Cross-pollinating ideas to fertilise ambition

Paul Allen reports from the final day of the COP23 UN climate talks.

As this year’s COP23 international climate talks finally draw to a close, I would like to offer a brief overview of some of the highs and lows of the past two weeks.

But before we get too deep into the nitty gritty, the first thing to recognise is that climate negotiations can actually be a really hard thing for us to follow. It’s not just the scientific terms such as CO2-equivalent or radiative forcing, there are also a wide range of acronyms like NDC, SDG or even IPCC. Then to top it all off, the Paris Agreement has created its own species of terms such as “Global Stocktake” and “facilitative dialogue”. However, help is at hand: the World Resources Institute’s expert team have assembled an easy guide to what’s what.

So, as I sit here on the train home, thinking back over the past two weeks, one of my key disappointments has been that this COP has had a much lower profile than it deserves in the mainstream media. Especially as it coincided with the alarming revelation that, after having plateaud for three years, global carbon dioxide emissions will rise by 2% this year. Also, although India and China are still moving ahead with existing clean energy policies which is certainly helping, the gap between our collective Paris pledges and what the science demands of us still looms large. Following the potential withdrawal by the US this gap will widen.

Climate Action Tracker estimate that if all other governments fully implement their Paris pledges there would now be average global temperature increase of 3.2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This marks a worrying rise on their 2.8°C pre-Trump estimates from 2016.

Climate Action Tracker calculations showing projected global temperature rise based on current pledges and policies – www.climateactiontracker.org

Surely this is headline mainstream news, especially as raising the profile of the COP is a powerful way to increase citizen engagement and so help drive government ambition.

Nonetheless, progress has been made, both inside and outside the negotiating hall. Sadly, we didn’t see spectacular increases in any Paris pledges, but the groundwork has been laid for the formal process of increasing ambition which begins in 2018 at COP24. The original name for this process was the facilitative dialogue, though this has now been re-named the Talanoa dialogue. Talanoa is a traditional word used in Fiji and the Pacific to reflect a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. The purpose of Talanoa is to share stories, build empathy and to make wise decisions, for the collective good. Fiji’s presidency brought strong and clear majority world voices to the negotiations. Last Thursday, the Climate Action Network’s daily COP bulletin featured some ‘Pacific Voices’ – some of the powerful quotes include:

“If you’re going to open another coal mine, then you’re not transitioning, you are lying to us”

“Don’t tell us you don’t have the money; we’re not interested because you can move money from the military industrial complex to just, safe and urgent climate action.”

You can download their daily eco briefings.

Perhaps one of the most powerful international achievements from COP23 was that Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Denmark, Belgium, Angola, Netherlands, New Zealand and a range of other industrialised countries announced Global Alliance to Power Past Coal. This is an international coalition to phase out coal power – with President Emmanuel Macron declaring that France aims to close down all coal-fired power plants by 2021. Sadly, the major coal producing and using nations, such as Australia, India, Germany and the US, did not join the crew.

Another valuable step forward in the light of the US withdrawal, was that many countries committed to support the vital scientific research being done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and will make a “multi-year pledge to support climate science crucial to informing climate policy.”

COP23 also saw the adoption of the first-ever
UNFCCC Gender Action Plan (GAP) and the operationalisation of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform. The very first page of the Paris Agreement makes it clear that governments must integrate gender equality and the rights of indigenous peoples in all their climate actions.

Perhaps most importantly, at COP23 we saw clear signs of new kind of leadership emerging from states, cities, businesses and civil society, who are simply pressing on with delivering their national commitments. Despite Trump, the Rocky Mountain Institute concluded that over 2,500 U.S. non-state actors have committed to the Paris Agreement — collectively, these would be equivalent to the 3rd largest economy in the world.

It is also good to note that Zero Carbon is becoming a much more commonly used term. I was pleased that we received five requests to present CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) work at official side-events COP23, more than at any other climate summit so far; our work is gaining wider profile and engagement. I collaborated with a wide range of partners – from Welsh Government to the Global EcoVillage Network – to share CAT’s positive vision that humanity has the technologies and we know how to overcome the barriers. The responses have been very encouraging. Hosted by the Indigenous Pavilion, and delivered alongside a range of experts including Professor Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre, my final side-event, Transforming hearts, lives and government policies, was packed out and unleashed many passionate and insightful questions. I also undertook a range of interviews and vlogs.

In addition to the ZCB presentations, I made a point of visiting all of the official government pavilions to share our ZCB work, presenting our information to experts such as Wang Zhongying, leader of the China National Renewable Energy Centre.

Whilst doing this I also had the opportunity to hear a range of expert speakers. In the German Pavilion, I heard Fatih Birol, chair of the influential International Energy Agency (IEA), call for the 300 billion dollar fossil subsidies to end. He was followed by Dolf Gielen of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) who made it clear that the wider co-benefits of the transitions exceed the costs by a factor of between two and six, with health benefits being a major part, whilst a staggering 10 trillion dollars of stranded assets could be rescued and 26 million jobs created by 2050 in the process.

I also took time to visit a great many of the non-government organisation booths and side-events to share our work. In doing this I also discovered a wide range of very able and motivated organisations offering cutting-edge, highly innovative work. In the middle of the second week I was invited by a group of collaborators, including Google, to the launch of a new data platform called Climate Watch. This brings together dozens of datasets for the first time, to let users analyse and compare each country’s Paris pledge, so anyone from delegates to active citizens can access historical emissions data, discover how countries’ climate pledges relate to their sustainable development goals, and use models to map new pathways.

During the dinner that followed I was also introduced to another new platform called Nature4Climate, which offers tools to help us understand how we can increase the contribution of climate solutions from natural systems. If we are to limit warming to 1.5°C in addition to the mass deployment of renewable energy technologies we also have to include nature-based solutions. The way we use land is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, but if better managed, it can provide more than a third of the carbon reductions needed to deliver the Paris Agreement target. This work is well timed as another success from COP23 was in ending an ongoing stalemate around agriculture, an important step which should to lead to better planned and better funded policies to help farmers, negotiators and development.

Just like over twenty thousand other participants in COP23, I am now on the way home, a little exhausted, a little overwhelmed – but also enthused. For me, COP23 confirmed that the trend is our friend, but we must be crystal clear on the scale and speed of the transition required. Even as recently as the year 2000, renewables were only a small percentage of the world’s electrical generation, and experts told us the grid could only cope with 20% maximum of variable supply. Today’s figures regularly exceed that. We have learned to reinvent the power system – we have made some mistakes, but we have now more or less got the hang of it. But now it is time for our focus to move beyond the electrical power sector and transform land-use, heating and transport, so we can see a similar fall in cost as the scale increases.

As you can see from my photos, COP23 has been a very active place, thousands of people working 24/7 for 14 days, cross-pollinating ideas to fertilise ambition. Yet we can’t let it stop here, we are heading to a pivotal moment in human history. Active citizens in every country must press their governments for clear progress over the coming year, and set the stage for next year’s COP24 in Katowice, Poland where countries must step up and enhance their Paris pledges – ready to become live-actions from 2020, and so deliver the transformations so urgently demanded by the science.

Many thanks to everyone who has supported CAT, and in particular to all of you pressing on to be solutions-leaders in your local areas!

“We can draw from the power and enthusiasm of local and regional leaders in the mission to tackle climate change. So many of you have already demonstrated how to make decisions and implement them.”

Frank Bainimarama Prime Minister, Republic of Fiji & COP23 President