Leading up to the UN climate change summit in Paris in December, the question is: can the heads of the world’s governments get it together and create a real game plan to stave off a 2-degree increase in global temperatures? At an event organized by the Center for American Progress and The New Republic in Washington, D.C., government and international organization leaders concluded there’s a lot more work that will need to be done leading up to Paris, and even after the summit, because any agreement reached there will only cover 2020 to 2030. The goal at Paris is to get a sense of what all countries’ national pledges to limit emissions mean in terms of hard numbers, which will then serve as the baseline upon which “ambitions can be ratcheted up” every few years.
At this point, pledges by governments fall far short of what’s needed to get on a pathway to a 2-degrees-or-less temperature increase. A 2-degree increase in itself will “not be benign,” as the World Bank’s special envoy for climate change Rachel Kyte explained. With a 2-degree rise, island countries will be consumed by rising seas, and people living across the Sahel in Saharan Africa will find they can no longer grow food. But it’s even worse, under current business as usual scenarios, the world is heading towards a 5-6 degree increase in temperatures, with hugely destructive impacts worldwide. To date, the world’s temperature has increased by 0.8 degrees due to human-caused climate change, with those in the Arctic already up by nearly 2 degrees.
Janos Pasztor, assistant-secretary general for climate change at the United Nations, explained what will happen in Paris. The talks will have a few key parts. All countries will put forward their “intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs),” which are bottom-up, voluntary pledges for cutting carbon emissions. Pasztor explained this what countries believe they are “able and willing to do.” At the same time, local governments, companies, and non-profits will put forward an “action agenda” comprised of innovations around the world that governments can refer to for ideas. As part of this, there will be a senate of global mayors, led by the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. There will need to be an agreement on financing. Developing countries will need help getting access to money from the wealthiest. And there will need to be a legally-binding agreement on the rules “for how governments are going to ratchet up pressure to move up levels of ambition.”
For Kyte at the World Bank, what’s at stake at the next UN summit is “how ambitious do we dare to be? What will this cost? Who will pay for it?” The end-goal needs to be a zero-emission global economy. “Emissions need to peak earlier and earlier — that’s what we are looking for.” Kyte also echoed arguments made by Pope Francis with his encyclical: at Paris, the wealthiest countries have a responsibility to help the poorest. The World Bank, she said, realized it can’t end poverty, its stated mission, with climate change occuring. As countries attempt to develop and achieve their own aspirations, “climate change pulls the rug out from under them.” This is happening to everyone — “rich, middle-income, and poor countries alike.”
The World Bank is ratcheting up its own efforts, administering large climate financing funds that can move dollars from the U.S. and Europe to the least-developed countries. They have also decided to stop financing any new coal power plants worldwide, except in exceptional circumstances in which a poor country has no other cost-effective energy option available to them. She added that the end of coal is simply a fact of life, part of the grand transition that will occur over the next few decades. “And this will cause dislocation.” But she argued this transition needs to start happening soon, as “it will only become more difficult and costly later.” To speed this transition, she called for further divestment in coal companies.
The world can’t forget the poorest, who, “through no fault of their own, have come into harm’s way. As they build their resilience, we have a responsibility to help them.” Many communities are planning for “continuous change, but what about discontinuous change?” For example, coastal communities may soon have to ask themselves, “can we afford sea walls, or should we cede parts of our community back to the sea?” Some coastal communities have to figure out if they can become a “saline economy,” producing food and goods in brackish water. Just as some coastal communities will need to need let some of their land go, some mountainous communities will need to move further up the slopes. “So many communities have already had to pick up and get up out of the way.”
But Kyte was optimistic the world can make this difficult transition. She said the Industrial Revolution is an example of a global transitional process that succeeded. And in just the past few decades, there has been a shift from from state-owned-enterprises (SOEs) to private ownership of production almost everywhere. The future challenge will be not to just find the $100 billion least developed countries need to adapt, but the $1 trillion the world economy needs to make the shift. “The challenge is to build an economy that is low carbon and competitive.” To do this, countries need to undertake a few steps now: “end fossil fuel subsidies, put prices on carbon, and then set long-term prices for carbon.”
One audience member asked whether all these countries’ INDCs can be used to create a “race to the top,” a sort of environmental Olympics between countries in which they compete to see which country has achieved the most significant carbon reductions. France’s Ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud, there representing the summit’s host country, said “using peer pressure is a great idea, but we aren’t there yet. At Paris, we need to set the baseline and go from there.” When asked which countries would win the gold in this race, he pointed to France, with its stated goal of having 50 percent renewable energy by 2030; Denmark, with its success in hitting 100 percent wind power; and Costa Rica, with its smart efforts to preserve its rainforest and invest in renewable energy.
And, lastly, Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, reiterated that President Obama has made fighting climate change his priority, and reaching a global agreement at Paris will be at the top of the list. In a partisan speech focused on mostly domestic climate politics, McDonough said Obama would not back down with new regulations that limit emissions from power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s upcoming Clean Power Plan, which will be released in August and will reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution, will move forward despite “Republican scare tactics.” McDonough said Republicans have been using the same tactics for 40 years, since President Nixon created the E.P.A. and signed the Clean Air Act. “They say environmental regulation will kill jobs, raise prices, and lead to power failures.” The reality, he said, was “the U.S. has cut pollution by 40 percent and grown the economy by three times over the past 50 years.”
McDonough said climate change is not only a national security threat — “it’s a threat multiplier” — but it will also disproportionately affect the poorest in the U.S. and everywhere else. Already in America, “African American children are twice as likely to have asthma and four times as likely to die from it.” This is because too many African American children grow up near polluting power plants and busy transportation corridors. Climate change, which raises temperatures, only makes ozone and surface-level pollution worse, raising the threat to low-income communities. Obama also aims to bring more solar power to low-income communities so everyone can benefit from lower energy bills.