Since the United Nations Kyoto climate accord over two decades ago, national governments have occupied center stage in the fight against climate change. They are indeed best equipped to accelerate the diffusion of clean energy technologies through the power they have to set tax, trade, regulatory, procurement, technical standards, R&D and other incentives.
But they are far from the only effective instrument of change available to societies.
The international community took a big step forward in 2015 when the COP 21 UN Paris Agreement created a universal framework for the setting of voluntary emissions targets and implementation plans by all national governments. But the structuring and activation of these so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) has been slow and uneven. So much so that even if they were implemented, humanity would miss the 2-degree Celsius goal set in the Paris accord by a wide margin. Scientists estimate that we are on course for a 3-degree temperature increase or more over the levels prevailing before the first industrial revolution, with catastrophic consequences in terms of extensive coastal inundation, drought, fires, crop failure and environmentally-forced migration during the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.
Recognizing that national governments are not the only game in town when it comes to climate action, a growing number of cities and states as well as leading companies and civil society organizations began setting their own emission reduction targets and engaging in their own international cooperative initiatives several years ago. These efforts intensified after the failure by governments to reach agreement on a UN accord in Copenhagen in 2009 and were instrumental in contributing positive momentum to the Paris negotiations in 2015.
Many of these leadership initiatives have continued to gather strength and are a bright spot in an outlook that has recently been clouded by national political setbacks for climate progress in countries such as the U.S., Australia and Brazil. But they remain just that -- leadership initiatives involving the most committed cities, states, companies, NGOs and universities. The world lacks a universal framework, analogous to the one created in Paris to engage all national governments, to scale such bottom-up action across society and make it common rather than just best practice for companies, states, cities and non-profit institutions around the world.
Many of these impressive sub-national and non-state climate action initiatives took important steps forward recently at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, which was hosted by California Governor Jerry Brown. These include the Under2 Coalition, a group of over 200 city and provincial governments around the world which are committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions toward net zero by 2050, and the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of 17 states and territories whose combined economic output is larger than that of all but two countries, which have committed to delivering their share of the U.S. government’s Paris commitment.
As for business, through the Science-Based Targets initiative, 133 companies around the world have set an emission target that is in line with the level of decarbonization required to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C, and a further 333 have committed to do so. Through the RE100 initiative, 144 companies have committed to 100% renewable power consumption. An additional 78 companies have committed to use an internal carbon price to guide their investment strategies, and 165 companies have committed to disclose their carbon-related performance and strategy in their annual reports and financial statements to shareholders. And last week, 21 companies formed a new alliance, the Step Up Declaration, dedicated to, “harnessing the power of emerging technologies and the fourth industrial revolution to help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across all economic sectors and ensure a climate turning point by 2020.”
The summit in San Francisco was an important innovation in international climate cooperation and hence international relations. By creating a public-private platform to highlight contributions made by such first-mover sub-national governments and private sector institutions, it suggested a way to add fresh momentum to humanity’s race against time.
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We need to build on the ‘can do’ spirit of San Francisco and create a mechanism to scale across the world the determination and self-initiative that many leading city, provincial, business and civil society leaders displayed in San Francisco. National governments can help.
Heads of government should direct their ministers to agree on a declaration at the next ‘COP24’ round of climate talks in Poland in November that invites any interested city or provincial government to develop its own ‘Sub-Nationally Determined Contribution’ (SNDC). Companies and other civil society institution such as a universities, religious organizations and NGOs should be invited to do the same in an ‘Organizationally Determined Contribution’ (ODC). Unlike the official United Nations Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), such sub-national and institutional commitments should not be subject to the monitoring and review mechanisms of the Paris accord. Rather, they should remain an informal mechanism for enabling the broader social mobilization that clearly will be required to place the planet on track toward the 2-degree goal.
Such a universal framework to enable distributed action across society could generate a snowball of political, industry and citizen peer pressure and benchmarking. This could eventually establish the practice of setting of climate targets and strategies to achieve them as a new 21st-century norm of corporate, investor, municipal and non-profit governance – a common rather than best practice.
Climate advocacy could use a boost these days. A practical mechanism like this with the potential to scale at the grass roots level globally – i.e., go viral – could provide it, especially if linked in symbol and spirit to the official United Nations intergovernmental effort. This could be an important legacy of the innovative ‘bottom-up’ summit of city, provincial, corporate and civil society leaders that took place in San Francisco, which gave birth to the United Nations itself in 1945 but is better known today as the mecca of viral social phenomena.