A new year and a new day: making progress during extraordinary times


Charlotte Pera


This week, as the U.S. inaugurated President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, we approach 2021 with renewed hope.

This fresh start – driven by years of collective action and the vision of a more just and prosperous future – is a reminder that broad engagement, diverse representation, hard work, and optimism can unlock progress even in the most difficult times. It is too early to characterise how 2020 changed our world, but we know it made a profound mark on history. To date, more than two million lives have been lost to Covid-19.

Experts project the pandemic’s economic damage will be with us for years to come and the U.N. recently warned it could send an additional 130 million people into extreme poverty. Much like climate change, the pandemic shone a spotlight on pernicious racial and social inequities: In individual countries and globally, Covid’s health and economic impacts have fallen hardest on the poor and marginalised among us, and too little has been done to support vulnerable communities.

In the U.S., fundamental democratic norms and institutions were severely stress-tested in the 2020 election and its aftermath, and the deep wounds of centuries of institutionalised racism – antithetical to America’s promise of equal opportunity and justice for all – were on stark display. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others, along with the powerful protests that followed in the U.S. and in many other countries, brought systemic racism into sharp focus and sparked long-overdue soul-searching, dialogue, and action across the U.S., including within philanthropy.

Climate change wasn’t always at the top of the news in 2020, but last year tied 2016 as the hottest year on record, and people around the world suffered devastating climate-fueled wildfires, heat waves, and storms. In a year that reminded us how vulnerable our globalised world is to shocks, climate change loomed large as a present and growing threat. Several recent reports confirmed that, despite a dip in emissions due to the pandemic, the world is not yet on track to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

But even in a year of extraordinary challenges, the world set the stage for accelerated climate action. Europe strengthened its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target and took other important steps to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. China announced it would reach carbon neutrality before 2060, and Japan and South Korea each pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In the U.S., voters elected President Biden, who made climate action central to his agenda. A growing number of companies, including giants like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Ikea, Blackrock, and BP pledged to go climate-neutral or even emissions-negative in the coming decades. And many other actions pointed the way forward – from to groundbreaking steps taken by a network of more than 80 central banks to address climate-related financial and economic risks.

Equally encouraging, people around the world working for climate protection, racial and social justice, equitable economic development, biodiversity conservation, and other common goods are increasingly joining hands to drive lasting change and build a more just and sustainable world for everyone.

Still, much more must be done to accelerate, replicate, and scale these wins, while also advancing new approaches to protect the climate and the planet. ClimateWorks begins 2021 energised by the opportunities ahead and rooted in three beliefs: that the world can solve the climate crisis if people work together, that philanthropy has a unique and crucial role to play, and that we must do more to support people working for racial and social justice and for positive change in their own communities, many of whom are woefully under-resourced.

On a personal note, I’m sure I’m not the only one who found it more difficult than usual last year to balance work, mission, family, friends, and self-care. As I reflect on 2020 and look ahead, I am struck by the tremendous power of collaboration, community, and courage, and by the imperative that we reject the impulse to tribalism that drives wedges between us and darkens our shared future.

A version of this piece was published on the ClimateWorks blog on 20 January 2021.

Charlotte Pera is President and CEO of the ClimateWorks Foundation.

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