3 Takeaways from the Planet Forward COP21 Debrief Salon

After much anticipation, the COP21 conference in Paris turned out to be a big win for everyone on Planet Earth. For the first time in history, the international community agreed to keep a global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius this century, and to drive efforts of a 1.5 Celsius limit above pre-industrial levels.

The agreement won’t deliver all the emissions reductions needed, but it provides a framework to ramp up ambition over time: a transparent system for reporting and review; regular assessments of progress; and strengthening commitments every five years.

The Paris agreement draws on experiences of previous failed COPs by taking a hybrid approach containing both top-down and bottom-up elements. Its flexibility was one of the foremost attributes that allowed nations with disparate interests to agree to it.

In other words: a lot went down in Paris that many still are processing. To help debrief on the agreement, Planet Forward on Tuesday held a Salon in Washington, D.C., at the Holland & Knight law firm, which brought together public and private sector leaders, students and academics to discuss what it means for cities and the future of urban growth.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the conversation:

1. Cities have already turned the corner on climate change

The word “historic” was being applied liberally to the potential agreement even before world leaders descended on Paris. Even though the agreement coming out of COP21 ended up being what many hoped it would be, there are still a lot of things that could go wrong. In countries like the United States, which still suffer from a chronic case of climate change denial, the non-binding aspect of the agreement may result in it being little more than lofty talk — making it just another Kyoto.

Luckily, cities around the world are well ahead of nation-states when it comes to taking climate action. At the 2014 COP20 conference in Lima, the Compact of Mayors was established, which by the time of COP21 had grown to 650 mayors. As the world’s largest coalition of city leaders addressing climate change, cities pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, track their progress and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

At the Salon, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said his city already has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 15% since 2012, and plans to reduce this by 25% by 2020 — and ultimately achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Cownie has received support from business leaders like Warren Buffet, who champions tax credits for wind energy in Iowa and beyond. Today, 40% of Iowa’s energy comes from wind.

Meanwhile, Cownie has blocked three new coal plants from being constructed.

2. Cities serve as proving grounds for innovation

Many senior business executives at COP21 expressed their desire to move beyond treating climate change as a political issue. Rather than deny the existence of scientific fact, they are more interested in innovating to solve what they perceive as a business risk.

Technology will not save us from climate change, but it will go a long way in helping us to avoid or adapt to its worst impacts. With cities contributing 70% of global emissions, they are the natural start and end points for technological solutions. In Des Moines, for example, digesters are being deployed at city landfills, which turn trash into fuel. This allows companies to profit while cities save money, even as the planet benefits.

3. Don’t talk about sustainability if you want to achieve it

The word “sustainability” has become a highly politicized buzzword that climate change-denying media and politicians have succeeded in using to hamper the efforts of climate change communicators. Particularly in the United States, many have been led to believe that sustainability and economic prosperity can’t go hand-in-hand, which can make it a hard sell for cities hoping to launch sustainability initiatives.

Cownie, who recently faced re-election, experienced support and protest over his well-publicized plan to participate at COP21. Rather than focus on sustainability, he talked about extreme weather events tied to climate change, water quality issues and loss of topsoil. Framing sustainability issues in this way allowed him to reach people who would otherwise have shut him out.

The general consensus was that, by framing sustainability as a money-saving issue, much of the political deadlock can be avoided. Bringing young people into this conversation also is critical for driving climate change solutions forward.


(Photo by Devin Greene)

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