2021 started in grim fashion – and not just because lockdown kept the New Year’s champagne on ice. As well as the continuing threat of coronavirus, headlines confirmed the hottest decade on record, ten years of soaring temperatures and extreme weather events. We can expect more of the same this year, with people already marginalised most at risk. But we can also turn the tide in this epic climate struggle – if we back solutions rooted in justice and community action.

Make no mistake, this is the make-or-break year in the global climate fight. Scientists have warned that time is running out to prevent runaway temperature rises. November will bring COP26 – probably the most important climate talks in history, a moment when the world comes together to try and halt this desperate emergency. There are green shoots of hope – a new US administration taking on the climate challenge, and a new generation rising up to demand change. But words and ambition must turn to action, and fast, if we are to avert climate meltdown.

It’s time for radical, systemic change – fundamental shifts in the way we live, work, travel, learn and come together. And the good news is that the proven climate solutions already exist – but we won’t change course unless they receive more investment and political backing at pace and scale.

Climate solutions around the world

This is no utopian dream. There’s innovation bubbling up all around us: from networks helping Bangladeshi villagers become solar energy traders, to the software tackling scandalous energy inefficiencies in UK social housing. From the government schemes electrifying rural Togo and Zambia at breakneck speed, to the electric cargo bikes greening the UK’s booming delivery sector.

Credit: UNDP

The most powerful solutions put communities in control – not as passive recipients of help, but pilots of their own destiny. The women launching and running solar microgrids in conflict-hit Yemen  for instance – this initiative doesn’t just lower emissions, but raises incomes and tackles gender inequalities. Or the rainforest residents protecting this vital natural resource (and earning a living for their families) by collecting and selling the seeds for planting trees.  People need to see the benefits of climate initiatives in their own neighbourhoods so that they back them – and call on governments to take more action. Otherwise we risk a backlash as people oppose change – as we have seen in the USA, or Australia or with the gilets jaunes in France. 

Coronavirus and the climate emergency

Today’s other global challenge, coronavirus, is inseparable from the climate crisis. Global health inequalities spotlight with dreadful clarity how our old economies and energy systems have left billions of people behind. Both emergencies put those already made vulnerable by poverty or inequality in greatest danger. And many climate solutions are coronavirus solutions too – from solar-powered vaccine fridges to hospitals run off renewables. The pandemic reminds that tackling social injustice is our best route to getting the climate emergency under control.

So how do we turn the tide in 2021, and turn ambition into action? By empowering communities. By fighting inequality. And by realising the enormous co-benefits of climate innovation, from jobs to jabs and everything in between. Let’s put ambitious goals that tackle climate and inequality centre-stage at COP26 – and bring them to life with a wealth of exciting, inspiring climate solutions which communities are driving forward already. 

The 2021 Ashden Awards: entries open now

Applications are open for the 2021 Ashden Awards, with support including a prize of up to £20,000 for trailblazing climate solutions. Awards are open to public, private and charity sector organisations in the UK and low-income countries. This year’s categories include energy access, natural climate solutions, green communities, green skills and cooling in informal settlements.