical terms: over 600 million people in Africa are still not connected to the power grid. This means that just 2 out of 5 people across 36 countries have access a reliable supply of energy. Communities are forced to either live without electricity for their basic needs, or produce it themselves by using extremely expensive (and polluting) diesel generators. Investments in solutions such as solar home systems and mini-grids can be made by financing emission reduction projects. These solutions have short payback times and lead to direct CO2 reductions by removing the need to burn diesel. They also directly promote equal opportunities by allowing people to switch on lamps to read and study at night, charge a mobile phone, or listen to the radio.

Many have, for the first time, been inspired and empowered to champion the cause of climate justice. Throughout 2019, young people around the globe have been out on the streets, moved to a great extent by Greta Thunberg's call for climate action. The key demand of the “Fridays for Future" protests is for our entire society to set ambitious targets to achieve net-zero emissions as soon as 2030.

But what does “net-zero" really mean?

What measures can companies and countries take in order to meet this goal? While the answer depends greatly on the unique situation of a government or business, a credible, ambitious, and meaningful net-zero strategy involves two steps. To reduce all possible direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. And then to go above and beyond by bringing GHG emissions outside one's own system boundaries down to zero – and ideally below zero to become “climate positive" – by investing in projects and technologies that create economic opportunities for less privileged communities and support the Sustainable Development Goals. As global warming increases inequality, we need to make sure the solutions we deploy to solve it do not.

The world is at a crossroads – we need to ramp up climate ambition and ensure a just transition for all

As we work towards net-zero, we must make sure to invest in solutions that mitigate climate change and support those who are hardest hit by the impacts of it. It is up to us to decide the kind of future we want to leave for our grandchildren. To achieve the vision of a stable climate, an end to poverty, and an open, tolerant society, we need high ambitions. But we also need transformative action. Starting now. Climate action projects can help deliver that.

Want to help accelerate global climate action and ensure a just transition for all? Join our movement and ActNow to support climate protection projects that are driving down emissions and empowering global communities right now. Join in on and #LetsActNow!