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Analysis, Thoughts and Conversations by Dan Zilnk

100 Days to Paris

Dan Zilnik

1. The environmental community is sure to be disappointed by the Paris UN Climate Convention. The headlines after the November/ December 2015 UN Climate Convention in Paris are sure to be identical to the headlines for the last 15 years: “climate activists disappointed”, “commitments do not add up to a solution”, and “focus shifts to the next round of negotiations”. Environmental activists will be disappointed or furious. They should not be. What is happening in international climate negotiations is a sign of maturity. 

The idea of a grand, single agreement to manage the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions county-by-country is becoming less dominant. Instead, local and often voluntary agreements are creating a stepwise approach to managing GHGs using sub-national mechanisms that works for the regional populations, businesses and/or local government. These sub-national initiatives are concrete and meaningful, occurring side by side to these national plans. The United Nations Environmental Program finds that while national government pledges are expected to deliver emission reductions between 5-7 GtCO2e by 2020, sub-national pledges have grown rapidly and should yield 2.5–3.3 GtCO2e in emission reductions over the same period.

2. Climate commitments are a leap of faith at the national level, while often a practical issue for sub-national actors. Cities and regions make up the bulk of the 2.5–3.3 GtCO2e in emission reductions with companies comprising roughly a quarter of the commitments. For national governments, GHG emission reduction commitments are a leap of faith where politicians make pledges decades into the future, often with few political gains today. For cities and regions this is not the case as these jurisdictions are among the largest energy consuming entities on the planet, and have major public infrastructure vulnerable to flooding, drought or other modeled climate impacts. Pledges to reduce GHGs and adapt to climate changes involve key local risks, budget items, management decisions and are in the core business. As for business, the relentless improvements in “cleantech” economics along with improvements in conventional renewable energy technology have made replacing marginal fossil fuel production and consumption with renewables, or a hybrid gas/renewable system, a straight forward economic decision. Commitments to reduce GHGs from sub-national actors are often closer to core business and less of a leap of faith.

3. The Climate Summit of the Americas is a good example of how climate negotiations have matured and changed. In the latest show of action, the Ontario Government hosted the Climate Summit of the Americas in Toronto in July 2015. The event brought together over 300 leaders from government, businesses and civil society. With the recent announcement that it will pursue cap and trade, Ontario has become the latest sub-national jurisdiction to commit to addressing climate change. The Summit is a good example of how climate negations have matured and shifted. Key take-away lessons for future climate forums include: 

  • Key actors at the Summit were states, provinces, cities and businesses, and not the nations in the Americas.  
  • There has been a significant change in tone by sub-national actors. Rather than waiting for the state to create a framework, as California Governor Jerry Brown notes, his state will enact their GHG management policies while laggards have to, “get with it.” Ontario Premier Wynne used a similar tone noting that Ontario will use, “all the tools in the tool-box” regardless of federal positions on GHG policy. 
  • Disparate regulations and policies are emerging at the sub-national level, and the rate of emission reductions achieved may be hindered by the disconnection between jurisdictions.
  • A persistent challenge will be monitoring and verifying sub-national commitments. Sound, consistent monitoring and reporting systems rarely exist that would validate emission reductions. There are many voluntary and non-binding initiatives, which are self-reported and difficult to verify. 

The Climate Summit of the Americas was an important stop on the road to the UN Climate Convention in Paris at the end of the year. Given the points above it is not a surprise that the Paris Convention is the first UN climate convention with a specific forum for sub-national entities to negotiate agreements and collaborate. The focus is moving away from a single state-based global agreement on GHG management. While failure to reach an agreement is sure to disappoint those who are hoping for a binding global agreement in Paris, this perceived failure is in-fact a sign of the maturing and shifting GHG management landscape.