COP21: Climate leadership can’t be left to governments alone

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By Alberto Carrillo Pineda and Eliot Whittington

COP21 offers opportunities for all stakeholders to prioritise what they are going to do to slow the rate of global warming – for all our sakes.

The Paris climate negotiations known as COP21 are taking place at a critical juncture in our history. The scientific evidence tells us that we have to urgently peak emissions and then sharply reduce them if we are to avoid irreversible impacts on our climate. This makes the gathering of decision makers from over 190 countries in Paris a unique opportunity for players from around the world to agree to act on climate change.

We have the potential to secure an urgently needed framework that makes countries work together to build a new, low-carbon future, and to come up with the finance to do so. But alongside government commitments we also need collaborative efforts – from city authorities through to civil society and businesses – to achieve these objectives.

Crucially, however Paris turns out, and however we choose to face up to the climate challenge, these decisions will play out over a back drop of change, as the world undertakes huge shifts in the next 15 years.

Among the projections are that the global economy will grow by more than half; that a billion extra people will come to live in cities and that 90 trillion US dollars will need to be invested in key economic infrastructure. Technology too will continue to change the way we live. We anticipate a structural transformation in the world economy.

But making the right choices can guide that transformation, with the potential to deliver significant emission reductions and better economic opportunities as we transition to a low-carbon future.

After the tense and terrible events in Paris in November, it is our hope that COP21 will demonstrate global collaboration across national borders, and between governments and citizens to tackle climate change.

Going into the Paris talks, negotiators and politicians had their work cut out to come up with workable compromises and proposals. The trickiest areas have been around finance; loss and damage (in countries vulnerable to rising sea level and extreme weather events) and the ‘ambition gap’, namely the setting of targets that are too low to achieve meaningful results.

From the pre-COP discussions in Bonn in October, it was clear that many countries would not be able to resolve these issues before Paris – and there was a split between developing and developed countries. In addition, there were questions around transparency, monitoring, reporting and verification between countries, as well as how legally binding any agreement might be. However around 170 of the 195 countries in the UNFCCC process have tabled national commitments to tackle climate change – an unprecedented signal of a new global action on this issue.

When the climate discussions took place in 2009 in Copenhagen, the picture was somewhat different. There was a top-down approach with the notion that an international agreement could be reached that would drive global action within a single framework. This did not happen. That is why the approach in Paris will be different. Here, nations will come together to put forward what they think they can do to collaborate and improve their ‘climate ambition’.

We hope for an agreement that manages the risks we all face, that seeks to protect vulnerable people and ecosystems, and that will keep global warming as low as possible.

Our call is for a strong, guiding long-term goal (such as an early net zero emissions goal or the phasing out of fossil fuels as set out by the G7). We would also wish to see more focused mid- and short-term goals, capable of keeping the world within a carbon budget compatible with global warming of less than two degrees. Indeed we note that many of the most vulnerable countries and people advocate for efforts to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees – as above that level they face catastrophic impacts.

A successful outcome of Paris would be a treaty with five-year reviews – ensuring countries consistently revisit and raise ambition; strong national contributions supported by realistic financing; and an action agenda, not only from governments but also from players outside of government, such as business, city governments and civil society.

A Paris treaty along these lines would send a clear signal to business: it will indicate the direction of travel, it will show political buy-in; it will deliver clarity and a level playing field, and increase confidence in the future direction of policy.

In the past, businesses have been seen as cheerleaders rather than forming an integral part of the outcome around a gathering such as COP21. This time, non-state actors including business will form one important pillar of the negotiations in Paris. Several hundreds of companies have already taken action and made public announcements; 159 companies have signed the Trillion Tonne Communiqué calling for global policies and actions to tackle climate change.  The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group organized a letter to the G20 and EU Finance Ministers urging them to play an active role in supporting the negotiations and 421 companies have committed to leadership on climate action through the We Mean Business coalition, including several partners of the WWF Climate Savers programme.

Often when business action is discussed, we focus on commitments only, but even more significant are the efforts by business to engage in fundamental market transformation (such as a commitment to no net deforestation or zero carbon emissions by 2050). Collaboration is critical, and also critically important is how business uses its voice and influence to engage with policy makers.

In our view, there is no relationship between climate action and bad economic performance (rather the opposite).

Whatever the outcome of the Paris talks, it is in this arena that our climate future will be determined.

Alberto Carrillo Pineda is the Head of Climate Business Engagement for WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative. Eliot Whittington is the deputy director of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group for which the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership provides the secretariat.

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