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.
The amount of ambitious activity underway at the sub-national level around the world is astonishing, and it is so much more vibrant, enthusiastic, and entrepreneurial than what we see happening at the national and international level.
President Trump, ironically, may have helped boost this beehive of sub-national urgency with his misguided decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. Sub-national action has been a constant through the two and a half decades that the world has been seriously grappling with climate change, but after 25 years of incremental experimentation since the 1992 Rio Summit, there has been a sudden upturn of action and ambition. For those who witnessed GCAS and its reverberations across cities, states, and companies, this surge of action and seriousness was readily apparent.
What is especially heartening is the degree of ambition of the policy moves. They have gone beyond incremental and finally reached a level that is commensurate with what scientists say is necessary. Zero-carbon buildings, 100 percent clean transportation, 100 percent renewable electricity, zero waste: This family of commitments made by sub-national leaders, as spelled out in prior sections of this series, are what is needed at all levels of government, including the national level.
For many reasons, national governments have to date found it difficult to commit to the dramatic changes required to solve the climate crisis. Their domains are often too vast and their citizens’ interests too varied to find political support for things like radically transforming electricity supply or moving transportation systems away from fossil fuel-driven infrastructure. Entrenched utility and fossil fuel sector interest groups with political punch, like the Koch Brothers in the United States, can band together around status quo positions to effectively contest new policy directions that threaten their financial interests.
For more than 25 years, democratic national governments have struggled to get past these domestic constituencies to do the really big things necessary on climate. When nations have occasionally been able to stake out an ambitious leadership position, they have often been forced to retract those commitments over time after the election of a new government from an opposing party. Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States come to mind as examples of countries experiencing a roller coaster of climate policymaking. Driving these reversals are claims of economic calamity and a basic unease about a future that is hard to visualize.
As a result, policy action at a federal level has often been, by necessity, incremental. Compromise and the need to appear reasonable drive outcomes that don’t get the job done with the speed and urgency required.
By contrast, cities, states, and companies can often move more boldly on climate change solutions that promise a radical non-carbon approach. Strong executives at the sub-national level with more circumscribed jurisdictions and constituencies can more easily sell an approach that is visionary, overcomes fear, and gets the job done with the necessary speed.
As seen in the commitments catalogued in this series, a remarkable evolution in commitment making, policymaking, and overall leadership has unfolded at the city, state, and corporate levels, offering some hope that dramatic change is possible.
The breadth of action now documented and systematized in how-to manuals and playbooks like the RMI city and state handbooks and the C40-McKinsey Focused Acceleration report represents a remarkable step up by sustainability directors embedded in governments and companies around the globe.
Powering the spread of best practice from city to city, state to state, and company to company are a small number of “high ambition coalitions” like C40, the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, the Under2 Coalition, the RE100 network, and We Mean Business, who are working to help more and more cities, states, and companies comprehend and engineer carbon-reducing mechanisms for their own use.
There is so much happening that it is more and more difficult to keep track. The crescendo of commitments and announcements in and around California during August-November of 2018 is overwhelming.
To evaluate the intensity of commitment and action, The Climate Group and the Carbon Disclosure Project tracked nearly 200 cities, states, and companies who had made high ambition commitments (80 percent carbon emission reductions or better by 2050) just before the Paris COP in December of 2015. At the time, this was a very exciting ratcheting up of ambition by sub-nationals; there had only been a few handfuls of such high ambition commitments three years before in 2012. Today, three years after Paris, there are nearly 1,000 high ambition city, state, and company commitments. About half are from business and half are from cities and states around the world.
Because these pledges have been spread out geographically, it hasn’t been immediately obvious, but looking across the full span of these local and regional governments and companies, it is clear that the trajectory of adoption has gone nearly exponential in a very short time span.
As “advanced class” sub-nationals move to adoption and implementation, others are more likely to follow. Sub-national leaders can also inspire national level policymakers and multilateral negotiators to accelerate their commitments with real world examples of effective action.
Though nation states have been slower to the high ambition bar, there is an insistent trickle of high ambition national level pledges that appears to be speeding up as we approach the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) at the end of 2020. In the coming two years, we need many more nation states to ratchet up their climate ambition if we’re going to get to the 1.5-degree warming ceiling that scientists say is necessary to give us a fighting chance of preserving a livable planet.
The massive uptick in sub-national high ambition targets is important leverage to getting those national level commitments. Sub-nationals offer examples and proof that it can be done, and they show the way forward with empirical experience and tested policy models. They also help show that these steps can be attractive and economically beneficial. Job generation, economic growth, quality of life, and health outcomes all improve with these transformative changes. For most of us, this new world is not one to fear; it is one to aspire to. That is becoming evident as more and more jurisdictions and companies move forward with successful transformation.
Also aiding this growing wave of action is the improving economics of cost competitive renewables and other clean energy technologies. Twenty years ago, clean energy prices were high, and it was thought a price on carbon was the way to level the playing field to spur competition with low-cost fossil fuels. As time has marched forward without needed action on carbon pricing, the playing field is leveling because of the cost reductions associated with maturing clean energy technologies. (Although carbon pricing would still be enormously helpful as an accelerant for more rapid and deep action.)
Urgency is an important spur to the progress we are witnessing. The science is dire. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced on October 7 that the world has a decade to get it right or risk an unstoppable cascade of negative impacts from runaway climate change.
Anyone who has read the recent IPCC report is worried. As a result, more employees and citizens are insisting on action, and leaders are getting into the fray. The U.S. National Assessment released on November 23 paints a similarly stark picture of the economic damage that will result if we don’t ratchet up climate action quickly.
Given the energy and creativity evident in and around San Francisco in September and the near daily announcements since, there does appear to be a slim measure of hope that we can recruit the national level commitments we need for COP26 in Milan. We seem to be moving very last minute on something intensely serious, but, just maybe, all of the remarkable progress and potential on display around the California summit will piece itself together and leverage additional national level commitments to create a global solution big enough to rescue our children and their children from a hellish future existence.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.