Heading into 2021, world leaders had been arguing – and arguing – over climate change for more than 30 years without much to show for it.
But if this year felt different, that’s because it was different. More urgency. Less dogma. A bias toward action. People didn’t stop to fill out the paperwork or worry too much about red tape. Things got real and things got done.
In fact, 2021 was the most consequential year in climate policy, climate technology and climate markets that the world has ever seen. Let’s review:
- February: Bill Gates sounds the alarm on climate and warns of the 2050 deadline
- Tech billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates gave climate activists, politicians and investors all over the world a serious pep talk in early 2021. It took the form of a best-selling book: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.
- The world can win the fight against climate change, Gates said, but government policy alone can’t save us. “I wish that was true,” Gates told 60 Minutes. “Without innovation, we will not solve climate change. We won't even come close.”
- In 2015, Gates and other investors created Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a multi-billion dollar effort to bring the next generation of clean energy technologies to market as fast as possible. If the world can develop and deploy those technologies and actually reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, “it’ll be the most amazing thing mankind has ever done … like a world war, but it’s us against greenhouse gases,” Gates concluded.
- March: The new U.S. president puts climate at the heart of a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
- Barely two months into office, President Joe Biden unveiled his American Jobs Plan, a sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Within that total, $100 billion would support private-sector innovation in clean energy, upgrade the nation’s power grid and boost electric-vehicle infrastructure.
- To be sure: In Washington, there’s a big difference between proposed spending and actual spending. But bipartisan support for infrastructure investment, including in the energy sector, stayed strong. Eventually, lawmakers and the Biden administration landed at $1.2 trillion – and the $100 billion for climate innovation made the final package.
- In a time of deeply polarized politics in the nation’s capital, this was a huge accomplishment. The White House celebrated the energy investments as “unprecedented” and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce championed the outcome: “It’s nearly impossible to overstate the significance of this new funding,” said Marty Durbin, president of the Chamber’s Global Energy Institute. “All told, it marks an unprecedented investment in the programs that will help the United States claim global leadership in low- and zero-emissions technologies.”
- August: IPCC issues ‘a code red for humanity’
- In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations (UN) delivered a grim global assessment that reverberated around the world.
- The IPCC, which has tracked climate trends since 1988, delivered its strongest ever finding: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres was more blunt, famously calling the IPCC report “a code red for humanity.”
- Extreme heat waves, droughts, flooding and other climate disasters will continue to get worse, in every region of the world, if global average temperatures rise more than 1.5°C, the IPCC warned. At 2°C, these extremes may breach “critical tolerance thresholds” for food production and human health. “Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions,” said climatologist Panmao Zhai, co-chair of the IPCC’s physical science working group.
- October: The U.S. reels from an ‘unprecedented’ wave of natural disasters
- Severe wildfires and floods in California, a heatwave and drought across the West, a dramatic cold snap that paralyzed the power grid in Texas, and a series of hurricanes, tornadoes and storms that battered the Gulf Coast, Midwest and Eastern states all took a terrible toll during 2021. In early October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the situation “unprecedented.”
- Together these disasters killed more than 530 people and caused more than $104 billion in economic damage, according to NOAA data. And the year was far from over when this data was released.
- That same month, the Associated Press and researchers at the University of Chicago found that 2021’s weather and climate disasters had shifted U.S. public opinion. Fifty-nine percent of Americans said climate change is very or extremely important to them, a 10-point increase from three years earlier, with warnings from climate scientists and recent extreme weather events playing a major role.
- October: Climate tech startups raise a record $32 billion from investors – with much more to come
- It also became clear that something big was happening in capital markets: Venture capital for climate technology startups had “skyrocketed” to $32 billion during the first nine months of the year – a new record and almost five times the amount invested in 2016, according to Dealroom.co and London & Partners.
- Then, ahead of the UN’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, institutional investors announced they’re not waiting for governments to tell them what to do, either. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) representing 450 firms and more than $130 trillion in assets, mapped out the sector-specific investments needed between now and 2030 to keep net-zero emissions by mid-century within reach.
- Those investments include $16 trillion for electricity, $5.4 trillion for transportation and $5.2 trillion for buildings. By 2050, GFANZ estimates $100 trillion of investment will be needed, and 70% of that investment will come from private sources.
- November: At the COP26 climate summit, actions spoke louder than words
- Historically, international climate summits have been dominated by governments arguing over mandatory carbon reduction targets, while representatives from the private economy observe from the sidelines. This year’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow were different.
- After two weeks of intense negotiations, countries ultimately agreed to cut carbon emissions to net zero and limit the global rise in temperatures to 1.5°C. But they only did so in general terms, because there’s still disagreement about how to divide up and enforce carbon reduction targets across more than 190 nations.
- Details came instead from more than a dozen privately led agreements – including GFANZ, the First Movers Coalition and the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. These agreements aren’t a magic solution, but they do provide a “solid foundation” for the expansion of clean energy, energy efficiency and other climate solutions over the coming decade, according to GreenBiz Chairman and Co-Founder Joel Makower. Or as Bill Gates put it, “the world is engaged and making progress.”
The last word on 2021 – and the first word on 2022 – goes to Antonia Gawel, head of climate action for the World Economic Forum.
“All in all, significant gaps remain,” Gawel wrote in mid-November. But there is no denying the “massive” mobilization of “business, citizens, academia and others” that took place this year. “The mood has changed. People are poised for action.”
About the Author: Simon Lomax is the editorial director of Crown Electrokinetics, a smart glass technology company that combats climate change and is publicly traded on Nasdaq. He has worked on energy and climate issues for more than 15 years as a reporter for Bloomberg News and Argus Media, as a congressional fellow with the American Political Science Association, and as a consultant to free-enterprise groups, business coalitions, corporate clients and ballot-measure campaigns.