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Earth Day 2020: COVID-19, Climate and Collective Action

By Antha Williams, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Environment program lead

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, states, cities and private actors have emerged as the leaders of the U.S. response. They have taken bold actions to save American lives and protect public health, stepping in to fill the leadership gap left by the current administration’s inadequate response.

There are undeniable parallels between America’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and the current response to the global climate crisis. Just as with COVID-19, states, cities and businesses have stepped up to fill the climate leadership gap left by the current administration. Just as with COVID-19, local leaders are listening to experts and letting science — not politics — guide their responses. And just as with COVID-19, non-federal actors are setting the standard for forward-looking solutions.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the continued climate ambition of cities, states, businesses and other non-federal organizations gives us reason to be hopeful. Non-federal climate action has led to tangible progress against the climate crisis — including groundbreaking expansion of renewable energy, millions of square miles of protected ocean and the retirement of more than half of the coal-fired power plants in America.

Today, as we celebrate the successes of our environmental programs and partners in protecting our planet, we also commit to building on these wins in 2020 and beyond. If the COVID-19 pandemic response has proven one thing, it’s that local, collective action has the power to change the world.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is grateful to be part of the environmental community, and we are all proud to continue the fight for clean water, clear air and a sustainable, prosperous future.

A look back at climate, environment and clean energy wins from the past year:

Non-Federal Action: States, Cities, Businesses Lead the Way 

  • The third America’s Pledge report showed the potential for states, cities and businesses to continue driving down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, outlining the ambitious actions non-federal entities can take to cut national emissions nearly 40% by 2030. The report also showed the importance of electing climate champions; reengagement at the federal level has the potential to put the U.S. back on track to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, and lay the foundation for a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
  • It’s been a banner year for state-led climate action with more and more states committing to 100% clean energy targets and expediting the deployment of electric vehicles. Organizations like EarthJustice and Sierra Club have been critical in protecting state authority to limit pollution and transition to a low-carbon economy.
  • U.S. mayors are setting and meeting their ambitious climate goals across the country — often in winning cities that are part of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge — including:
    • Cincinnati building the largest municipal solar farm in the United States
    • Chicago announcing a major investment in sustainable transit initiatives across the city
    • Columbus announcing its plan for 100% renewable energy in homes by 2022
    • Denver expanding bus-only lanes
    • Indianapolis announcing a new pilot program to provide free solar power to low-and middle-come homes in the city — a first-of-its-kind initiative in the Midwest
    • Minneapolis releasing a bold plan to double the percentage of residents using green transportation in just 10 years
    • Los Angeles launching its Green New Deal
    • San Antonio passing a plan for carbon neutrality by 2050, earning Mayor Ron Nirenberg a spot on the Grist 50
    • Climate-forward mayors testifying in front of the U.S. Senate Climate Committee as leaders in U.S. city climate action
  • The number of the world’s largest cities committed to taking bold action to combat the climate crisis continued to grow, with C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group’s membership reaching 94, representing more than 700 million people and one quarter of the global economy.
  • Over 1,000 cities signed on to the Global Covenant of Mayors in 2019, bringing the global coalition to over 10,000 cities and local governments committed to city climate leadership and a low-carbon economy.

Global Action: The World Continues to Transition Beyond Coal

  • The Beyond Coal campaign continued its progress in moving the U.S. off the deadly fossil fuel, helping retire 299 coal plants by the end of 2019, in the biggest one year drop in U.S. coal power usage ever recorded, and decreasing the energy sector’s overall emissions by almost 10 percent. These efforts will strengthen public health and save thousands of lives. Research estimates retiring just one coal plant prevents 408 asthma attacks, 38 heart attacks and 25 premature deaths annually.
  • Building on Beyond Coal, Mike launched Beyond Carbon, a $500 million bid to end the country’s use of dirty fossil fuels in a generation or less as the largest-ever coordinated campaign against climate change in the United States. Beyond Carbon’s support and partnership with organizations like League of Conservation Voters helped bring two Virginia House of Delegates candidates to victory in November’s elections, flipping both the State Senate and State House of Delegates.
  • Activists and lawyers continued to speed the world’s transition away from coal to clean energy. Globally, coal plants are now active an average of just 51% of their available operating hours, a record low.
    • Europe Beyond Coal helped retire 86 out of 323 existing European coal-fired power plants.
    • In Poland, construction of the country’s last planned coal plant was halted after funders pulled their support.
    • Austria eliminated coal from its electricity grid with the closure of its last coal plant, ending the country’s coal era.
    • Greece shut down plans for a new coal plant, and announced to retire its remaining plants by 2023—five years ahead of the phase-out commitment Greece made just a few weeks earlier at COP25.
    • India committed to implementing new emission standards for coal-fired power plants by 2022, which could put the majority of its coal plants out of compliance.
    • Mike committed to support U.N. Secretary General António Guterres’ initiative to stop the development of new coal-fired power plants after 2020.
  • Meanwhile, renewable energy has never been cheaper. The cost of installing wind power has declined by 50% since 2010, while solar costs have fallen by 85%. Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels with renewable energy capacity expected to grow by 50% in the next four years.

Collaborative Action: World-Class Partnerships Drive Impact Across Sectors

  • New satellite technology is monitoring greenhouse gas emissions and providing climate data solutions as a result of Satellites for Climate Action, a Bloomberg partnership with the state of California and satellite technology company, Planet.
  • A partnership with the City of Paris is helping address young Parisians’ exposure to air pollution. The program installed air quality sensors around the city’s primary schools and daycares to track and analyze pollution in areas of the city where children are most present.
  • India’s national clean air program was bolstered with a new collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Energy and Resources Institute, the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation and the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The program aims to reduce particulate matter by up to 30% by 2024.
  • Vibrant Oceans Initiative partners Global Fishing Watch, Oceana, Rare and the Wildlife Conservation Society expanded operations across 11 countries to protect 4.25 million square miles of ocean, marine ecosystems and the three billion people who rely on our ocean to live and eat.
  • Global efforts to stop illegal and unreported fishing and protect fisheries continued to see success as Panama, a major fishing nation, signed on to publish its data on the Global Fishing Watch platform.
  • Over 1,000 companies demonstrated their commitment to increasing transparency on climate-related risks and opportunities as they adopted guidelines for climate-related financial disclosures as recommended by the Task Force on Climate-related Disclosures.