Five Years after Paris, the race to resilience is underway

Today marks 5 years from the day the Paris Agreement was finalized, at the end of the 21st annual global conference on implementation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the COP21). The Paris Agreement was historic for a number of reasons. Chief among them:

  1. Nearly 200 nations committed to cooperate in the effort to end global heating emissions and stave off catastrophic climate disruption.
  2. Every nation agreed to not only make a Nationally Determined Contribution to that global effort, but to upgrade that national plan regularly going forward.
  3. A call to review the latest science effectively re-set global ambition to a target of no more than 1.5ºC warming of global average surface temperatures above pre-industrial levels.

All three of these major breakthroughs hold the promise that island nations might be saved, critical ecosystems can be kept healthy, and climate-related economic and political chaos can be avoided.

The breakthrough structure and long-term vision of the Paris Agreement were made possible by the tireless, imaginative, principled, and cooperative leadership of strong women courageous enough to see beyond an endless cycle of scarcity and injustice. The structured, motivational vision of Laurence Tubiana, the diplomatic skill and stubborn optimism of Christiana Figueres, and the action-focused coalition-building of Rachel Kyte were critical to achieving the geopolitical will to make Paris possible and the Agreement durable.

  • The Paris Agreement recognized the rights of vulnerable stakeholders, including women and girls, indigenous people, young people, and future generations.
  • It was the first global agreement on climate to recognize the ocean as an integral part of the climate system.
  • That has now set up breakthroughs in climate-related watershed resilience planning, including finance innovation, sustainable agriculture, and resilience-building food systems.
  • All of this also means we can now intelligently talk about how nations can prioritize and invest in the cryosphere, which anchors climate patterns and watersheds.
Secretary of State John Kerry addresses member state delegates and civil society observers at the COP22 UN Climate Change negotiations in Marrakech, Morocco, in November 2016.

In one of the most important public addresses on climate, and his last as Secretary of State, John Kerry told the COP22 in Marrakech (1 year after Paris) that climate change is beyond partisan politics, regional interest or ideology, saying:

If we fall short, it will be the single greatest instance in modern times of a generation abdicating its responsibility… Only those nations that step up [to lead on solving climate change] can legitimately wear the mantle of global leadership.

He quoted Churchill, who said “Sometimes doing your best is not enough; you have to do what is required,” and then closed with the resolute commitment, pausing on ever word: “We. Will. Do. What. Is. Required.”

When the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, the American people rebelled and put forward the world’s most comprensive outside-of-government pledge. Cities, states, regional cooperative frameworks, businesses, and investors, ramped up their commitments and aimed to secure a climate-smart future, with or without help from the federal government. It was November 4, 2020, the day after the US election, that US withdrawal became official. Three days later, with Joe Biden’s victory clear, that withdrawal became moot.

John Kerry is now slated to become the most empowered climate diplomat the world has seen, and to ensure that pervasive national commitment is driven by both national policy and US geopolitical leadership. This restores American moral coherence, promises the best future for the American people, and ensures a jolt of new energy to multilateral cooperation.

Since 2015, planetary change has accelerated. We are now living with escalating numbers of increasingly devastating natural disasters, sooner than projected. Meanwhile, the pace of decarbonization is not nearly fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate disruption. We have only about 10% of the global carbon budget remaining. That means we need to achieve most of the needed decarbonization in the next 10 years, if we are to keep global heating to 1.5ºC or less.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, is right to call on governments to formally declare a climate emergency, as he did during today’s Climate Ambition Summit.

There are important breakthroughs, however, in the race to net-zero global heating emissions:

  • The European Union has committed to a European Green Deal, which will speed the transition to net-zero by 2050. Aggressive targets for 2030 and 2035 are being set as well.
  • South Korea has set its target at net-zero by 2050, as has Japan.
  • China—the world’s largest carbon polluter—recently announced a commitment to net-zero by 2060.
  • The incoming US administration of Joe Biden has signaled its intention to set US policy and national investment priorities on a path to net-zero “no later than” 2050.

These commitments alone mean more than half of global heating emissions and two-thirds of global economic activity are now on committed pathways to net-zero by mid-century.

The pace of transition, however, matters a great deal. Too slow an early start, and the eventual net-zero achievement will come after too much global heating. The United Kingdom was the first industrial nation to legislate its commitment to net-zero by 2050 (followed immediately by France). The Climate Change Committee now says the UK should reduce climate-forcing emissions 78% below 1990 levels by 2035, to be on track for 1.5ºC.

It is significant that we have also seen the following major commitments from oil producing countries:

  • Denmark to end all oil and gas activities in the North Sea by 2050.
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing an end to overseas oil and gas investment.
  • Canada has just set a new bar for efficient, effective, people-centered carbon pricing, increasing its carbon pollution fee by $15/ton/year, while returning 90% of revenues to households. This ensures polluters pay for pollution, while ordinary people see income gains to guard against “pass-through costs” and help drive a green economy.

Canada’s political breakthroughs in carbon pricing are the result of strong leadership from elected officials, but also from a decade of hard work by citizen policy advocates. Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers in the US also built bipartisan support for national carbon fee and dividend legislation, that would return carbon fee revenues to households. A significant expansion of citizen participation in climate policy will raise ambition and speed the transition. Participatory process should be part of national climate action plans and supranational negotiations from now on.

Pressure is also mounting through the financial sector:

  • The Bank of England is moving ahead with plans to stress test financial institutions for climate risk and resilience.
  • The European Central Bank is also moving forward with tougher climate risk regulations.
  • In September, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission released a report warning that climate disruption posed an existential threat to the financial system.
  • In November, the Federal Reserve Bank of the US called on banks to measure and report climate risk and announced its intention to join the Network for Greening the Financial Sector.

The European Green Deal is going to include carbon border adjustments—meaning an import tariff for any goods or services coming from jurisdictions that don’t have an equivalent carbon price, to level the playing field. This puts major trading partners like China, the US, and even Russia, in a position to either price carbon effectively at home or see those revenues go to the EU.

Five years on from the Paris Agreement, the complicated process of shifting finance, incentives, technology, and business models, is advancing. Too many leaders in the public and private sectors still harbor a dangerous wait-and-see attitude, which risks slowing the transition. The COVID crisis has, however, made it more urgent than ever that national investment and recovery priorities aim for and achieve climate resilience.

We are now living through the uneven, messy, start of the race to net-zero, but the race is on.

Related reading on pathways to a climate resilient future:

  1. CFTC finds climate change puts US financial system at risk
  2. The Path to 100% Climate-Smart Finance
  3. People-centered carbon pricing can free the whole economy from the pollution trap
  4. Invest at the Source (to achieve ocean-smart innovation on land)
  5. Diets for a Better Future: Rebooting and Reimagining Health and Sustainable Food Systems in the G20
  6. Invest in Interactive Earth Systems Value at the Human Scale (SB50 brief on Long-Term Finance)
  7. What we need to set up COP26 for transformational success
  8. Net-Zero by 2040 is Common Sense
  9. The Race to Resilience
  10. Science is Not Negotiable

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