COP21 Paris is about more than just countries reducing their emissions

From 30 November till 10 December roughly 25,000 official delegates that will negotiate a new climate agreement. Hopes are high that they will manage to successfully negotiate a new climate agreement. Almost all countries are expected to be part of a Paris agreement but the days of legally binding seem counted. The glass half empty? We have to turn our attention to another group of roughly 25,000 participants. These are non-state actors that work on concrete climate change mitigation and adaptation action. It is thanks to them that the glass is half-full.


Jan Willem den Besten

The new agreement will be different from the Kyoto protocol in the division of responsibilities among countries. Kyoto stipulated that only industrialised nations were required to commit to binding emission reduction targets. Under a Paris agreement both developed and developing countries are expected to have targets and action plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The new agreement will be more voluntary and open-ended in its approach. Countries are asked to submit intentions -- not commitments to tackle climate change. The process towards Paris has all been about ambition, flexibility and transparency. The result is not bad: 130 countries have already made their submissions and the intentions of these nations whose combined emissions count for over 90% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol only industrialised countries committed who together were responsible for only about 14% of all emissions.

It does however not say anything about the level of ambition to reduce those emissions. The EU has set a target for itself to reduce greenhouse emissions by 40% in the 2020-2030 period. Not all countries will go that far and it is already clear that a Paris agreement will not put us on a pathway to limit the rise in mean global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

Building resilience in developing countries
Climate action is more than emissions reductions. Even under a 2-degree pathway we will still have to deal with major effects of climate change. Regions that are most vulnerable to climate change will often be exposed to the biggest impacts while they have the least capacity and resources to build resilience to deal with those impacts.

Tens of trillions of dollars are estimated to be needed to help developing countries to adapt to climate change and to develop low-carbon development strategies. The commitment to mobilise 100 billion dollar per year by 2020 is promising but at the same time by far not sufficient to prepare developing countries for the worst. It is fair to say that nation states alone will never be able to address the challenges and mobilise the resources.

This is where the 25,000 ‘unofficial’ attendants of the Paris meeting come in view. These men and women represent many thousands of ambitious and visionary NGOs, companies, research institutions, community organisations, municipalities and sub-national states NGOs, national and subnational governments, international organisations and community initiatives around the world that take action to limit the causes and impacts of climate change.

The impact of these non-state initiatives is considerable. UNEP has estimated that 15 global non-state initiatives alone are expected to achieve half as many greenhouse gas emission reductions as all the countries under the Kyoto Protocol.

Non-state actors also play an important role in building resilience and capacity in least developed regions and countries to deal with the unavoidable impacts of climate change. This is an area where climate change action converges with efforts to implement the new sustainable development goals.

The issue of climate change is indeed closely interlinked with the other key challenges of our time: food, energy, water and social security. This is not the stuff to be handled by governments alone.

Many companies, from medium and small enterprises and start-ups to large multi-national corporations, increasingly realise that a transition is needed to sustainable production, green investments and green infrastructures. But they also can’t do it alone.

Developed and developing countries have to work together with the private sector and civil society to make the transition to low-carbon economies and low-carbon development. Low- and middle-income countries must be able to invest in climate resilient societies and productive landscapes. These regions are closely connected to industrialised regions through commodity value chains.

Each play a role; now the play is to embark on it together
Unfortunately there are no blueprints and no one-size-fit-for all solutions. Companies, governments, civil society organizations and the scientific community each have a role to play. For investments to reach scale, the business case has to be clear for various actors along supply chains. In many cases, public funding will continue to be required to put oil into the machinery and mitigate risks and create opportunities.

This is Paris coming full circle. COP21 is as much a serious face-to-face discussion between countries as it a large market place for state and non-state actors. As the 50,000 official and non-official delegates mingle next week, they learn, build coalitions, start new initiatives and expand their networks.

It is important that the formal negotiations produce ambitious targets with regard to emission reductions, adaptation finance, and specific issues such as reducing deforestation. Equally important is that each government works together with companies, NGOs, research institutions and community organizations across landscapes and sectors on the design of strategies and practical solutions.

State and non-state actors understand each other’s potentials, limitations and dependencies. Governments should commit to more legislation, risk reduction tools and leveraging instruments for the mobilization and maximization of green investments. The private sector on their part should show courage, decisiveness and leadership by committing to voluntary standards such as to 100% renewable energy, deforestation-free value chains, and CO2 neutrality; and by showing peers in government and industry how we can internalize negative social and environmental externalities across businesses and their suppliers.

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