Photo by NASA on Unspash.


Daniel Esty, editor of A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future explains the Zero Carbon Action Plan and talks about why A Better Planet is relevant for the discussions arising from COP26.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Climate change will be at centre stage as global leaders gather in Glasgow for the November 1-12 COP26 climate change negotiations. The conversations in Scotland will highlight the need for deep decarbonization – increasingly defined as net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Much of the debate will focus on what will be required to establish a clean energy economy that continues to provide opportunities for sustainable development across the world. While there are many details to be worked out, what is clear is that the dialogue has shifted from whether transformative change will be required to how to make the fundamental restructuring required happen.

Zero Carbon Action

In this regard, researchers and policy experts across the world have begun to develop detailed decarbonization strategies. Over the past 18 months, I have been working with nearly a hundred researchers and policy experts across the United States to spell out such a plan for the American economy. Our Zero Carbon Action Plan provides pathways to deep decarbonization for six critical sectors: power generation, transportation, buildings, industry, land use and sustainable agriculture, and materials. It outlines the technological developments, policy options, and political challenges of moving toward a net-zero GHG future – centered on electrification of many aspects of our economy based on clean and renewable power generation. It takes seriously the need for further innovation to address difficult to decarbonize sectors such as steel, cement, and aviation. And it recognizes the importance of paying attention to those who will be dislocated by changes required – and therefore the need for policy emphasis on a just transition.

While deep decarbonization has emerged as a challenge for all of society, the onus for change falls most heavily on the business community. Indeed, the COP26 policy conversation will quickly cascade to the corporate world – and already a number of companies have announced net-zero GHG pledges. How much substance lies behind these commitments varies a great deal. I’ve addressed some of the issues involved – including the scope of these pledges, the role of carbon offsets in achieving net-zero GHG targets, and the business model transformations that will be required – in a recent draft paper with my colleague Nathan de Arriba-Sellier, “Zeroing-in on Net-Zero: Is the Business Community Walking the Talk on Decarbonization Pledges?”


Although climate change is the pressing issue of the day, it is important to note that society faces a broader sustainability imperative. My recent Yale University Press (edited) book, A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future surveys the elements of this challenge including: air and water pollution, waste, land use, habitat protection, sustainable agriculture, and climate change. The 40 essays advance cutting-edge ideas, concepts, policy frameworks, and technology opportunities from policymakers around the world – and provides a menu of solutions to consider. The chapters cover topics such as biodiversity, environmental justice, Big Data, genomics, and clean technology promotion from multiple perspectives. All of this is done, as the Financial Times noted in declaring the volume a “book of the year” (2019), with an emphasis on fresh thinking about sustainability and “excellent ideas on what can and should be done.”

Contributors to the book not only offer substantial diversity in their issue coverage, but also share viewpoints that supplement, build on, and challenge each other’s proposals. In my own chapter, for example – Red Lights to Green Lights – I argue that environmental policymaking needs to shift away from “command and control” regulatory mandates (which I call “red lights”) toward innovation-based approaches to promoting sustainability (or “green lights”). In short, I suggest that we need to supplement the long-standing focus on telling companies what not to do (big “STOP” signs) with an equal measure of signals about which societal challenges we’d like them to address and incentives to get them engaged.

As the COP26 discussions unfold, the ideas captured in Better Planet book appear more relevant and timely than ever. Indeed, many of the policy recommendations suggested have been embraced by governments around the world – and many others remain on global “to-do” lists. For those interested in sharpening their understanding of the issues under discussion in the COP26 negotiations or the broader sustainability agenda, A Better Planet offers a perfect primer. 

Daniel C. Esty is Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale School of the Environment and Yale Law School. He served as head of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection from 2011 to 2014 and in several leadership roles at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1989 to 1993.

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