December 12, 2015 Categories: Climate Change

The Four Pillars of Progress in Paris

The Paris talks went into overtime to nail down the final details of the Paris Agreement and recent coverage naturally focused on late night wrangling over the text. As commentators and advocates around the world dissect what was and wasn’t included in the final deal, it’s important to remember that the formal Paris Agreement is only one of four pillars of the historic progress achieved by the Paris Climate Conference.  Here is a recap:

1) National Commitments: In many ways Paris was already a success before the conference itself convened. For the first time, more than 180 countries have made commitments to address climate change, including all of the largest emitters. This breakthrough started with China committing to a massive build out of solar and wind power and to begin reducing its total annual emissions by 2030 in a bilateral agreement between the U.S. announced last year. India followed with a huge commitment to install 100 Gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity by 2022. While these commitments don’t add up to keeping global warming below 2°C (3.6°F), let alone 1.5°C (2.7°F), they end the reckless global game of chicken that has characterized climate negotiations until now.

2) Sub-national Action: National commitments build on progress being made at the state and local level and can only be implemented in cooperation with these governments. Paris featured an unprecedented level of participation by governors, premiers, mayors and other state and local leaders. California Governor Jerry Brown led the formation of the Under 2 MoU with the German State of Baden-Württemberg. More than 80 jurisdictions, representing a combined GDP larger than that of the United States, have now committed to reduce their emissions by at least 80 percent or to less than 2 tons per capita by 2030. Meanwhile former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened the C40 Cities for Climate Action meeting in Paris, which now represents more than 80 cities and 25 percent of global GDP.

3) Citizens and Business: Often referred to as “civil society” in international parlance, this is where political will comes from and where implementation happens. Paris saw an outpouring of youth, environmental, human rights and labor organizations, as well as a large and diverse contingent of businesses that are making real commitments to support climate action and reduce the emissions they are responsible for. In the United States more than 150 businesses signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge organized by the White House.

4) The Paris Agreement: The Paris Agreement reflects the political landscape created by the other three pillars of progress in Paris. Given that we do not yet have national commitments that are sufficiently ambitious to prevent dangerous climate change, I think the most important element is the agreement to review progress every five years with the goal of ratcheting up action until emissions are zeroed out in the second half of this century. Other key elements are transparency to create accountability, and finance to speed the transition to clean energy in developing countries and help them deal with the consequences of climate change that can no longer be avoided.

Of course none of this matters if it is just words. What gives me the most hope is that investment is already shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy at a scale large enough to show up as a plateau in global emissions. The Paris progress will only accelerate that shift.


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