Bottoms up!

The Global Climate Action Summit hits a home run just days after the top-down UN climate agenda gets bogged down in Bangkok. The secret? Keep heads of state off the invite list.

The ink had barely dried on the historic Paris Agreement when hopes again began to crumble as the newly elected president Trump announced he would pull the US out of said agreement. With the other national emissions reduction pledges deemed utterly insufficient and negotiations stalling, things were starting to look grim for the intergovernmental climate effort. Meanwhile, the exponential curve of carbon emissions continues its steep climb to unprecedented and reckless heights.

Against this backdrop, the recent Global Climate Action Summit held in San Francisco was just the thing to beat the growing post-Paris malaise and reinvigorate the global climate agenda. Here, the long-winded formalities, gloomy reports and never-ending negotiations common to intergovernmental summits were completely absent. Instead, a line-up of TedTalk-esque speakers and influencers from the sub-national level, business community and civil society inspired with their messages of hope and calls to action. Here are a few takeaways:

Exponential growth: Mortal enemy or BFF?

One of the opening acts of the summit was the launch of the report “Exponential Climate Action Roadmap,” presented by climate scientist Johan Rockström and former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres. Figueres suggests that humans find it hard to truly grasp “exponential growth,” and took it upon herself to educate the audience by taking steps across the stage. Two steps, then four, then eight. There wasn’t room for the next doubling on the stage, and after just a few more one would have to walk around the Earth’s circumference.

We are all too familiar with how exponential growth of say, greenhouse gas emissions can be our doom, but Exponential Climate Action Roadmap finally gave this much maligned curve some positive PR. Pointing to the many unexpected, exponential growth trajectories such as solar and wind energy as cases in point, the report concludes that we can reduce emissions by around 70% with the diffusion of existing technologies along with behavior change. This process, however, must be accelerated through climate leadership, policy and exponential technology.

Never trust a politician

But is this realistic, when government mandates continue to flip-flop and pander to fossil-fuel special interests? Perhaps there’s a way around: Meet the America’s Pledge initiative, set up in response to Trump’s announcement to pull out of the Paris Agreement. With over 3000 cities, states, businesses and others counted among its members, were the initiative a country it would form the world’s third-largest economy with a population of 325 million people.

America’s pledge seeks to fill the climate action void left by the current US federal government, and they contend that members’ pledges and existing market trends will cut emission by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 – roughly two-thirds of the way to America’s original Paris Agreement pledge – without any help from the federal government.

And this “leave the federal government out of it” approach seems to be catching on. For example, 70 large entities including the state of California and the cities Accra, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Mexico City have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 at the latest. The number of companies committing to science-based emission targets witnessed an increase by nearly 40% from last year, and their collective economic clout accounts for US$10 trillion of the global economy.  The summit also witnessed the launch of the “Investor Agenda:” a coalition of 400 investors managing US$32 trillion in assets, who have committed to align financial flows with climate objectives.

 

It appears that the assumed, supreme role given to nation-states in addressing climate change may have been overstated. The Global Climate Action Summit and the exponential growth in renewable energy, green bonds and in ambitious pledges from increasingly large and influential sub-national and non-state actors are testaments to the fact that we needn’t wait idly by and watch short-sighted politics decide the success or failure of global climate action.

 

Image: The Global Goals For Sustainable Development

Jonathan Fraenkel-Eidse
jonathan.eidse@norragency.com