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The Challenging Arithmetic of Climate Action

All strategies to mitigate climate change have distributive implications that cannot be overlooked. If left unaddressed, such implications will fuel persistent headwinds to progress on the climate change and sustainability agenda.

MILAN – Climate change was at the forefront of last month’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Younger participants, in particular, underscored the challenge ahead, with the teenage activist Greta Thunberg delivering a powerful speech on the subject. But they were not in the minority: for the first time ever, climate-related issues dominated the top five positions in the WEF’s Global Risks Perception Survey.

The newfound sense of urgency on climate change comes at a time when the corporate community is increasingly pledging to shift toward a multi-stakeholder model of governance – a transition that would create space for more climate-conscious ways of doing business. But the challenge of creating a sustainable global economy remains monumental.

Each year, the world emits over 36 billion metric tons – or 36 gigatons (Gt) – of carbon dioxide. That is roughly 2.5 times what climate scientists consider a “safe” level of emissions: to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels – the threshold beyond which climate change’s impacts would intensify significantly – we should be emitting just 14 Gt annually over the next two decades. That translates to two metric tons per person each year – far less than the current rate, especially in the developed world.

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