2015 Declared the Year of Action on Climate Change/Sustainable Development


Which environmentalist recently declared 2015 the "time for global action" to protect the integrity of our planetary home? "The stars are aligned for the world to take historic action to transform lives and protect the planet," he said. "I urge Governments and people everywhere to fulfill their political and moral responsibilities."

Those could easily have been the fighting words of the Climate Action Network-- the global coalition representing 700 groups working to limit climate change--the network pointed out in a recent blog.

However, that clarion call actually came from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a report released last month synthesizing the voices of millions of people, following a solicitation of opinions on an unprecedented scale about how to develop a new set of guiding global goals.

Known as the sustainable development goals (SDGs), they will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals, a blueprint for countries that was issued in 2000 aimed at improving life for the world's poorest.

The Secretary General's so-called synthesis report is intended to shape the thinking of the UN's member countries before they meet in September to finalize the list of new goals. Ban Ki-moon delivered the report just before setting off for Lima, where national leaders were engaged in a parallel process to hash out a new global climate agreement due three months later in Paris in December 2015. His report repeatedly emphasized that successful economic development is inextricably intertwined with curtailing climate change, stressing the need for "climate-sensitive development."

Some observers were disappointed that the UN leader had not pared down the existing draft list of 17 goals and 169 related targets to something that could fit easily on the back of a business card. By contrast, the eight concise Millennium Development Goals, which ranged from eradicating extreme poverty to ensuring environmental sustainability, were easy to remember and considered influential in guiding governments and donors around the world.

Perhaps in a similar pitch for simplicity, Ban Ki-moon set out six basic "elements" for nations to consider: he put protection of the planet's ecosystems -- including "an urgent duty to address climate changes" -- on an equal footing with principles like justice and dignity.

Yet what got less attention from the press was the remarkable extent to which the report stressed the importance of recognizing and supporting the groundswell of action from all levels of society--not just national governments.

In fact, the report embraced many of the concepts NRDC has been advocating--greater recognition of the actions and commitments made by mayors, governors, civil society groups, and progressive businesses in combating climate change together with greater accountability to measure the consequence of those actions.

"We must now embrace a culture of shared responsibility," the report said, "[t]he new paradigm of accountability that we seek is ... one of all actors--governments, international institutions, private sector actors, and organizations of civil societies, and in all countries, to the people themselves. This is the real test of people-centered, planet-sensitive development."

At a conference NRDC organized at Yale last November, "Rio+20 to 2015: A New Architecture for a Sustainable New World," a remarkable consensus emerged among the 180 academics, officials, and advocates that the traditional UN system isn't capable of delivering sufficient action on climate change and the broader challenge of sustainable development. While national governments have implemented some policies and measure for climate change and sustainable development - often referred to as two sides of the same coin - the transformations necessary will require an "all hands on deck" approach to action.

The Yale conference launched a global conversation about the actions that actors besides national governments are already taking to reduce carbon pollution and develop responsibly. Whether it's the Parisian bike-share rental scheme catching on in cities across the globe or New York City's determination to become environmentally resilient to another Hurricane Sandy, citizens and local governments aren't wasting time to avert a planetary threat that's already proven its destructive power.

NRDC took inspiration from Hilary Clinton's final speech as Secretary of State in June 2013 in which she called "for a new architecture for this new world, more Frank Gehry than formal Greek." She compared the old international system to a Greek temple's "few strong columns"-- with top-down treaties determined by international bodies and national governments. The new system, she suggested, would look more like the diverse façades of a Gehry building, representing a variety of approaches with the diversity of actors.

Following the Rio+20 earth summit in 2012, NRDC recognized and recorded the promises pouring in to combat climate change from cities, civic groups, corporations, as well as national governments, by creating the "Cloud of Commitments" website. The 400 commitments have grown to over 1,400 with a value greater than $600 billion, including a commitment by 800 cities to move beyond the targets of the UN's Kyoto Protocol.

In a speech to the UN in April, outgoing NRDC President Frances Beinecke stressed the importance of measuring the effect of these promises: "We aren't looking for a big 'gotcha!' We want to encourage promises to be translated into action."

Beinecke strongly encouraged the UN to require that all commitments to action aimed at meeting the new sustainable goals be SMART - specific, measurable, accountable, resource-based, and time-bound. One example: NRDC is working with city governments to improve building standards that will increase investments in greener buildings, energy savings, and reduced emissions within the next 5 years. The UN's recent report adopted some of that language, saying "What is needed now is a technical review to ensure that each [target] is framed in language that is specific, measurable [and] achievable."

Beinecke also recommended "giving civil partners a seat at the table from the start, so they can support implementation from the inside--encouraging, problem-solving, and moving toward completion."

The UN seems to be listening. The Secretary General's report recommends regular global progress updates on bottlenecks found to implementing the goals, to come from committees that would include partners from civil society, academia, and the private sector, as well as member countries.

If there's any doubt that regular people care about this that was dispelled by the 400,000 who marched in the People's Climate March in September urging the UN to act. As Beinecke, who marched that day described it, "There were Harlem community leaders who know urban neighborhoods pay a steep for dirty energy. There were nurses who remember when Superstorm Sandy closed down Bellevue Hospital and left nearby low-income communities without adequate health care. There were United Auto Workers members who believe climate justice equals labor justice."

Ban Ki-moon also participated in the march that day, and the sense of urgency in marchers' demands for concrete action apparently did not escape him. As he said upon releasing his report, "Implementation will be the litmus test" of whether the goals work.