In a four-part series from December 3–6, Michael Northrop, Director of the Sustainable Development Program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, attempts to catalogue the deluge of commitments made at and around the September 2018 Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, California.
Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) Week started on Monday, September 10, three thousand miles away from San Francisco — in New York, where United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez opened the week by warning that “we are careening toward the edge of the abyss,” and that we have until 2020 to “change course” if we are to avoid “runaway climate change.”
States and Regions. Governor Jerry Brown of California, host of GCAS, officially kicked things off that Monday in Sacramento by signing a much-anticipated bill mandating that his state generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2045. Brown also signed an executive order pushing California to lower its overall carbon emissions, including those from transportation, to reach carbon neutrality — or net zero carbon, whereby total carbon emissions are balanced by measures to offset or sequester carbon — by 2045. Later in the week, while riding on San Francisco’s first plug-in hybrid electric ferry, Brown took the opportunity to sign 16 separate pieces of legislation that aim to accelerate California’s transition to net zero carbon. Eight of these concerned transportation emissions. These are staggeringly important commitments, solidifying Brown’s and California’s remarkable legacy as climate leaders.
Protesters took issue with Brown’s failure to slow oil extraction in the state. Maybe he’ll make a move on this before his term expires in January 2019 or, perhaps more likely, his successor Gavin Newsom will.
Other U.S. states also showed up to tout their leadership commitments. Hawaii Governor David Ige affirmed that his state intends to be carbon neutral by 2045. Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey pledged his state will use 100 percent clean (non-carbon emitting) energy by 2050 and announced plans to develop 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030 — part of 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind development promised by Atlantic states during the past year. Seeing these commitments, five newly elected Governors in Maine, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, and New Mexico campaigned on moving their states to 100 percent renewable energy sources.
Seventeen states representing over half of U.S. GDP announced an array of impressive commitments by their bipartisan U.S. Climate Alliance, including recommitting to Paris climate goals; reaffirming their intent to get 50 percent of their electricity from clean energy sources by 2025; promising $1.4 billion in electric vehicle funding; developing plans to reduce short-lived pollutants that contribute to climate change; enhancing the carbon drawdown capability of natural and working lands; increasing the resilience of coastal communities and marine ecosystems; and closer collaboration with Canada and Mexico.
The We Are Still In coalition, which has more than 3,500 state, city, corporate, and other members in the United States, announced more than 300 new climate commitments.
In one of the most important gatherings of state level governments during summit week, representatives from 73 state and regional governments from around the world came together for the fourth general assembly of the Under2 Coalition. They affirmed their jurisdictions’ commitments to develop plans that will keep their carbon emissions below two tons per capita — a level that, if implemented by all global governments, is ambitious enough to keep the globe from exceeding two degrees Celsius of warming. Sixteen new governments formally joined the Under2 in time for GCAS. In all, 222 state and regional governments around the world, including many from developing countries, have joined the Under2 and committed to these ambitious targets since the Coalition formed four years ago.
Under2 is the largest collection of high ambition climate leaders on the planet, representing 1.3 billion people and 43 percent of the globe’s economy. Among the group’s activities are formulating 2050 deep decarbonization plans, developing greenhouse gas inventories, and creating protocols for monitoring and reporting. The Climate Group in London, which serves as the secretariat for the Under2, reported that just-approved German and Norwegian government grants totaling nearly $10 million will help underwrite the next stage of development of the Under2. At this year’s assembly, several speakers referred to the Under2 as a global safety net: As national governments delay delivering the enhanced ambition to keep global temperatures to manageable levels, states and regions are stepping up to show the way.
The rapidly developing policymaker expertise required to engineer the low-carbon transformation was also on display at the Under2 assembly. Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and The Climate Group co-released The Carbon-Free Regions Handbook: An Action Guide for States, Provinces, and Regional Governments. The handbook features a short summary of successful policies that are being implemented by state governments around the world to reduce carbon emissions to two tons per capita. The handbook contains 30 ready-to-implement, no regrets solutions that have proven successful. It is a companion to The Carbon-Free City Handbook, launched by RMI in November 2017 at COP23 in Bonn, which details best practice policies implemented by cities. RMI has also just released a powerful short video on city action with examples taken from the City Handbook. Both handbooks reveal the growing policy sophistication spreading through city and state/regional jurisdictions around the world. These governments aren’t waiting for their national governments to lead or tell them what to do tomorrow. They are working hard today to decarbonize in practical and cost-effective ways — and they are getting better and better at it. The release of these two handbooks, which will be updated over time, is designed to help other jurisdictions climb the learning curve faster. It’s a remarkable example of expertise elevation; it’s also a sign of growing strategic intent by the smart networks supporting sub-national jurisdictions.
Cities. City networks were prominent at GCAS and organized multiple affiliated side events, collectively releasing a blizzard of commitments and announcements detailing their intent to move rapidly to a decarbonized future. Seventy-three of the 96 C40 Cities — global “megacities” that have committed to addressing climate change — reaffirmed their intent to be carbon neutral by 2050 in order to help the world keep warming to no more than 1.5 degrees.
The Ready for 100 coalition in the United States counted 81 cities and nine counties that have adopted a 100 percent renewable energy goal, and reported that six local governments — Aspen, Burlington, Georgetown, Greensburg, Rockport, and Kodiak Island — have already hit these targets. Just last week, the Washington, D.C. City Council voted unanimously to use 100 percent clean energy by 2032.
The Global Covenant of Mayors, a group of more than nine thousand international city and local governments, agreed to attempt to reduce emissions to a level that would get average emissions across its membership to about two tons per capita. (If fully realized, these commitments would account for reductions of more than 60 gigatons of CO2 between now and 2050. Six thousand of these cities are already implementing plans that meet or exceed their countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions.).
The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a global network of the most ambitious climate cities, released its Game Changers report, which highlights the seven key policies that cities can implement to have the greatest near term impact on achieving carbon neutrality.
Nineteen C40 cities promised that all new buildings in their jurisdictions will produce net zero carbon by 2030.
Twenty-three global cities and regions committed to rapidly cutting the amount of waste they generate, accelerating their progress toward zero waste. Bloomberg Philanthropies and C40 also released a report called Climate Opportunity: More Jobs; Better Health; Livable Cities, which estimates that climate action by cities can prevent 1.3 million premature deaths per year, generate 13.7 million urban jobs, and save 40 billion hours of commuters’ time and billions of dollars in household expenses each year.
C40 highlighted creation of a new Divest/Invest Forum network of cities that will make it easier for cities to divest from fossil fuels as well as invest in clean energy solutions. Working through the C40 Climate Leadership Group, Mayors Bill de Blasio of New York and Sadiq Khan of London announced they will co-chair the Cities Divest/Invest forum, a global network that will enable cities to share tools, knowledge, and experience and to advocate for action on divestment and green investment.
While hugely impressive, the above summary of city commitments is only a partial accounting of the announcements that cities brought to the summit.
National Governments. Even though GCAS was a summit specifically for local and state governments and other sub-national actors, several national level governments used the summit and the weeks following to make important announcements. China, which organized its own Pavilion at the summit, affirmed its Paris commitment. The country reported that it invested $126 billion in renewable energy in 2017 (about half of world renewable investment and a 30 percent increase over 2016); that its solar and wind energy use is steadily increasing; that its emissions trading program, which covers 1,700 companies in the power sector, is up and running; and that there are 72 Chinese cities that have set “peaking” goals, or timelines for their carbon emissions to stop growing and then begin to decline.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands published its Lighting the Way strategy to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, becoming only the tenth country to submit a long term decarbonization pathway and the first island nation to do so. Costa Rica confirmed that it is beginning implementation of a full ban on fossil fuel use for transportation in 2021; it has already achieved nearly 100 percent decarbonization of its electricity grid. The Netherlands announced that it intends to become a fully circular economy, in which all products are designed for continuous reuse, by 2050. President of Hungary Janos Ader announced that his country would achieve an 80–95 percent emissions reduction by 2050. Spain’s new government, with the support of its labor unions, announced that it will close most of the country’s remaining coal fired power plants and coal mines by year end and offer transition packages to affected workers.
Transition was a topic that came up repeatedly at GCAS. Scotland, for example announced, that it is establishing a Just Transition Commission to help it deal with worker issues as it moves toward zero carbon emissions. Scotland will use 100 percent renewable electricity by 2020.
New Zealand announced its decision to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced at Climate Week in New York, a week after GCAS, that over the next four years the country will spend $300 million in the Pacific to support small island states making the switch to clean energy and to build resilience to sea level rise and storm surge. A few weeks after GCAS, New Zealand also announced that it will no longer allow offshore drilling leases for oil and gas exploration.
Carbon Tracker took advantage of GCAS to release a report on September 18 that concludes that 53 countries’ will reach their peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 while also growing their economies. Carbon Tracker also warned that $25 trillion in fixed fossil fuel assets are at risk of being stranded as the energy transition progresses.
Investors had a loud voice in San Francisco, beginning the week with a rush of announcements about shifts in investment capital away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy solutions. Arabella Advisors announced that more than $6.2 trillion dollars of assets — a 12,000 percent increase over four years — are now publicly pledged to divest from coal and other fossil fuels, up from $52 billion in September 2014 when this movement first leapt onto the front page of the New York Times. In a sign of the developing momentum in this space, Arabella revised the amount divested by nearly another trillion dollars to $7.1 trillion a few weeks later. Arabella and other leaders say there’s much more divestment happening outside of the public eye.
As You Sow released a report saying investors should demand oil and gas companies deliver credible two-degree Celsius, Paris-compliant transition plans by 2020 and, if the companies can’t, then divest. As You Sow announced its conclusion that engaging companies through shareholders has not yielded expected results and might not be enough to change corporate behavior.
Important groups of investors, who have not given up on engagement, also made their presence felt in California. The Investor Agenda, a group of 400 investors managing $32 trillion in assets, and the Climate Action 100+, which now includes 310 investors also with $32 trillion in assets under management, committed to engaging directly with the largest fossil fuel companies. Both investor groups are urging these companies to accelerate the transition to clean energy and to scale up investments in climate action.
In the midst of these announcements, Candriam, the $113 billion European asset manager, took advantage of the week to announce it will divest its substantial holdings from thermal coal. Nineteen Catholic institutions, including Caritas India and the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, also declared their intention to divest from fossil fuels, bringing the total number of Catholic organizations making such a declaration to 122. Hundreds more are discussing following suit.
New York City and London announced they will use an increased percentage of their fossil fuel-divested pension funds to invest in clean energy solutions. Mayor de Blasio said that if other cities followed the lead of New York City by committing two percent more of their holdings to clean energy investing, they would radically accelerate clean energy deployment.
Seventeen NGOs announced formation of their new Insure Our Future campaign to demand insurers divest from coal and tar sands companies and projects, and stop insuring them, too. (Seven major insurers and reinsurers have already committed to stop insuring coal). ShareAction, a U.K.-based investor group, hosted a private session with 25 large institutional asset owners interested in developing and mainstreaming Paris compliant investment portfolios. ING Bank announced that it will steer its entire €500 billion portfolio toward compliance with Paris Climate Accord.
Companies showed up in force in California as well. The most impressive corporate commitment at GCAS was an announcement by We Mean Business — a coalition of organizations working with companies on climate change — that 488 major corporations from 38 countries have now pledged to adopt science-based emissions reduction targets. This represents an almost 40 percent increase in the number of companies making this level of commitment since December 2015 when the Paris agreement was struck; 130 new companies made these commitments in time for the Summit. These 488 companies represent $10 trillion of market capitalization and comprise nearly 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Part of what makes this mass commitment so impressive is the rigor behind the targets each company has set. Some call the process incredibly complicated, but growing numbers of companies are joining in and doing so with a willingness to have their plans examined and certified by third party validators. Many more companies are expected to join in time for the 24th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) in Poland, the next landmark multilateral climate gathering when the world will assess whether it has successfully ratcheted up global commitments to a level high enough to achieve the Paris goals.
RE100, a coalition of companies committed to using 100 percent renewable energy, announced that 154 global companies are now pledged to being fully renewable. This effort to gather corporate commitments began three years ago and has steadily grown. In a report by Capgemini Invent launched at Climate Week in New York, RE100 announced that in the first six months of 2018 alone, companies had contracted 7.2 gigawatts (GW) of renewable electricity through power purchase agreements, surpassing 2017’s record of 5.4GW for the entire year.
In addition to the large number of companies pledging to go 100 percent renewable, there are hundreds more that are working with the REBA Alliance, which had its own summit in Oakland in early October. REBA aims to help energy buyers acquire 60 GW of new renewable energy in the United States by 2025. Over time, many of these buyers will join the 100 percent club.
Many of the biggest companies making renewable energy commitments are now asking their suppliers to become 100 percent renewable, too. Among them are Apple and Ikea. Apple announced that 23 of its suppliers use 100 percent renewable energy. Supply chain workshops are now a regular staple at renewables conferences. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) counted $93 billion in corporate investment in renewable energy in 2016, and $120 billion in 2017.
This isn’t because governments have mandated it. It’s because renewable energy is cost competitive and profitable for companies to use.
Health sector leaders in the United States, as a subset of the corporate community, were active and well organized in San Francisco, announcing that they had come together in a coalition of 21 major health systems — representing 918 hospitals across 41 states with over 1 million employees and $200 billion in revenue — to join the We Are Still In coalition. The five largest health systems in California (Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health, Sutter Health, Providence/St. Joseph’s, and University of California health system) launched the California Health Care Climate Alliance to demonstrate leadership on climate solutions and embed health into California’s climate policy. Kaiser Permanente, the largest integrated health provider in California, pledged to be carbon neutral by 2020. To get there, Kaiser will become the largest purchaser of renewable energy in the U.S. health sector.
International health sector leaders also declared that 1,200 hospitals in ten countries are committed to using 100 percent renewable energy and are developing a call to action with other health allies to bring to COP24.
In addition, Mahindra, the $21 billion Indian conglomerate comprising 20 separate companies manufacturing products including utility vehicles and cement, declared its intent to be carbon neutral by 2040. Interface, the global carpet maker, committed to produce even less carbon than it offsets by 2040. Microsoft’s Brad Smith declared that the software giant has been carbon neutral since 2012 and that they have purchased 1,000 megawatts of new renewable energy to get there. Salesforce, BT, Hewlett Packard, Enterprise, Uber, Lyft, and Ericsson announced the launch of the Step It Up Declaration, a new alliance to harness the power of emerging technologies to cut greenhouse gases across what they are calling the fourth industrial revolution, which includes Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing, and the internet of things.
The flood of corporate commitments and announcements at GCAS certainly signal a much more hopeful prospect for business and economy than the one fearmongers pushed on the world after the Rio summit during the 1990s and continue to insert into the conversation today. Supporting a positive view was a report issued at GCAS by The New Climate Economy (NCE), chaired by former President of Mexico Felipe Calderon, declaring that “we are on the cusp of a new economic era” and a “decisive shift to a low-carbon economy” that will bring “economic growth” and “deliver higher productivity, more resilient economies, and greater social inclusion.” Analysis by the NCE shows that “low carbon growth could deliver economic benefits of $26 trillion and generate over 65 million new low-carbon jobs in 2030 and avoid more than 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution in 2030.” Of course, some of the most politically powerful firms on the planet will suffer, so the path to a low-carbon economy will not be easy. But if the world can find its way past recalcitrant self-interested fossil fuel companies, there is a bright economic future ahead of us — if we can get there in time.
With so many companies, cities, and states reaching for these high levels of ambition in the three years since Paris, there’s more hope that the world will see the kind of global ratchet-up of ambition that scientists have called for.
As IPCC scientists declared a few short weeks after the Jerry Brown summit, we only have 10 years to get it right. This remarkable effort by companies, investors, states, and cities offers a ray of hope.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.