By: Franco Montalto, November 16, 2017 (Bonn, Germany)

Nearing the end of the second week of COP23, I wanted to summarize what I see as some of the key themes emerging in discussions about how to keep global warming to “well below 2 degrees C” by 2050. These are described one by one below, in an attempt to relay the gist of the conversations I’ve heard in conference sessions, hallways, cafes, and elsewhere here in Bonn to our continental members.

  1. The key role for sub-national actors in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement:

Subnational actors include regions, states, cities, businesses and NGOs, all of which can voluntarily (e.g. independent of their national governments) act to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. NGOs can exert pressure, take legal action, raise awareness, and perform critical studies to help inform policy. States and cities can set policy and standards within their jurisdictions, which in the case of state’s like California, the 6th largest economy of the world, can be globally, as well as locally, significant. Globally, business decisions determine a very large fraction of global emissions. The Mars corporation’s total emissions, for example, are equivalent to those of the entire country of Panama. Businesses can establish science-based targets for reducing their own emissions and the emissions associated with their product lines. When influential companies like Walmart use progressive procurement standards strategically, they can reduce emissions across a wide range of sectors and countries, up and down their supply chains.  Microsoft’s goal of reducing its emissions by 10 million metric tonnes by 2030 will be the equivalent of reducing Rome’s GHG emissions to zero.

Sue Biniaz, the former principal legal advisor on the climate negotiations for the United States during the Obama Administration, said in a session at the US Climate Action Center that she saw no legal reason for why these subnational actors couldn’t voluntary sell these emissions credits on international carbon markets, helping national governments to achieve the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) they set in Paris. Made formal through sub-agreements between the parties, such transactions would hard-wire local voluntary action into the global response to the climate challenge, effectively bypassing the national governments in which these actors reside.

Though such arrangements could help to continue reducing emissions in the US in the short term, there was discussion in the US Climate Action Center as to whether these same actions could unintentionally reduce pressure on Washington to change its formal national position of withdrawing from Paris – a perverse effect. If the 400 cities, 600 colleges, one third of all Fortune 500 companies, and half of all US businesses that have set climate action goals were formally credited for those activities, could the Administration point to those voluntary actions as justification for inaction at the Federal level? Ms. Biniaz said that while she believes that voluntary emissions reductions enacted by subnational actors should be applauded and encouraged, she takes a more conservative opinion regarding whether these same entities should be allowed to become signatories to the Paris Agreement independent of their national government for precisely this reason.

2) The need to integrate new standards and policies addressing buildings, land, transport, and energy efficiency into the global response to climate change

According to Dr. Fatih Birol, Executive Director, of the International Energy Agency, while 2/3 of global total GHG emissions are associated with the energy sector, 70% of global energy use is not subject to any energy standards. Global CO2 emissions associated with the energy sector were stable over the past few years, due primarily to advances in energy efficiency, growth in renewables, and substitution of natural gas for coal in some countries. But to significantly reduce total annual emissions, a lot more work will be necessary. Globally, two out of every three buildings are still built without any energy standards, for example, and significant attention to building retrofits will be required in the years to come. While renewables supplied more than half of the growth in global energy demand in 2016, the majority of global energy investments are still in fossil fuels. Dolf Gielen of the International Renewable Energy Agency said we need a six-fold increase in renewables use to meet the “well below 2 degrees C” goal.

We will also need to continue to reduce emissions associated with transport, and to halt and reverse current trends in deforestation, both of which could offset progress made in other areas. At the time of the Paris agreement, there were only one million electric vehicles on the road globally. California Governor Brown says that by the end of 2017, this number will have increased to three million. While this growth is noteworthy, electric vehicles still make up a very small percentage of global auto sales. While some states like California have set targets for zero-emission vehicle sales, and some cities like Vancouver are supporting the transition to renewably-powered vehicles in other ways, what is really needed is a widespread global reduction in vehicle transport. Norway recognizes this and seeks to reduce vehicle transport by 40%; Chile’s Minister of the Environment spoke here at COP23 of his country’s “immobility agenda” which seeks to cut automobile use through investments in mass transit.Similar leadership is needed in other jurisdictions, especially in the “new cities” that make up the majority of the world’s ongoing urbanization .

Deforestation is another area where significant progress is needed in order to achieve the Paris goals. While the rate of annual forest loss has slowed, and the FAO reports that carbon emissions associated with deforestation activities dropped by 25% between 2001 and 2015, the WWF estimates that 15% of global annual GHG emissions are still the result of deforestation (e.g. the conversion of forested landscapes to other uses). In the industrialized world, infill and densification of suburban areas, development of transit-oriented clustered development, and other forms of smart growth can help to concentrate development, encourage mass-transit use, while reducing sprawl and conversion of forested sites to other land uses. In some parts of the developing world, deforestation has been linked to the lack of access to energy, and the use of wood for cooking, suggesting that efforts to increase access to energy services could also have a role in protecting forests and their carbon sink they provide.

3) “Problems occur somewhere”: getting beyond contemporary politics to continuous action

TM Franklin Cownie, Mayor of Des Moines, Iowa made the point that because “problems occur somewhere” and residents call their mayor, not their congress person, when they have a problem, local governments are perhaps better positioned to address climate change than their counterparts at higher levels of government, especially in the current political context. Mayors need to respond to the needs of their residents regardless of party or affiliation, and as the effects of climate change become more acute, action will follow.

In a side event in the US Climate Action Center on bipartisan approaches to addressing climate change, Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested that for that same reason, discussions regarding adaptation might be the easiest point of entry into discussions about climate change. People intuitively understand the need to reduce the effects of flooding, intense heat, and other climate-related problems. Public dialogue about how to accomplish those goals may be easier to have than more esoteric discussions about how to mitigate GHG emissions through policy of individual decisions. The key in any case is to make continual progress so that by 2020, the first milestone in the Paris Agreement, emissions will be on a downward trend throughout the world and nations will be prepared to actually step up their efforts to achieve the Paris goals.