Progress on climate change can seem depressingly slow -- especially to young people full of energy and expectation. But look closer, resist the tug of hopelessness, and you can see progress everywhere. Clean energy is both technically and economically viable, and it's challenging dirty energy around the world. Key major economies have already begun to reduce carbon emissions, and many more are poised for even greater action in the coming months. This year we have a critical chance to change that dynamic as the world builds even stronger international actions to address climate change.
This is how change happens. Historical transformations take time. Apartheid didn't end overnight, and the Internet wasn't born in someone's basement in a single moment. Addressing climate change requires a transformation of similar proportions, and it, too, will take sustained efforts.
Even in the slow-and-steady approach to historical change, however, there are always critical moments. The Internet changed fundamentally the day Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched the Google search engine. On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, virtually ensuring the eventual demise of apartheid.
The Paris 2015 meeting can be a similar inflection point in the history of climate change -- but only if we lay the groundwork now. Over the next six months countries, companies, cities and citizens must work together in ways we have not in the past. We need deeper national level commitments captured in an international agreement; a groundswell of actions by cities, states, businesses, financial institutions and other actors; commitments to tackle discrete climate issues through specific international forums; and stronger public support to encourage politicians. We will be commenting on these dynamics over the course of the year here, but here is a snapshot of what is emerging (and here are some key events throughout the year).
International Climate Agreement with National Commitments from all Key Countries
When the current round of climate negotiations began, countries agreed to commit to more aggressive actions by all key countries. The Paris meeting in December, bringing together decision-makers from over 190 countries will be the culmination of those efforts. As the negotiating mandate stated the new agreement will be "applicable to all" meaning that both developed and developing countries will have commitments enshrined in the agreement. This agreement will contain several key elements including (my colleague Han Chen discusses these aspects in more detail):
Deeper national climate targets for the period after 2020. Countries accounting for over 80 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions made specific commitments to reduce their emissions through 2020 as a part of the Copenhagen/Cancun agreements. The Paris agreement will cover targets for the period after 2020. In the run-up to Paris, countries that account for over 50 percent of the world's global warming pollution from energy (including the European Union, U.S., Mexico and China) have already formally announced their targets or the outlines of what their commitments. More announcements will be coming in the next couple of months (see here for a summary of these targets and information on emissions from these countries). These targets are the roadmap for the kinds of domestic policy changes that these countries will implement at home.
Financial investments to assist developing countries in reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change. In Copenhagen, countries agreed to establish the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a new multilateral fund to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Over $10 billion has already been pledged to the GCF. In addition, countries agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year through public and private financing to assist developing countries in building low carbon and climate resilient societies.
Tools to catalyze action and implementation over time. The agreement will help to strengthen future action by creating a mechanism for countries to extend their targets to future time-periods beyond what is announced in Paris. It will also encourage transparency and accountability to make sure that countries are following through on their commitments.
Groundswell of Climate Actions
Paris will also seek to broaden the engagement of other leaders by adding to the growing "groundswell" of climate actions. Governors, mayors, corporations, NGOs, financial institutions and leaders of all stripes will be tasked to look at what they can do individually and collectively to help address climate change now. This effort will build upon the recent Climate Summit this September that saw commitments to end deforestation in the supply-chain of major companies and countries, major cities agreeing to continue to implement aggressive actions within their jurisdictions and significant investors agreeing to end investments in fossil fuels. Since that time a growing number of cities, regions, companies and countries have recognized that these kinds of action are critical if we are to address climate change. In the new NAZCA platform, cities, states, companies, communities and civil society organizations can document the diverse but essential climate commitments being made outside of the formal international arena and national policy. This groundswell of climate actions will form a key pillar of what emerges from Paris and must be a critical part of engaging "all hands on deck" to address climate change in the coming decades.
Because the groundswell involves such varied actors and actions, the groundswell may be hard to digest. That is why NRDC and other groups are trying to help ensure that there is a meaningful way to track these actions, see what they add up to and create tools to hold these leaders accountable to make sure they deliver over time. (For more on the groundswell of climate action, see Brendan Guy's recent commentary.)
Targeted Actions in Other International Venues
Periodic climate change negotiation sessions in Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun have historically grabbed all the headlines in the field of international climate change progress. But other venues are emerging to push forward international action on specific challenges. For example:
- Countries have continued to work on phasing-down super greenhouse gas emissions called HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. As my colleague David Doniger noted, this negotiation has continued to inch forward, and the formal meeting in November could bring a breakthrough.
- Over the past few years, developed countries have spent tens of billions of public dollars on overseas coal projects. An emerging group of countries are signaling that they will finally end this practice, but there are still a couple of important hold-outs. This year, they will have an opportunity become part of the solution.
- The international scientific consensus dictates that if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including health risks and severe weather, the vast majority of known fossil fuel reserves must remain undeveloped. If our international leaders are serious about avoiding climate catastrophe, they must address this sobering fact as part of the Paris talks. And that leadership must begin in the U.S. As the Obama Administration travels the road to Paris, the President has an opportunity to set a much needed precedent by protecting--not drilling--our Arctic and Atlantic waters (as my colleague Franz Matzner noted).
Broad Public Support for Action
Nothing positive can happen without the support of citizens across the globe. Last September, more than 400,000 people took to the street in New York to demand strong climate action. Just last month, the release of the U.S. contribution for the Paris climate negotiations garnered widespread support from religious leaders, business groups, labor unions and community groups. Citizens around the world will have a chance throughout the year to let their voices be heard. These citizens are standing up and saying that they want more action, faster.
Each of these actions can make an important dent in finally turning the corner on international efforts to address climate change. The good news is we don't have to start from scratch--the foundation for action is already emerging. There is a deeper, wider and more varied set of actions being implemented to address this challenge. Now is the time to take them to the next level.