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Beyond the Paris Climate Talks: What Was Achieved and What Remains To Be Done

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Last month, for the first time, 195 countries formally agreed to take steps to slow and eventually reduce carbon emissions. “This is potentially one of the most important things that’s ever been done for your children, your grandchildren…and their welfare in the future,” said Andrew Light, professor of public philosophy at George Mason University.

Speaking at the Wilson Center as part of the “Managing the Planet” series on December 16, four experts hailed the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris as “extraordinary,” “game-changing,” and “the best-case scenario.”

“Very rarely do you get to a moment like that and feel completely that what the world had been looking for was achieved in this particular meeting,” said the U.S. National Security Council’s director of energy and climate change, Paul Bodnar.

“Very rarely do you get to a moment like that”

At the core of the new agreement is a mechanism for encouraging, evaluating, and ratcheting up government targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Each of the 195 countries included in the Paris accord agreed to report emissions, participate in a comprehensive stock-taking process, and set progressively more ambitious targets at five-year intervals.

This cycle will allow for course corrections and the incorporation of new technologies and economic realities, such as the recent and unprecedented price drop in solar photovoltaic technology.

The agreement also included, for the first time, language aspiring to halt global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, in addition to formal recognition of the more familiar two degree plateau bandied about as the “safe” limit since the 1970s.

The Business Case

Other major steps announced in the months leading up to Paris lent momentum to thiscritical inflection point.

Last month saw the official launch of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, in which 74 countries, 23 subnational governments, and around 1,000 companies committed to putting a price on carbon. At the same time, President Obama announced “Mission Innovation,” in which 20 countries, including major players like the United States, China, and India, agreed to double research and development spending on clean energy technologies over the next five years. And Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which consists of 28 of the world’s wealthiest men and women, and is designed to provide funding for clean technologies.

“One of the major differences of this COP from previous ones was how actively engaged businesses were,” said Helen Mountford, director of economics at the World Resources Institute. In the lead-up to COP-21, 116 companies, representing nearly $1 trillion in profits and almost 500 million tons of greenhouse emissions, agreed to science-based targets designed to reduce emissions in line with the two-degree benchmark of the Paris agreement, she said.

The CDP Climate Index has outperformed the Bloomberg World Index by 9.1% over the past 4 years

The writing is on the wall. The Paris agreement “is a very clear market signal to investors [and] to technology innovators that this is an irreversible market process, and that we have all agreed to go there as quickly as we can,” said Bodnar.

The increased willingness of the private sector to tackle climate issues owes in part to a fundamental shift in the costs of clean energy technology, said Mountford andAndrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute. As a recent Wilson Center event highlighted, the price of renewable energy has plummeted in just the last few years and is now cost competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world.

Moreover, new data suggests that, far from forcing a tradeoff between climate action and business growth, companies taking a progressive approach to climate change are reaping economic benefits. The CDP Climate Index, which tracks major companies taking a proactive position on climate change, has outperformed the Bloomberg World Index of major companies by 9.1 percent over the past four years, said Mountford.

The increasing participation of business has fed back into the political process. It has“[given] governments the license to do more, and to be more ambitious, because they are seeing that business and investors [are] behind them,” said Mountford, “or in some cases in front of [them].”

“Our Lives Will Be Altogether Different”

Another reason for the success in Paris was the strong and unified position taken by the United States and China, the world’s two largest emitters, who had until recently been “cast as captains of opposing teams,” said Bodnar.

President Obama and President Xi Jinping’s 2014 unveiling of joint emission reduction plans was followed in September 2015 by China’s announcement – in Washington, DC, no less – of a national cap-and-trade system and further pledges to cooperate just before Paris.

One further factor set the stage for success in Paris and augers well for the future of climate action: increasingly, action on climate change is being seen as a part of larger development efforts instead of as its own separate problem.

“Starting in 2010, I’ve seen this increasing trend that will also move us forward, and that is breaking climate diplomacy out of the silo that it’s historically been in,” said Light.

The Paris agreement came just two months after the UN agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), replacements for the expiring Millennium Development Goals. As several panelists were quick to point out, climate change is intertwined with many of the SDGs beyond goal number seven’s specific focus on energy. “Climate change hurts women and girls more,” said Steer, so there is a gender equity and empowerment component. Climate change also ties into food security and poverty, as decreased crop yields could mean food shortages and depressed incomes for farmers.

Steer said the Paris agreement has broad implications. “People may think this is an environmental decision, but actually, if we see through what we started in Paris, our lives will be altogether different and altogether better,” he said:

We will live in communities that are more compact, we will live in societies that are actually healthier and more resilient, we will be able to feed the world in 2060 when we have 9.7 billion people, and we will be proud of what we’ve done for our children.

To be sure, a great deal of work remains to be done, the panelists said. “We’re going to pivot now in a very big way to implementation,” said Steer. “This is going to be extremely difficult.”

But there was a strong sense among those who attended that Paris marks a major step forward in the global battle against climate change. It’s “the end of the beginning,” said Bodnar.

“The nations of the world may have finally solved the thorniest problem in international relations… Now we can stop pointing at leaders and politicians, and we need to figure out the practical solutions to get us to the goals we set.”

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Graham Norwood is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

Speakers

  • Andrew Steer

    President and CEO, World Resources Institute
  • Andrew Light

    University Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University
  • Paul Bodnar

    Senior Director for Energy and Climate Change, National Security Council, The White House
  • Helen Mountford

    Director of Economics, World Resources Institute
  • Roger-Mark De Souza

    Global Fellow and Advisor
    Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience