Twenty-three years ago, I was in the room when leaders signed the original convention on climate change. The occasion had a tone of strong moral purpose and promise. In Paris next week, we have the opportunity to fulfill that promise.
If wisdom prevails, world leaders will agree to a historic agreement in Paris. The brutal attacks appear not to have dampened resolve, but rather to have increased the sense of solidarity. The number of heads of state and government coming to Paris has risen since the attacks to around 120. On the first day of the meeting, almost all of these are expected to pledge their support for a strong outcome.
A strong agreement will build upon the momentum of recent months – with governments, businesses, religious leaders and others coming together to call for global action. While it will not solve everything, an agreement will get us on a path that can lead us to a solution. Recognizing this, the French hosts and the UNFCCC organizers have smartly emphasized that there are actually four pillars to the Paris meeting.
First are the national climate plans (the so-called Intentional Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs). More than 170 countries, representing 95 percent of global emissions, have made such offers. Add these up, and they represent a historical ramp-up in ambition, but they alone are not enough to solve the problem.
Second is the negotiated text. Here there’s much to play for, which is likely to require several all-night sessions. Most important will be agreement on a review process that will bring negotiators back to the table every five years with a mechanism to strengthen action; a clear long-term goal to decarbonize the global economy over the course of the century, and common standards in transparency and reporting.
Third, finance. The commitment to mobilize $100 billion annually from public and private sources by 2020 now looks reachable. While it’s unlikely to be fully nailed during COP21, the direction of travel is clear. Particularly important will be a demonstration that funds are being channeled into adaptation.
Finally, and especially innovative, is the so-called Action Agenda. This refers to initiatives driven by coalitions of private and public sector leaders, city mayors and civil society. These actions are valuable in their own right, but they also offer the positive mood music for the entire venture.
Outside the Negotiations
Take, for example, efforts by a group of mayors, led by former New York City Mayor and UN Special Envoy Michael Bloomberg. Already 165 cities representing 234 million people have committed to the Compact of Mayors, agreeing to measure the city-level greenhouse gas emissions, set ambitious reduction targets and report regularly on their progress.
These cities illustrate an important point: action at the sub-national level is often more impressive than at the national level. It also shows that many mayors are starting to see carbon emissions as an indicator of economic inefficiency.
Or consider landscape restoration. Last year, a group of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean committed to restore 20 million hectares (50 million acres) of degraded land by 2020. This action will cut emissions, as it drives economic opportunity and creates more productive land. This year, we expect a group of African countries to take a similar, but even more expansive approach.
A growing number of companies are also getting involved. Last month, 81 U.S. companies signed on to the American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge to demonstrate their commitment to climate action. A group of leading international companies have agreed to set ambitious science based targets for their emissions, representing a major shift form “doing better” to “doing enough.”
There are further private-led initiatives on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and for the first time, the conference will see a Buildings Day, highlighting huge opportunities to reduce emissions with efficient and innovative building design.
These actions are motivated by a recognition on the part of smart business leaders that strong action is in the interest of their companies. This is consistent with the findings of the New Climate Economy that, done right, strong action against climate change costs no more and can enhance economic growth.
Which Kind of Tipping Point?
When we talk about climate change, we often talk about tipping points in a negative context – the possibility of out-of-control feedback loops as ice melts, methane leaks, snow cover disappears and solar reflection is reduced. The threshold of 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) was set precisely to avoid such a catastrophe. But the Paris meeting is also about potentially positive tipping points, related to innovation and technological change, and the benefits of collective action that will make a low-carbon future cheaper and more prosperous.
To be successful, the agreement must send clear long-term signals to business and markets that the irreversible transition to a decarbonized economy is underway. It must also call for countries to come back to the table every five years to review progress and, yes, strengthen their goals.
Done right, an agreement in Paris will gradually reshape the way we run our 21st century global economy, and will affect the way we produce, consume, live, work and travel. The new way will be better, involving less congestion and pollution, more efficient use of resources, more livable cities, better health and greater prosperity.
The drumbeat of support for change is unmistakable: 78 percent of respondents to a far-reaching international survey by the Pew Research Group say their country should limit greenhouse gas emissions as part of the agreement. The mood music is good. Now the leaders must lead.
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