California Creates New Hope with Bold Climate Leadership

Governor Jerry Brown at Climate Action Summit / The Nation

We are at the half way point between the United Nations Paris climate accord in 2015 and the next round of commitments that will be made by the international community in 2020, the year in which greenhouse gas emissions must peak if we are going to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. To increase the pressure to reach even more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals, California Governor Jerry Brown hosted the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco last week.

One take away from the summit is that reducing emissions by 25 or 50 percent simply no longer cuts it. The state of California, which is the fifth largest economy in the world, announced ambitious plans to convert to 100 percent renewable energy and become carbon neutral by 2045. The announcement showed great leadership and sent an undeniable message to other state governors and national leaders around the world: if a complex economy and society like California can do it, why can’t you? A slew of global cities have also made the same commitment.

According to the summit organizers, “over 70 big cities, home to some 425 million citizens, are now committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, including Accra, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Mexico City. These actions alone will lead to a 2.5 percent cut of annual global greenhouse gas emissions and the avoidance of 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.”

Through the two-day conference, cities were highlighted as critical to achieving targets, given they account for more than half of the world’s population and 70 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

While New York City, Washington, D.C. Stockholm, London, Sydney, and others have committed to achieving neutrality, many more cities are now starting their own low-carbon journey, potentially leading to even greater gains over coming decades.

Summit organizers write: “a further 9,100 cities representing 800 million citizens are now committed to city-wide climate action plans. This could lead to reductions of more than 60 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent between now and 2050.” There are an estimated 50,000 cities worldwide, which shows that far more widespread action is needed though.

In addition to the states and cities that have ratcheted up their ambitions, hundreds of global companies announced their commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy use by 2050. “This includes nearly 150 major global companies such as Tata Motors and Sony. Collective annual revenues of these companies total well over US $2.75 trillion, and their annual electricity demand is higher than that of Poland.”

The ZEV Challenge, an alliance organized by the Climate Group, also made major announcements around de-carbonizing transportation systems by moving to zero-carbon electric vehicles, buses, trams, etc. Transportation accounts for up to a third of global emissions.

Twelve governments, including Catalonia, Scotland, and Washington State, representing some 80 million people, announced they will have 100 percent zero emission public fleets by 2030. Furthermore, “26 cities with 140 million people are committed to buy only zero emission buses starting in 2025, but also creating zero emission areas in their cities starting in 2030.” And 23 multi-national companies such as IKEA have agreed to take their fleets zero emission. To achieve widespread EVs, these groups will also create 3.5 million zero emission vehicle charging stations by 2025.

Major efforts were launched to improve the sustainability of the built environment. The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) launched the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, with 38 signatories, including 12 businesses, 22 cities, and four states and regions. In addition to the commitments by state and regional governments, “businesses representing US$ 22.95 billion in revenue throughout the building and construction supply chain, have set ambitious targets to eliminate operational carbon emissions from their building portfolios of over 10.7 million square meters by 2030.”

There were also some actions to promote more sustainable land-use and greater protection of forests and oceans. As part of the 30×30 Challenge, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) announced $500 million in new funds for sustainable land use and forest conservation. A group of nine philanthropic organizations made a comparable commitment of $459 million for the protection and expansion of forests and lands through 2022, with the goal of bolstering indigenous peoples’ and traditional communities’ ability to govern their lands. Other big commitments: Ecuador, Norway, and Germany launched a Pro-Amazonia initiative, with $50 million dedicated to conserving 1.36 million hectares of rainforest. But while these steps were welcome, they are far from enough. Deforestation has reached new highs around the world, and the situation is now dire, with nearly 30 million hectares of forest lost in 2016 alone.

To improve access to green financing, the Investor Agenda was launched. Some 400 investors with US $32 trillion under management, an amount thirty percent larger than the US economy, are now focused on “accelerating and scaling-up financial flows into climate action and building a more sustainable, low-carbon, global economy.” As an example, NYC’s pension fund will invest $4 billion in green projects, and some of the largest pension funds in Denmark and Canada will dramatically ramp up their investment in renewable energy and climate-smart technologies. To spur more sustainable capital and infrastructure project financing, new cities and financial institutions joined the Green Bond Pledge, which aims to create US $1 trillion in green bonds by 2020.

Still, an incredible amount of work remains for the US to simply meet the Obama administration commitment at the Paris climate accord — 26 percent reduction in emissions by 2025. Current estimates have us on track to achieve about half the goal. Hopefully, the leadership and progress we saw at the summit will inspire a broader coalition to get there.

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