Lessons from the World Summit Climate & Territories

WSCT-What a week! Across the world and back again (partly) within just a few days. The gathering of global leadership at the World Summit Climate & Territories was impressive, diverse, and deliberate. Delegates moved forward with a new vision of where the world is headed, yet scrambling to forge the social, political, and economic mechanisms destined to take it there. Truly a frontier. The sense of urgency was as hot as the air outside the building –  roughly 100°F and slated to go higher.

This being my first visit to such an assembly, I was overwhelmed by the sense of momentum—like I was jumping onto a train that was already well underway. I quickly became aware that there weren’t any instruction manuals or “new member handbooks” for the event. You were simply expected to dig in and find your way. Breakout session leaders nearly immediately started asking for feedback on proposals, but to what end? With what means? On what timeframe? Through questions to other delegates, reading information online, and simply listening to as much as possible, these answers gradually started to come into view. To what end? To send a clear and strong signal urging the national delegates at the upcoming COP21 event in Paris to keep the planet below 2C (and possibly 1.5C). How to fund the action on climate? It seems that funding is expected to come from investment via international capital markets, taxes of various sorts (including a possible 1% tax on the global flow of money, though details remain vague), and traditional market forces as technologies improve. Oh yes, and there is the general expectation that developed nations will bear a relatively larger burden of the costs. And on what timeframe? Initial CO2 reduction commitments for most nations start with a goal for 2030, and some follow with a goal for 2050. I also heard about the possibility of a review mechanism for national commitments in light of new science as it emerges. Initial estimates range from 5-10 years per review cycle.

As with so many issues we encounter these days, the devil is really in the details. Here are some of the reflections I have about the details of the current process:

  • Will we reach the 2°C target? Current commitments from the global community do not even get close to the 2°C target, as indicated by the Climate Action Tracker and discussed in my “Climate Change Numbers” post. The pledges to-date will likely result in roughly 3.1°C of warming by 2100. That is much too warm for a stable climate and most likely a recipe for runaway climate disaster. The good news is that the climate negotiations leadership at the United Nations, particularly Christiana Figueres, thoroughly recognizes that 2°C may not be enough. To address this shortfall, she discusses the prospect of a mechanism to review national commitments every 5-10 years and update those commitments according to new science as it emerges. I’d say that sounds like a great idea except for the fact that according to an analysis by CarbonBrief.org (here) we have just 6 years of current emissions available if we want a 66% chance of staying below 1.5°C. If the next major international review takes place in 2020, then we have just a single year’s worth of emissions remaining to turn this ship around–ultimately wasting five vital years in the meantime.
  • Is 2°C a worthwhile target? Recent science indicates that a warming target of 2°C is very likely to be too high, and even the “stretch goal” of 1.5°C may not be low enough. As I discussed in my recent post about “Climate Change Numbers,” renowned ex-NASA climate scientist James Hansen released a report claiming that a target of 1.5°C is inappropriate. Hansen claims that we should really be aiming for 1°C to retain a safe climate. The challenge with a 1°C target is that we’ve already emitted enough CO2 into the atmosphere to pass it, so it ultimately calls not only for emergency reductions of CO2 emissions, but also for the active removal of CO2 from the atmosphere (most likely through methods including agricultural and forestry techniques).
  • What will success look like at COP21? From all the conversations and speeches I’ve encountered, I believe that the “behind the scenes” COP21 goals for Paris in December rest mainly on establishing some kind of nominal binding agreement to keep the planet below 2°C, with the binding portion applying mainly towards revisiting the goals as new science (and technology, economies of scale, and political force) emerges. I don’t expect any miracle revisions of commitments by negotiators by December to actually approach 2°C, let alone 1.5 or 1°C, largely (in my opinion) due to the unwillingness of the United States Congress to enact a price on carbon. It seems that the negotiation process is set to rely primarily on economic forces and improvements in technology (i.e. plummeting price of solar and potential reductions in battery costs) to ultimately “save the day” if it is to be saved at all.
  • What other global actions did you encounter? I was blown away by the number of pre-existing agreements, partnerships, and collaborative efforts between cities, regions, and other sub-national entities across the globe. A few highlights include
    • Under 2 MOU: A commitment framework spearheaded by California to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 2 tons per capital, or 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050. (PopCityMedia reported in 2012 that Pittsburgh had 2.28 tons per capita.)
    • C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group: A network of 75 of the “world’s greatest cities, representing 550+ million people” working to address climate change.
    • World Wide Views on Climate and Energy: A global deliberative polling project to educate and seek opinions from 10,000 citizens around the world. You can see the results of their latest survey here.
    • Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance: Launched in March 2015, CNCA is a network of cities working to achieve “long-term carbon reduction goals.”
    • Covenant of Mayors: A group of European mayors committed to and working towards CO2 emissions reductions in their cities and regions.
    • Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action: (NAZCA) A collection of commitments from non-state actors (i.e. companies, cities, regions, etc.) to address climate change. They have collected over 2,700 commitments to-date.
    • The Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance: Working to move investment capital to cities to enable “low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure.”
  • What do sub-nationals think of COP21? Indeed, there was so much traction at the sub-national level (though not enough to make 2°C a slam dunk) that COP21 could be considered to be more of a formality than a requirement for global action. The sub-national groups are ready to play ball, they just need to not be stopped by their respective national governments and they could use some funding mechanisms to help pay for some of the projects. COP21 provides a way to declare globally that national governments won’t try to get in the way of sub-nationals.
  • What was the “vibe” at the WSCT? The culture of the World Summit Climate & Territories was ultimately quite polite, despite the significant challenges on the horizon. There were men and women of all nationalities, from nations around the globe (though very few that I met or saw from the U.S.A.). The crowd’s enthusiasm for a topic or speaker could be divined by the level of applause (or lack thereof) at the end of a presentation. I heard repeated requests for more attention to be paid to women and indigenous people, and for more financial support to be shared with the “Global South.” The stronger the language about emissions reductions, the more positive the audience response–this was not a crowd that sought weak agreements. Indeed, the potent and up-beat language of the event and acute awareness of the attendees of the scale of the challenge seemed mismatched to the mealy-mouthed and inadequate nature of the national commitments on the table.

Presentations and Fundraising: There are so many details worth sharing that I could go on and on and on. That’s what in-person presentations are good for–long and detailed discussions about climate events and activism strategies past and present. If you would like me to speak to your school or community group, please let me know at mark [at] yert [dot] com. I will be giving several free  presentations to those who ask first, so please reach out ASAP! I am also still working to fund last week’s journey and the upcoming trip to COP21 in Paris in December. I would be thrilled if you contributed to my campaign here: http://www.gofundme.com/xthcww .

COP is a highway… Finally, I’ll leave you with some thoughts shared during closing remarks at the Summit by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and a key architect and advocate for the COP21 process. Christiana compared the climate negotiation process to (I’m paraphrasing here) a highway with many different lanes, and different groups can choose the lane that suits them best. She also warned that this was “one highway,” and that if we do our work correctly, it will have no exits. And once we get on the highway it will ultimately lead us to a resilient, low carbon society.

This is my primary report back from the Summit, but I will be sharing additional reflections over time so please check back often for more news!

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