World leaders came out of Paris with an international climate agreement seeking to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The following is part of a "What It Takes" series that looks into what we’ll need to do to pull that off.
Negotiators in Paris declared victory on Saturday. The international community signed on to an historic agreement that incorporates 160 commitments by individual countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions over the next ten to fifteen years, with more cuts to follow.
The deal is a good excuse to drink champagne, but this agreement is the easy part. It’s just paper. It won’t stop the temperature or the seas from rising. For that to happen, every country that signed on has to keep its promises. The responsibility will fall to individuals, businesses, and local governments. It is through that hard work—not what happened in negotiating rooms in Peru or Paris—that we will stop climate change.
Where Mitigation Lives
Before and during the Paris negotiations, 2,250 cities and 2,025 companies made commitments to address climate change. London, for example, promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent. Swedish furniture giant Ikea committed to selling 500 million energy-efficient LED light bulbs by 2020 as part of a public-private partnership. Banks and investors with assets above $4 trillion promised to increase lending to energy efficiency projects. The list of similar commitments is long.
It’s important to note that the actions of these cities and companies won’t be in addition to their countries’ commitment to reduce carbon. Rather, they are the real-world mechanisms by which nations will fulfill their pledges. We will need these types of initiatives, because the laws and regulations on the books in most countries aren’t enough to meet the challenge of climate change.
Just as important, subnational efforts work as carbon-cutting experiments, and many are due to begin right now or over the next two to three years. The importance of these shovel-ready initiatives is enormous. Concerns about implementation watered down many countries’ carbon pledges in the run-up to Paris. But if private and local initiatives are successful in the near term, they could show national governments around the world that carbon reduction is possible, profitable, and not nearly as complicated as many people think. Then in 2020, when negotiators return to the table to extend and improve their carbon commitments, they will have far more experience and a better understanding of how much can be done.
It Starts at Home
The United States provides a perfect example of the importance of subnational initiatives. In its pre-Paris commitment, the country promised to lower greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. To help meet that goal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the Clean Power Plan, a state-by-state program to cut carbon pollution from utilities. The administration also tightened automotive fuel economy standards to reduce transportation emissions.
Those programs will lower the country’s carbon output, but according to a recent World Resources Institute report, they won’t be enough to meet our national carbon reduction promise. The United States will have to do more, such as limiting methane leaks from natural gas wells and setting fuel efficiency standards for airlines, but not every solution will originate in Washington.
Cue the subnational actors, who are already moving to help the United States achieve its greenhouse gas target. The most significant effort is the Compact of Mayors, launched by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Participating municipalities agree to generate a full greenhouse gas emissions inventory within one year, create a reduction plan, and set that plan in motion within three years. More than 100 cities in the United States alone have signed on, from metropolises like Los Angeles to minnows like Eagle Nest, New Mexico, population 290.
And what cities do will influence state politics. Many of the participating U.S. cities are in swing states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Boycotting the Clean Power Plan, as some governors have threatened to do, will be more difficult if their largest cities are proving that carbon reductions are in the state’s economic interest.
Another crucial mechanism to help the United States keep its promises is the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, launched by the White House over the summer. Through the voluntary initiative, more than 100 major companies agreed to support climate action and commit to carbon reductions. On a single day in July, thirteen companies made pledges to invest more than $140 billion in low-carbon energy and generate 1,600 megawatts of new renewable energy. Some of the companies, which include Apple, Walmart, General Motors, and Cargill, promised to cut emissions by as much as 50 percent or to go 100 percent renewable in the near future.
Groundswells and Champions
The subnational movement is messy, which is a major reason you’ve heard so little about it. Because they are international and decentralized, these efforts go by many names and acronyms, and their relationships to each other are hard to unravel. Here’s a little taste of the madness: The Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Change, or NAZCA, includes more than 10,000 commitments. Then there’s the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), which is nested within NAZCA and contains the most important initiatives. “Work stream two,” which is part of the United Nations climate negotiations, includes programs from both NAZCA and LPAA. There are also city-, state-, and business-level commitments that aren’t registered with any of these programs.
Greenhouse gas limits are only part of the solution—we need a reduction in confusing acronyms, too.
For now, just remember these two terms: groundswell and champion. Climate action gurus use the former to refer collectively to subnational efforts. It’s supposed to indicate that addressing climate change is not only a top-down process but a bottom-up one as well. National commitments may spur initiatives by cities, states, and businesses, but successes on those fronts will also show leaders what is possible, spurring them onward in return.
The other buzzword is climate action “champion”—a high-profile individual who can help push the groundswell forward. They are the financiers, former public officials, and corporate executives who agree to accept responsibility to ensure that those bottom-up initiatives fulfill the top-down commitments. France, the host of the most recent climate change conference, and Morocco, the host of the next major one, will select official climate action champions. Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, the head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, will be an ideal candidate when she leaves office. Other possibilities include former president of Mexico Felipe Calderon, former Guyanese president Bharrat Jagdeo, and Michael Bloomberg.
You may not be a candidate for climate action champion yourself (at least not now), but you can be part of the groundswell. Through your decisions as a consumer, investor, and voter, you can make sure your country meets its commitment on climate change. Paris was just the beginning of this process. Now we all need to follow through.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.