We Must Win the Race to Net Zero

4 minute read
McKenna was the Chair of the United Nations’ High‐level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities. She is Canada’s former Minister of Environment and Climate Change from 2015 to 2019 and Minister of Infrastructure and Communities from 2019 to 2021. Ms. McKenna is a founder and principal of Climate and Nature Solutions and of Women Leading on Climate. She is also a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s Centre on Global Energy Policy and Climate School.

Canada’s summer of 2023 was not just hot; it was ablaze. Fires decimated an area the size of New York state. Tens of thousands of Canadians were forced from their homes. A territorial capital was evacuated. Heavy, acrid smoke sent air quality plummeting in both the U.S. and Europe. Our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, aptly dubbed it “Canada’s summer of fire and smoke.” 

Despite the fact that 90% of global GDP is covered by net zero targets, and there is real progress in scaling clean energy globally, the U.N.'s most recent progress assessment is unequivocal: The world is not on track. We need to phase out fossil fuels now and rapidly decarbonize all sectors of the economy or face catastrophic warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. Make no mistake: in Canada and far too many other countries, this summer was only a taste of what will follow if we breach this limit.

Read more: U.N. Climate Warning Also Comes With Clear Steps To Cut Emissions

This is why the can’t-do attitude of too many business leaders and politicians has to stop. In some circles, it’s become acceptable to give up on the 1.5°C target as too hard. This is pitiful—especially when we have the solutions. The world can’t afford more foot-dragging and excuses. Instead, we need to win the race to net zero and stop talking ourselves out of even stepping onto the track.

As a former competitive swimmer, I learned that the path to victory involves setting an ambitious goal, putting in the work every day, measuring progress, and always sprinting for the finish. Yes, we need a 2050 net zero goal. But like an athlete training for the Olympics a decade out, we also need the accountability that comes from near-term targets. For the world, this means peaking global emissions by 2025, and halving them by 2030.

Yet, just when we need them to be champions, too many business leaders and politicians sound like also-rans. Rather than act like winners, they act like losers in the most critical contest humanity has ever faced. 

As the chair of the United Nations’ High-Level Expert Group on Net Zero, we have provided a clear path leaders need to follow.

Our report doesn’t mince words. Integrity matters. Companies, financial institutions, cities and regions must have ambitious, science-based transition plans that drive emissions down across their value chain. They must shift investments from fossil fuels to clean energy now. They can’t defer real emissions reductions by simply buying carbon credits. They must lobby for, not against, climate action. And they must report publicly and transparently on their progress.

As United Nations Secretary General António Guterres declared in advance of his Climate Ambition Summit on September 20th: “Surging temperatures demand a surge in action.” 

Let's be clear: this isn't just the right thing to do—it's also smart business. The transition to a clean future is a trillion dollar opportunity. Leading businesses are acting because they see the potential — to manage risk, but also to innovate and attract investment, customers, and employees. These frontrunners are the true winners.

But others want to run backwards. Despite earning massive profits that could flow to clean energy, fossil fuel companies—from BP, to Shell, to Suncor—are walking back their dubious net zero pledges and doubling down on new oil and gas development. Shell CEO Wael Sawan goes as far as to call cuts to oil and gas production "dangerous." This is what losing looks like.

We don't need businesses that are fueling the climate catastrophe, lobbying against climate action, engaging in empty pledges or shamelessly greenwashing. Instead we must create an “ambition loop,” where positive actions by leaders inspire others to raise their game.

Read more: As Climate and Trade Become Intertwined, a Bipartisan Push for Carbon Tariffs Is Emerging

The finish line in our sprint to net zero is not just a distant, abstract goal. It's a world with cleaner air and a sustainable and equitable economy that lifts up everyone. Winning this race isn't just about dodging catastrophe; it’s about shaping a better, fairer future. This is a race we all need to run as if lives depend on it—because they do.

Just as Olympic champions don’t wake up two weeks before the Games expecting to make the podium, we can't procrastinate until 2050 watching more people, communities and infrastructure fall to flood, fire or drought. We need leaders with the grit, ingenuity, and relentless drive of elite athletes. The starting gun was fired long ago; we're in the race of a lifetime. No more delays, no more excuses. Time to greatly pick up the pace and win this for everyone.

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