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All in good time?

Negotiators at the COP21 climate summit in Paris made slow, if steady progress. Bob Siegel reports on what it could achieve

At the COP21 talks in Paris, officials from 196 nations convened to address the looming threat of global warming. In preparation, French President François Hollande laid out four desired outcomes: a universal international agreement; national commitments from governments; climate finance to build the low-carbon economy; and the “Action Agenda” from businesses, cities, and civil society.

By the time the conference opened, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) had been submitted from 184 countries accounting for 95% of today’s warming. A great deal of activity in both finance and among the “non-state actors,” had also been organized in the run-up to the event.

As David Wei, BSR’s Associate Director, Climate Change noted, this formulation set the stage for success. “It’s a very clever framing because now that we’ve arrived in Paris, the agreement is the only pillar left.” Indeed, while most of the attention has been on the agreement, the other three are equally, if not more, important.

The agreement is likely to come through in some form. It’s good to remember a bit of wisdom shared by Peder Holk Nielsen, CEO of Novozymes, who attended: “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”

Here are the facts. The world is currently on course for a global temperature rise in the range of 3.8 to 4.8 degrees Celsius, an amount that even Exxon admits would be “catastrophic.” Previous attempts at an international agreement have failed for political reasons. The last round called for voluntary commitments rather than mandates.

Indeed, the impact of voluntary commitments, while good, is far from perfect. They are projected to bring the expected warming down to 2.7 Celsius by 2100. That is clearly an improvement. However the target, which is still being debated is somewhere between 1.5 degrees and 2.0. There are significant levels of pain built into achieving and not achieving those numbers.

For most of the world, the higher number is a challenging enough target. For those more vulnerable to the whims of nature, especially those in low-lying or drought prone areas, the lower number could mean the difference between life and death. This could include half a billion people.

What seems too much to ask today, may not seem so in five years’ time. Additional meetings will likely be needed, to continue to check on collective progress, and also to “ratchet up” ambitions. Indeed the US submission shows a rate of decarbonization that increases in 2020, to twice the earlier rate. It’s not clear whether other countries have built this into their projections.

There are reasons to question the temperature that collective INDCs might lead to. The science, given accurate emissions levels will be close, assuming there aren’t any tipping points, which are harder to predict. More in doubt, is the ability of 184 countries to actually know what they can achieve, and if so, what the impacts will be on emissions?

While a great deal of analysis may have gone into these policy measures, there is still much that they don’t include. They don’t know, for example, whether people plan to put solar panels on their roofs, or when someone might trade in their SUV for a hybrid.
That’s why the current estimate is more than likely conservative. It is not possible to have included all of the thousands of efforts, approaches, advances and schemes that will effectively and affordably reduce GHG emissions.

Here are a few examples. Kevin Rabinovitch, Global Director of Sustainability for Mars described his company’s commitment of reducing emissions this year by 25% compared to 2007, and to be totally carbon neutral by 2040. Truly remarkable, that’s one of the best out there. Yet, even he said he was learning from other companies in Paris. Might he take what he’s learned in Paris and find a way to hit that goal even sooner? Certainly possible. Were their specific numbers captured in the US delegation’s INDC? Not sure.

BSR CEO Aron Cramer spoke at COP21 about “radical collaboration” as a key way for companies to disrupt climate change. A striking example can be found in Kalundborg, Denmark. The Kalundborg Symbiosis, is a unique “industrial park” where a several companies have established a circular economy wherein waste products generated by one company become inputs for another. Not only is money saved all around, but the carbon footprint of the whole is 240,000 tons smaller than the sum of the parts.

Rabinovitch also shared that there is a “really good dynamic amongst the food and beverage companies.” He called it “a race to the top,” with companies “competing to outdo each other, in an absolutely friendly competition.” He cited the World Cocoa Foundation as well as RE100: “When it gets to actually trying to fix the problems, the fastest way to make progress, is to collaborate.”
Cities are another source of great innovation, much of which has escaped notice. A team of US mayors called Local Climate Leaders Circle attended to learn and to share. Many of these city innovations, can be replicated around the world, given the will and the financial support.

The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, along with a group of fellow billionaires, announced a Breakthrough Energy Coalition, pledging to commit funds towards the development of “overlooked” low-carbon energy technologies, such as artificial photosynthesis, or travelling wave nuclear reactors. Says Gates, who put in $2 billion of his own: “We need to move faster than the energy sector ever has.” This not-so-little push was not included in anyone’s projections.

Consider a just-released study by Yale University’s Data Driven Environmental Solutions initiative. They collected data on climate commitments from 1,192 cities and regions who promised to deliver 2.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide emission reductions. Responding to the report, Laurent Fabius, President of COP21 commented: “It is evident that this wonderful set of recorded climate actions is only a part of much wider, broader action towards a sustainable future. I know there are many tens of thousands of other climate initiatives out there and I welcome all who can to put their efforts, pledges and commitments on the record with us.”

So even the head of COP21 acknowledges the many efforts that have not yet been included.

BSR’s Wei believes that potential hasn’t yet been tapped, “but it’s there for us to take.” A report from the New Climate Economy, called Seizing the Global Opportunity, supports his view. It states that partnerships between businesses and cities, with investors, state and regional governments and communities can deliver up to 96% of the current gap in achieving the 2 degree goal.

Then there is the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, a massive research study undertaken in the US National Laboratories, which developed four scenarios to attempt the 80% emissions reduction targets. They found that, in each case, with sufficient commitment, the goal could be achieved.

Climate scientists talk about positive feedback mechanisms, and how, if triggered, they harbour substantial hidden threats that could disastrously increase the rate of warming.

This is true. But there are even more positive feedback loops in the solution space that are certain to activate repeatedly as collaboration, learning and technological progress combine with an increased sense of urgency as, unfortunately additional climate-related disasters will continue to occur. A completed agreement in Paris will only make this more true. 

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