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COP21: Climate Change Victory or Failure Déjà Vu?

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Dec 10, 2015 11:41:04 AM

Global leaders are converged in Paris. Is climate action actually here?

The world has waited with bated breath to see what, if anything, would come out of the United Nation’s COP21 climate summit this week. Some have been overjoyed with the outcome, citing groundbreaking commitments and a final agreement that may reach beyond initial expectations.

Others claim defeat, asserting that the lack of binding commitments will cause Paris to be a repeat of Copenhagen—a set of empty promises that have no real method of enforcement. Critics state that the lack of real accountability will likely lead to widespread reneging, alluding to the Kyoto Protocol, which was not ratified by the U.S. Senate specifically because of the lack of enforceability. They also point out that in order to take real action and spend money, the President will need agreement from Congress, which has become more unlikely than flying pigs these days.

In my opinion, the Paris talks are a far cry from Copenhagen, namely because these meetings brought a tour de force of corporate commitments to climate action. In a dizzying display, company after company, industry after industry threw bold commitments into the ring, showing unprecedented support for a transition to a low carbon economy and a clear understanding of how a changing climate will negatively impact businesses of all kinds. I believe that the private sector’s acute pressure on world leaders to agree on and execute a global climate deal that mitigates global warming, dramatically reduces emissions, and expedites a low-carbon economy will be the thing that turns the tide in the climate action battle.

As one example, apparel companies including Levi Strauss & Co., Gap Inc., VF Corporation, H&M, Eileen Fisher, Adidas Group and Burton Snowboards pledged to work together to reduce the textile industry’s environmental impact. In a joint statement, the companies affirmed that, “Drought, changing temperatures and extreme weather will make the production of apparel more difficult and costly. Climate change mitigation and technological innovation are vital to the health and well-being of those who make and use our products, as well as the future supply of materials needed to make those products.”

In the construction industry, the hubbub was around the launch of a new Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, comprised of governments and organizations from across the globe vested in green building (including multinational giants GlaxoSmithKline, Interface, Lloyds Banking Group, Philips, and Tesco), focused on making all new facilities net zero energy by 2030 and all existing buildings net zero by 2050.


Saving trees was also a theme—consumer products leader Unilever and retail giant Marks & Spencer announced an initiative intended to boost the production of sustainable palm oil, beef, paper, and other commodities through creating relationships with tropical forest communities that facilitate careful planning and land restoration efforts to eliminate deforestation. Moreover, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom pledged a collective $5 billion between 2015 and 2020 to forest protection efforts. Colombia committed $300 million to forest protction, and Brazil pledged to curb its deforestation (which has historically been massive—nearly 70% of Brazil’s Amazonian forests have been denuded.)

On the transportation front, 65 countries signed the Global Fuel Economy Initiative, which plans to double the fuel efficiency of government light duty fleets by 2050. An alliance of States across North America (including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) and Europe (including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Netherlands) pledged to implement mandates requiring 100% electric vehicles (for all new passenger vehicles) by 2050. The purchasing power of this alliance represents more than ten million new vehicles per year, so the pledge promises to have a considerable impact on reduced emissions as well as electric vehicle innovation, forcing automotive companies to prioritize the category accordingly.

One of the most substantial, and surprising, announcements was made by Monsanto—the company promised carbon neutrality across all operations by 2021 by prioritizing innovations that enable soils to hold greenhouse gasses enough to offset their crops’ large carbon impact, and by reducing the carbon output of its pesticides.

The Global Green Freight Action Plan tackles the shipping sector, aiming to dramatically reduce emissions of CO2, soot, particulate matter and other pollutants from freight vehicles by 2025. 

Technology kingpins Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a billion dollar fund (comprised a veritable who’s who of billionaire entrepreneurs, including Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, LinkedIn founder Ried Hoffman, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos,) that will invest in early-stage clean energy companies in a variety of sectors, from electricity generation and storage to transportation to agriculture. The initiative is mainly focused on expediting the development and adoption of renewables and will bolster commitments made by a variety of nations to double the amount of public investment in clean energy innovations.

Cities were not to be outdone, with pledges for strong emissions reductions, clean energy adoption, and smart city development to enhance resource conservation. Mayors from 21 cities committed $5 billion to increasing the resiliency of their cities, protecting their citizens from weather and climate related disasters. The money will be used for a wide swath of projects, including deep energy retrofits, floodwalls, neighborhood revitalization, and rapid bud transit.

Alongside the abundant optimism and momentum, there were also protests, mainly comprised of individuals expressing sharp criticism of fossil fuel companies’ presence at the COP21 meetings. “They’re attempting to hijack the meetings and squash real action by greenwashing their anti-climate action agendas,” said one protester. In addition to the protests, concerns about the monitoring, reporting, and validation for climate action and demands for a system to price carbon were prevalent. Which certainly begs the question—is global peer pressure enough to hold nations and companies accountable?

Despite the justifiable apprehension, the general consensus seems that the Paris meetings may yield even better results than expected with a final agreement that is more stringent than originally proposed, attempting to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (relative to pre-industrial levels), rather than the more commonly cited 2 degrees C. 108 countries, including the U.S., France, Australia, and Canada, have backed this aggressive target.

It’s clear that leaders of all kinds understand the moral obligation, as well as the financial need and environmental imperative, of climate action. It’s still unclear whether we have the time and the capacity to hold global warming to survivable levels, and it’s uncertain how nations and corporations will be held accountable to their voluntary commitments. What we do know, though, is that all hands are on deck, united, to find effective solutions for our changing climate.

What do you think were the most impressive announcements and take aways from the COP21? Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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