Many Co.Exist readers have probably heard that another Conference of the Parties (COP17) is finishing up today in Durban, South Africa. It seems that with each passing year, the expectations of what might be achieved at these once-a-year gatherings of policy-makers and interested stakeholders is diminished. No one I speak with in the climate change field is optimistic about major progress occurring this year.
While talking to the media on December 7th in Durban, Jennifer Haverkamp, the Leader of Environmental Defense Fund’s international climate policy team, argued that in order for Durban to be a success, we would need the following outcomes: A "clear agreed path for negotiating a new comprehensive agreement that has binding obligations to reduce global emissions and to safeguard the environment," a viable Green Climate Fund dedicated to helping developing countries address and adapt to climate change, and a positive signal to the carbon markets that "there is life after Durban."
I think I speak for all the observers of this year’s COP in saying that there is no chance whatsoever of achieving all of those outcomes. The UN process for negotiating an international climate accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol has failed. There are so many countries with different vested interests—from the developing world, which wants the developed world to "pay for its sins," to North America, which wants the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and other developing countries to commit to similar binding targets as the developed world—that real progress on a new global agreement seems impossible in the next few years.
What can those of us who recognize the overwhelming scientific evidence regarding the existence of climate change and humanity’s role in it do to help? Some, myself included, have started to feel incredibly betrayed by our governments and almost useless in helping our species right the ship before it’s too late.
But I believe there is still hope. Not anytime soon at the international levels, nor at the federal level in Western countries (like the U.S. and Canada) where the federal governments refuse to take action on climate change. What we need is a Plan B. If national and multi-national commitment to climate action is unobtainable, we need to focus on actors who are prepared to provide bold leadership into the low-carbon economy. We have no choice.
So who are these actors? First and foremost, we need to reconsider the role of cities. Cities now house more than 50% of the world’s population and represent up to 80% of global emissions. Cities are not bound by federal or multi-lateral agreements (or in this case lack thereof) like federal governments. We can already see examples of cities taking leadership: in 2005, former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels launched what became the U.S. Mayors for Climate Protection Center. More than 1,000 U.S. mayors have now signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing to reducing their cities’ emissions below 1990 levels.
Of course, U.S. cities are far from alone in taking leadership on climate change. ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) represents some 1,200 cities around the world (U.S. included) who are also promoting climate action. The C40, an initiative of the Clinton Foundation, has brought together some of the largest metropolitan cities around the globe to develop best practices for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The Covenant of Mayors in Europe has more than 3,000 participating cities committed to meeting and exceeding the EU’s regional reduction target of 20% by 2020.
Action at the municipal level requires investment in R&D and innovation. Increasingly, cities around the globe are turning to the private sector for solutions, rather than waiting for federal and multinational funds and legislative support. New York City, led by Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to the low-carbon economy, has one of the largest EV fleets in North America. Cities like Portland, Oregon are creating their own eco-districts and purchasing localized energy systems. Barcelona’s mayor just announced the launch of a Smart City Campus to bring other cities, the private sector, and the NGO community together to pilot new smart grid and smart city technologies.
The multilateral process has failed us and future generations by refusing to reach a compromise that could minimize the devastating effects of climate change. But cities and the private sector are now poised to lead from the bottom up. If you feel frustrated by the failures of the UN, you are not alone. But there is reason to be optimistic that we will move on to solving this boondoggle at a local level.