Reasons to be optimistic about COP21

Reading time: 11 minutes
29 November 2015

With world leaders converging in Paris today for the start of the long-awaited COP21 climate talks, The Climate Group's International Communications Director, Eduardo Goncalves, outlines why we should be optimistic about both a successful outcome, and crucially, the months and years that will follow. 

“The stars are more aligned now for an historic universal agreement than they have ever been.” So said Todd Stern, Barack Obama’s climate change envoy, speaking at the 7th Climate Week NYC hosted by The Climate Group in September. But is he right?

As negotiators and lobbyists start arriving for the talks, one thing is for sure: Paris is no Copenhagen. We have a US President keen to make climate action a legacy. China’s leadership has a compelling vision of ‘eco-civilization’. The UNFCCC and the French government have played a diplomatic blinder. The INDC process – where governments set out their stalls in advance – has meant December’s agreement will have been almost year in the crafting. 150 countries accounting for 90% of global emissions have already bought in.

There will be nitty-gritty issues to resolve for sure, including climate finance. But one look at President Modi’s record, now and as leader of Gujurat, shows where his heart lies. India’s solar market has grown more than a hundredfold in just four years, and now generates power more cheaply than coal.

The fact that the glittering prize of a strong, low carbon economy is today within reach makes it easier for negotiators to visualize and sell a positive outcome. “As opposed to Copenhagen - when negotiators, ministers and leaders were told a low carbon future was on the horizon – now they can actually see it in action,” according to COP veteran Damian Ryan, The Climate Group’s International Head of Policy. The low carbon economy is today worth US$5 trillion, and has been growing four times faster than the rest of the global economy over the past few years.

LOW CARBON ECONOMY

Investment in sustainable assets surged 61% from 2012-14. Job creation in the clean tech sector is surging too – there are now around 8 million jobs in renewable energy globally, a number expected to grow to 60 million in the next 20 yearsIn the words of Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary General, soon “there will be just one choice, and that’s clean, green technology.”

In 1977, the cost of installed solar in the US was US$77 per watt. Today it is 60 cents. In fact I bought my first solar panel in 1997, a 32 watt unit for £200. Last weekend, I bought 2 x 270 watt panels for the same amount.

Investment in renewables has quadrupled since 2000, totalling US$310 billion in 2014. Last year, renewable energy represented almost half of global power additions, and now meets approximately one-quarter of world demand. The acceleration has been way beyond expert’s predictions: the IEA’s 2000 estimates of what deployment would look like in 2015 was 18 times less than today’s reality.

Some of the world’s biggest and most influential companies are marching towards 100% renewables. Walmart, Nestle, Unilever, IKEA, Starbucks, Nike, IKEA, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Philips and many more are among those to have joined The Climate Group’s RE100 campaign, run in partnership with CDP, which supports brands making the switch. A whole host of big corporate names are to be unveiled at COP, as well as data showing how this is already impacting the global energy market.

“Business voices are saying the science is clear,” says BT’s Niall Dunne. “The business case is proven.” Companies reporting their low carbon investments are delivering returns of 20% and more, and some two-thirds of Fortune 100 companies now have a renewable energy goal. Steve Westly, the American investment guru, says in one of The Climate Group's exclusive Climate TV interviews: “Investments in solar farms and wind farms that just 7-9 years ago were viewed as speculative are now viewed as the ultimate ‘safe investments’.”

Irrespective of the science, the new bottom line is that this is smart business – and that the change in direction is irreversible. As Jan Rabe of Siemens, also talking to Climate TV, put it: “We have reached a point of no return - there will be decarboniZation.”

clean energy

There is a growing realization that there is no magic bullet to wait for, and that the solutions are all around us. They have been shown to be technically feasible, and now commercially viable too – perhaps no more so than in the case of lighting. In a report published during Climate Week NYC 2015, The Climate Group estimated that switching the world’s lightbulbs to LED or equivalent efficiency would save emissions equal to those of UK and Spain combined.

Lightbulb moment? Given that lighting accounts for a fifth of global electricity consumption (and up to 40% of city energy budgets), cost-conscious city leaders are moving ahead, and – along with their tax-paying constituents – are reaping the benefits.

In the developing world too, the clean revolution could generate huge benefits. Around 1.3 billion people currently live without access to grid electricity, many relying on kerosene lamps for lighting. Their emissions aren’t just bad for the planet: the resulting indoor air pollution kills 1.5 million people every year – the same as AIDS and TB, and twice as many as malaria.

The Climate Group has been leading a major ‘pilot’ with local investors and communities in India to develop solar micro-grids which provide cheap, clean energy to people in remote areas through our Bijli proect. It has spawned a new class of off-grid energy entrepreneurs earning five times the average income in rural India. Fuel costs for villagers, meanwhile, have been slashed by 90%. Win-win.

CLIMATE LEADERS

Interesting changes are starting to happen in US politics. At times almost imperceptible, there is now movement in some unexpected places. “Acting on climate is pro-business, pro-enterprise, pro-innovation. This is about being conservative in the best sense of the word,” explains Lord Barker, UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s former climate change envoy. Ex-Republican Congressman Bob Inglis agrees, and points at what is happening in the markets: “The smart money is moving. You need to show a lessening carbon footprint in order to attract capital.”

Farmers in the mid-west are warning of the implications of changing weather patterns and extreme events. “As you see more variability of food production, particularly shortages, you are likely to see more uncertainty, more unrest among the general population,” says Roger Johnson, President of America’s National Farmers Union. Those concerns are strongly echoed in America’s national security community. Brigadier General Stephen Cheney of the American Security Project says, with a degree of understatement: “Climate change is clearly a contributor to instability in the world, and we’ve got to be prepared for it.”

One big name to watch out for on America’s political horizon is Jay Faison: a Republican with a big ‘R’ who is preparing to put US$175 million of his own money to support pro-climate action Republican election candidates. (Whilst you’re at it, keep an eye on Tea Party activists whose libertarian values have driven them to launch a ‘Green Tea Party’ movement in defence of solar and against fossil fuel monopolies).

PATHWAY TO PARIS

Addressing the Signature Event at this year’s Climate Week NYC, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres remarked: “The extraordinary wealth and welter of climate action announced by governments, cities, investors and companies during Climate Week 2015 has been breathtaking.”

Perhaps the most remarkable of these were the commitments made by heads of state governments and the world’s major regional economies. With the support of the UN, The Climate Group’s States & Regions Alliance has teamed up with R20, nrg4SD and others to help regional leaders bring forth a slew of major climate pledges.

Their significance should not be under-estimated: sub-national government is responsible for around three-quarters of policy affecting climate and the environment, including energy regulations and public planning and investment. In a preview of what is to come, 20 regional governments unveiled commitments in September that – by 2030 – are equivalent to the entire total current emissions of the US. A much bigger announcement is due to take place during COP - watch this space.

If further good omens were needed, there is now emerging evidence of a decoupling of growth and emissions. Last year the global economy grew 3%, but emissions remained the same. In California, the world’s 8th largest economy, emissions actually fell while its economy grew. The massive expansion and increased efficiencies in solar and other renewables may now be driving a new era of growth without a parallel rise in carbon. According to the World Bank’s Rachel Kyte, there is now “a possibility for increased prosperity in a world where we’re not dependent on carbon.”

All the indications are that the current INDCs are taking us to a 2.7 degree future. This may be only be a ‘silver medal’, but it is a far cry from the wooden spoon that is the 4-6 degree ‘business as usual’ one. Moreover, the COP agreement – plus the active engagement of non-state actors - allows for further ratcheting up of ambition towards the gold medal: a sub-2 degree pathway.

Over the past few months, The Climate Group has been quietly asking business and government leaders whether they think the conditions are coming together for a clean revolution. In June just 33% of respondents said ‘yes’ – today the figure is 55% and rising.

So yes, COP will very likely result in a deal, and a good one at that. But better still, the opportunity is now there to build a strong, smart, clean economy that delivers prosperity to billions.

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