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The Right Institutions for the Climate Transition

Although global climate commitments are important, they will not amount to much without the institutional foundation that the transition to a zero-carbon economy needs. That will require innovation and experimentation at all levels of governance, where the focus should be on expanding participation.

LONDON – At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) last week, I joined a panel with leading national politicians, including Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Spanish Minister of the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera, to discuss how we can get serious about the green economy. As the overwhelmingly male world leaders tussled over commitments, postures, and pledges – what Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg memorably dismissed as more “blah, blah, blah” – our all-women panel focused on the substantive question of what new tools and institutions the world will need in order to decarbonize.

After COP26, it is clearer than ever that top-down pledges and policies are not enough. Rather, we need a structural and institutional transformation from the ground up. Our only hope of keeping global warming within “safe” limits (in fact, the agreed target is much safer for some than for others) is to accelerate a green transition with massive, coordinated public investment aimed at innovation leaps and an economic paradigm shift.

Just as climate change is a dynamic, non-linear phenomenon proceeding through a series of tipping points – each with its own knock-on effects, making it extremely difficult to predict the pace and scale of change – the process of curtailing or even reversing it relies on tipping points cascading in the other direction. Synergistic leaps in technological innovation and institutional transformation can precipitate positive feedback loops and cumulative multiplier effects.