But with all of the momentum and enthusiasm, the question remains: what can we realistically hope to achieve? And how can we ensure that Paris does not turn into another Copenhagen, where bureaucracy and bitterness between developing and developed nations held back international action?
Paris as the Foundation for a Low-Carbon Future
As the President and CEO of The Climate Reality Project, an organization founded and chaired by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, I am optimistic about what we can achieve at COP21 in Paris. Realistically, the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) submitted by governments worldwide in advance of Paris, will not be enough to keep us to the two-degree Celsius threshold most scientists agree is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Fortunately, however, that does not mean that COP21 will be a failure: it is still a crucial opportunity for the international community to take a bold step forward in the fight against climate change. The commitments made in Paris will provide a cooperative framework that encompasses and catalyzes the actions already happening throughout the world at every level, signaling, to the larger global community, the start of the post-fossil fuel age. Additional factors such as falling prices for renewable energy, climate action at the local and municipal levels and businesses and philanthropic organizations divesting of their fossil fuel assets will help carry the job forward beyond COP21.
To be clear, in order to secure the foundation for a decarbonized future, there are a few fundamental components of an international framework that we will need to see adopted in Paris. At Climate Reality, we believe that the Paris climate talks must deliver three things: meaningful emissions reductions commitments from all countries; a system of periodic review to see if these commitments can be strengthened, ideally every five years; and a long-term goal of either 100 percent renewable energy or net zero greenhouse gas emissions. If these components can be achieved – and I believe they can be – we will have successfully captured this critical moment.
Accelerating the Action Beyond Paris
Of course, the work does not stop in Paris. To keep emissions below dangerous thresholds, all countries must transition their economies to clean energy. The good news is that the cost of renewables – particularly wind and solar – is falling rapidly: Deutsche Bank predicts that rooftop solar will reach grid parity in all 50 U.S. states by 2016. Falling costs will help accelerate this transition, leading to cheaper, cleaner and more reliable energy that benefits economies, creates jobs, and improves lives. Of course, securing financing for these economic shifts will also play an important role going forward, as renewable energy becomes an increasingly smart investment.
Cities and local governments are also making impressive strides furthering climate action, in particular where national governments have faltered. In July, I attended the Climate Summit of the Americas, where sub-national actors signed a joint statement committing to support carbon pricing, ensure public reporting, take action in key sectors, and meet existing greenhouse gas reduction agreements. This statement supports a growing number of subnational efforts currently underway, including the Compact of Mayors, the Compact of States and Regions, and the ever-growing Under 2 MOU. The Summit was not only state and provincial government officials either – active attendees included local government officials, indigenous leaders, environmental groups, industry, and the business community.
Climate change is already wreaking major economic casualties with increasingly unpredictable weather, damaging food crops and increasing medical bills. However, because these economic losses take a toll on the private sector, we are seeing more business leaders and investors reducing their reliance on fossil fuels and instead turning to clean energy. For instance, both Walmart and Apple are working towards 100 percent renewable energy in most of their operations. Dirty energy presents a financial and environmental risk, while at the same time the market itself is incentivizing the transition to cleaner energy. Climate action makes good business sense, and with a strong agreement in Paris, we can expect to see more and more businesses making the shift.
Finally, civil society is providing the political cover needed to ensure their governments implement policies to reduce carbon emissions. Community leaders and local organizations in key countries around the world are adding their voices to the climate action dialogue – at Climate Reality, we have more than 8,000 Climate Reality Leaders from more than 126 countries who are mobilizing their friends, peers, and communities.
Climate Reality on the Road to Paris – and Beyond
Our Road to Paris campaign seeks to unite citizens, corporations, and organizations on every continent to demand a strong agreement at Paris, and then to help carry that momentum beyond December. In key countries and regions that are strategically significant for COP21 – Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Europe, India, Mexico, Philippines, South Africa, and the United States – our campaign is building on the work we’ve already undertaken, including training new members of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps and activating local branches, which employ social and digital earned media tactics to educate and mobilize communities, hold events, and offer practical suggestions for grassroots action people can take to support and strengthen the commitments their national governments have made.
As we look ahead to COP21 and beyond, it is critical that we hold leaders of all political parties and at all levels accountable for taking action and implementing solutions to the climate crisis. While we cannot rely on the Paris climate talks to solve one of the greatest threats the world has ever faced, a strong agreement there will help set the framework for cities and local governments, businesses, civil society and the rest of the world to carry the momentum toward a brighter future for all.