Climate

Measuring Up: How To Assess The Upcoming U.N. Climate Summit

CREDIT: flickr/ United Nations Photo

The September 23 U.N. climate summit in New York City is not an official U.N. negotiating session but in many ways it is more than that.

While the official United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings have the potential to usher in bold treaties, they are also subject to bickering over minutiae and watering down of expectations. The extensively hyped Conference of Parties (COP) in Copenhagen in 2009 boiled over with anticipation of a post-Kyoto protocol before it ended up simmering into mediocrity. The summit in NYC is all about building momentum and moving forward. Nearly five years after Copenhagen, a new set of world leaders, with new ideas about climate change and how to tackle it, will be leading the discussions — and looking for real change.

With 15 months to go before the next potentially game-changing climate conference, COP Paris in late 2015, some 125 heads of state will descend on NYC for the climate summit. In conjunction with business executives, activist groups, and civil representatives, they are being encouraged to announce major initiatives to try and snowball the momentum-building discussion toward the next big meeting, COP Lima this December. These leaders represent a world of different interests, and must hope to find common ground between rich countries, island states, less developed countries, conservative states, oil wealthy kingdoms, and everything in between. While an all-encompassing treaty is not on the agenda, expectations are high.

“I think we need to talk in terms of transformation, of change — it’s not business as usual with a bit of green attached,” U.N. climate envoy Mary Robinson recently said. “That won’t do it.”

Commitments for the Paris summit are due next March, and Robinson said the statements by leaders at this gathering will give a good idea of the work that needs to be done between now and then.

“I hope it will be a good deal more ambitious (than previous announcements), and open the way for further understanding that we need pressure and urgency of real commitments,” she said.

Deliverables

There are three main deliverables to look for coming out of the summit, according to Andrew Steer, President & CEO of the World Resources Institute (WRI). These include strong national statements and re-commitments to fighting climate change, the launch of important new initiatives, and the reshaping of the debate. Commitments could include moving toward a price on carbon, restoring land, improving energy efficiency and renewable energy goals, and announcing new finance and financing mechanisms. Reshaping the debate entails moving away from the perception that many leaders of businesses and countries hold: that it would be nice to act on climate, but it’s still costly and will have to wait. He sees this position as highly detrimental.

“That’s the wrong understanding,” Steer said in a conference call about the summit. “What we need to get the economy to grow and prosper is the same as what we need to do more to move towards a low-carbon economy.”

Steer said all the deliverables have a common theme: acting on climate change not in the old-fashioned notion of assessing costs and benefits, but acting with the understanding that it is good economics, and can even be good politics.

“We want to reframe the things that have happened in the last five years,” said Steer.

On Tuesday, in the lead-up to the summit, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said he expects four major outcomes: the framework for a price on carbon, commitments to financial programs like green bonds, the removal of policy ambiguity, and joint initiatives to decarbonize key sectors.

Better Growth, Better Climate

The arrival of the U.N. summit has brought an outpouring of reports relating to the impacts and approaches to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Many of these reports focus on the links between climate change and economics. For instance, the “Better Growth, Better Climate,” released on Tuesday by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, gathers evidence from leading economists to show how to grow the world’s economy and reduce carbon pollution at the same time.

The year-long study found that if the $90 trillion expected to be invested in global infrastructure in the next 15 years is done in a low-carbon manner, it could “cost about the same as conventional infrastructure, but would deliver significantly greater economic, social, and environmental benefits in the long-run.”

This is especially critical in the energy sector, where projections show anything from a 20 percent to 35 percent expansion of global energy demand over the next 15 years, costing about $45 trillion, according to the report. They note that the cost of solar technology has halved since 2010 and that “the world could save $5 trillion by 2030 in reduced fuel expenditures by shifting to a low-carbon energy system, fully offsetting any additional costs.”

In a press conference releasing the report, former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, said that we must focus on three key areas: cities, energy, and land use.

“Why haven’t we acted?” He said. “The real problem in our opinion is that there is widespread perception that taking action on climate implies huge economic costs:”

After a year of hard work we reached a clear conclusion: yes it’s possible to have better growth and better climate; yes it’s possible to create jobs, improve the economy, and reduce emissions; yes it’s possible to make these fundamental changes. The major structural and economic changes now taking place across the world make it possible to achieve lower emissions and economic growth.

It’s Not All About The Big Leaders

While much of the attention of the summit falls on who is and isn’t there — President Obama will be there, while China and India have made known that their leaders will not be attending — there are many other things to focus on. The fact that the President of China and Prime Minister of India won’t be at the summit is not a source of large concern to those closely monitoring progress. These leaders have very demanding schedules and a number of top bureaucrats entirely capable of undertaking the responsibility of this summit. India’s newly elected PM, Narendra Modi, will be addressing the United Nations General Assembly later in the week and also meeting with President Obama. China has been showing promising actions domestically in the move toward a carbon tax and clean sources of energy. China recently announced Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli will attend the summit as the special envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“There will be high level officials coming,” said Steer about the leaders of China and India not attending. “They have other reasons not to be at the summit. I wouldn’t read too much into this.”

Representatives from 125 countries will attend the summit including: President Obama; David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Francois Hollande, the President of France; and Park Geun-hye, the President of South Korea.

While heads of state draw the biggest crowd, the lower-level leaders can lead the push for change in many ways. Mayors and business leaders are capable of making more ambitious announcements than state leaders who have to oblige a number of political and diplomatic interests. Mayors can make decisions to pursue a number of projects that both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offer other localized benefits. These include things like investments in public transportation and energy efficient infrastructure.

The global population is also rapidly urbanizing, especially in the developing world. For the first time in history, more than half the people in the world live in urban areas — a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050 according to the United Nations. As this trend continues, cities will become both bigger contributors to GHGs and more capable of taking meaningful mitigation and adaptation measures.

Manish Bapna, executive vice president and managing director at WRI, said that cities are already where much of the action on climate is taking place. He expects two major takeaways from mayors during the summit: that they will commit to disclosing GHG levels and adopting a standard method for reporting such emissions, and that they will set targets to reduce emissions that are more ambitious than national targets.

Thirty-eight civil society representatives have also been selected to participate in summit. This diverse international group of people were chosen from hundreds of applicants for their proven track record of effective advocacy or implementation of issues relating to climate change adaptation or mitigation. They will have the rare opportunity to have their voices heard directly by major decision makers.

What Gets Measured Gets Managed

There’s a saying, often applied in business settings, that “what get’s measured gets managed.” This applies to climate policy as well. While scientists and researchers give us a good idea of global GHG emissions (they are rising at the fastest rate in 30 years) and carbon dioxide levels (highest in 800,000 years) there are many contributing factors to this that are not as well known, and therefore not as well managed. Getting to this point requires the use of big data and high levels of transparency.

Being sustainable at either the city level or within a company requires quantifiable data. For example, this is especially relevant in the food and agricultural industries, where oversight is challenging. Simply minimizing food loss and waste could both save significant money and reduce emissions, but requires a coordinated effort. The climate summit could advance these issues by generating quantifiable commitments from food and agriculture companies to require sustainability measures down their supply chains.

According to the “Better Growth, Better Climate” report, developed countries could save $200 billion each year by 2030 by reducing food waste, which would also reduce GHG emissions.

Quantifying greenhouse gas emissions and other fossil fuel pollutants at the local level can also help authorities make the most educated decisions in improving public health. Without accurate and transparent data it can be hard to implement effective programs or to understand how all the variables factor into the system. When secondary benefits like public health are taken into account regarding green policies, the changes might actually end up saving money by reducing medical bills or preventing premature death from air pollution, according to the the findings of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

Thousands of companies and all governments now monitor and measure GHG emissions. This information will prove critical in adopting any number of mitigation strategies, from market-based programs to tax-driven initiatives. The U.N. summit is hoping to be a big step in managing these gases before their atmospheric concentrations lead to unmanageable outcomes.

“Addressing climate change needs the investment of everybody,” said Ban Ki-Moon at a speech earlier this year in Washington, D.C. “The best science. The best policies. And the best leadership … Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future. But, at the same time, addressing the climate challenge presents a golden opportunity to promote prosperity, security and a brighter future for all.”