Hope for Change – How civil society, litigation, and new business models  can accelerate the transformation
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Hope for Change – How civil society, litigation, and new business models can accelerate the transformation

The year 2021 has been a busy one for climate diplomacy. Several high-level international events have taken place, enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted, agreements made, and new scientific reports released.

With newly elected US president Joe Biden, the US stepped back onto the climate stage and re-joined the Paris Agreement. In April, Biden hosted the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, inviting 40 world leaders to discuss increasing climate ambition and finance. In this context, the US-government submitted a new NDC and announced a 50–52% emissions reduction by 2030 (compared with 2005) and an increase in US-climate finance to $5.7 billion per year by 2024 (at the UN Assembly in September, Biden doubled this to $11.4 billion). The finance gap to reach the promised $100 billion of international climate finance per year from the industrialised states thereby decreased, but it is still not closed.

Further important climate events include the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in May (where Germany introduced its new reduction target, forced by a court ruling), virtual UN negotiations in June, the first V20 Climate Vulnerables Finance Summit, the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Environment, Climate and Energy in July (where all G20 members agreed to keep 1.5°C in reach), and the UN Assembly in September (where Turkey finally ratified the Paris Agreement and China announced its exit from coal financing abroad).

As part of the Paris Agreement, states are urged to submit new updated targets to close the gap between NDCs agreed to in Paris and the 1.5°C, or at least well-below-2°C, limit, focusing on the 2030 targets. At the end of October 2021, 114 countries and the EU had submitted their new NDCs, covering nearly 61% of global emissions.[1] The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) analysed the new targets of 36 countries and concluded that 18 countries and the EU submitted stronger targets (including Argentina, Canada, Japan, Morocco, Norway, and the United Kingdom), while nine countries had not increased their ambition (including Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and Switzerland). Furthermore, China, South Korea, and Nigeria announced stronger NDC targets, while India’s government is expected to announce a new NDC at COP 26 in Glasgow. The NDC Synthesis Report published by UN Climate Change at the end of September concluded that the updated NDCs are an important step for combating climate change, but there is still a wide ambition gap in the way of sufficient reduction of GHG emissions.[2] The most recent addition of the NDC Synthesis Report confirms the ambition gap and the need, especially for the G20 countries, to raise their targets.[3]

Worldwide, states are committing to reach net zero by mid-century. If these targets are well-designed, backed by short-term targets and transparent measurements, they can serve as a powerful mechanism to keep 1.5°C in reach. Without implementation strategies, however, the targets are nothing more than greenwashing (also see the net zero article in this brochure). Consequently, this movement must be monitored critically, because even if implementation occurs, there are several loopholes. Particularly, the ‘net’ aspect has a scope of interpretation. Some countries actively refer to technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or other carbon sequestration strategies that will play a certain role in fields where zero emissions are impossible, and this must be treated with caution. Even the emphasis on natural sinks such as forests should not be overstressed. As important as forest strategies are, there are spatial limitations, human rights concerns and increasing uncertainty on which part of forests can serve as carbon sinks in a global warming world. The priority to reach net zero should, wherever politically better, be the actual reduction of emissions.

The political developments are alongside the increasingly dramatic climate change impacts visible globally this year. China, India, Russia, parts of the US, and Canada faced remarkable heatwaves and drought, with forest fires in California and Greece as well as a dramatic famine in Madagascar. In Germany, heavy rain and floods led to one of the largest-scale natural disasters in decades. This year saw the warmest July since weather record-keeping began in 1880.[4] Before this backdrop, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report in August. The report states that global emissions must be halved by 2030 (compared with 2010) to keep global warming within the 1.5°C reach.[5] Based on a new scenario introduced in May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its World Energy Outlook in October, underscoring the importance of renewable energy sources for global energy supply, the need for dramatically faster expansion of renewables and energy efficiency worldwide, and no new investments in fossil fuels, especially exploration of new sources.[6]

Positive developments can trigger an upward spiral for a sustainable and just transition

By now, it is evident that the Paris Agreement can increasingly coordinate the expectations of different stakeholders relevant for increasing dynamics. We therefore, globally in different fields, see positive activities that might jointly be able to trigger an upward spiral towards a sustainable and just world. Regarding climate action, governments worldwide are confronted with a series of pressure points, executed by different actors.

First, we see the financial market increasingly uses the Paris Agreement and 1.5°C as key criteria for investments. Increasing numbers of regulators and financial market actors see the need to overcome the ‘tragedy of the horizon’[7] and prevent huge amounts of (fossil) stranded investments. In different parts of the world, future-oriented disclosure and sustainability taxonomies are being introduced as an important step to shift the finance streams to support the Paris Agreement’s goals. Combined with the right framework for a real economy, the financial market is a key leverage factor in the race to zero. There is no lack of money, but it must be used in the right way.

We also see the voices and influences of civil society rising. The promises, as well as the 1.5°C limit of the Paris Agreement, are the foundations of most of these demands. The worldwide movement of Fridays for Future is just one example. Globally, voices from civil society, especially from frontline communities and Indigenous people, are rising and fighting for climate justice. They are protesting loudly and effectively against governments that are not doing enough to prevent dangerous climate change, which threatens the living environment, and not only in the Global South. A recent example is the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, which more than 800 organisations, 16 cities and sub-national governments, and nearly 130,000 individuals support.[8] The initiative demands non-proliferation of gas, oil, and coal by ending all new exploration and phasing out all production.

The Paris Agreement is also a strong starting point for a global wave of litigation cases against governments and companies, advanced, for example, by towns, affected people, civil society, and youth organisations. Notable judgements are based on the Paris Agreement. The Federal Constitutional Court obligated the German government, challenged by youth and civil society, to adopt a new definition of freedom, taking the freedom of future generations into account. A first consequence was the robust improvement of the Federal Climate Protection Act from 2019. The German government announced new targets of a 65% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 (compared with 1990), 88% by 2040, and climate neutrality as early as 2045. Another important example is this past summer’s Shell Court Rule in the Netherlands, in which 17,000 Dutch citizens filed proceedings against the oil company. Consequently, Shell must – based on the Paris 1.5°C-limit – cut its CO2 emissions to 45% by 2030 (compared with 2019). The Climate Change Litigation Database (https://www.climatecasechart.com) list 1,433 cases in the US and 481 in other countries. Apart from the US and from European countries such as Turkey, Portugal, and Ukraine, there are court cases from Chile, Brazil, Colombia, and many other places.

Emerging climate litigation processes are a good example of how individual actions can lead to global transformation, change narratives, and create reference points for other developments.

New business models apply, and they are pushing economic action

Increasing numbers of businesses are developing their business cases in line with GHG neutrality achieved no later than 2050. Increasingly, finance market actors are also asking them to consider, in addition to a stress test, how they can reach GHG neutrality by 2035. A deep transformation requires the engagement of businesses, companies, and industries to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century. Initiatives such as the Race to Zero Campaign launched by the UNFCCC has, among other things, the support of more than 3,000 businesses and 120 countries committed to net zero targets.[9] For high-emitting producers, such as the chemical and cement industries, it is more difficult to switch to climate-compatible alternatives. Such industries need to develop new technologies and business models to balance their activities with climate mitigation. Stable and affordable price development of renewables in the past years, and growing energy efficiency, are what support this transformation. Inventions and innovations by frontrunners can be affordable and provide important motivation for other players in this sector. Net zero-oriented business models and technologies can potentially create economic value and reduce costs as well as risks.

All this can only lead to a 1.5°C world if it is the starting phase of exponential development

Although there are several positive developments that vitalise themselves and create more political space, far from all signs are pointing towards change. The world energy supply still heavily depends on coal, oil, and gas. There are powerful actors in different countries blocking sustainable and just transformation, and the current financial commitments are insufficient for supporting countries of the Global South.

This is the decade of implementation. Only if the emissions are halved by 2030 there is a chance to keep 1.5°C within reach. Every 0.1°C increases the probability of irretrievable climate tipping points with runaway tendencies and far more dangerous climate change.

We are now at a crossroads with little time left for decision-making, and of extreme relevance for the future of humankind and nature.


  • [1] Climate Action Tracker (2021) ‘CAT Climate Target Update Tracker’. Available at: https://climateactiontracker.org/climate-target-update-tracker/.
  • [2] UNFCCC (2021) ‘Full NDC Synthesis Report: Some Progress, but Still a Big Concern’. Available at: https://unfccc.int/news/full-ndc-synthesis-report-some-progress-but-still-a-big-concern.
  • [3] UNFCCC (2021) ‘Nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. Revises synthesis report by the secretariat’. Available at: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/cma2021_08rev01_adv.pdf.
  • [5] IPCC (2021) ‘AR 6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis’. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/.
  • [7] Carney, M. (2015), ‘Breaking the tragedy of the horizon – climate change and financial stability’. Available at: https://www.bis.org/review/r151009a.pdf.
  • [9] UNFCCC (2021) ‘Race To Zero Campaign’. Available at: https://unfccc.int/climate-action/race-to-zero-campaign.