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Whether COP21 Was a Success or Failure… What Are the Next Steps for America?

From November 30 through December 12, the world’s top political, business, and NGO leaders descended upon Paris for the conference – COP21 – that was hailed to be our last chance to “save the world” by keeping us below 2°C of global warming. In the weeks leading up to COP21, the carbon emitting countries (160 of the 196 participating countries) submitted to the United Nations their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The U.S. commitments? An ambitious economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025.

Now that COP21 is over, some have declared it to be “the world’s greatest diplomatic success,” while others are flabbergasted at a lack of concrete mechanisms that will hold the parties accountable. All agree that there is a lot of work to be done – at all levels.

What does the Paris Agreement mean for America?

While President Barack Obama hailed the COP21 agreement as “the best chance we have to save the one planet we have,” the unfortunate truth is that the COP21 agreement is a non-binding resolution unless ratified by the parties’ governments. For the U.S., this means a vote of Congress – and that doesn’t look promising.

The Republican-led Congress has already made it clear that they will oppose any climate agreement made in Paris. Jim Inhofe, the chair of the Senate environment and public works committee, promised to scrutinize Obama’s climate agenda, seeking to negatively undermine the Paris Agreement.  Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, looking ahead to the 2016 elections, referred to the agreement as one “that is subject to being shredded in 13 months.”

So, yes, the Paris Agreement could potentially be as big of a flop as the Kyoto Protocol for America (the U.S. Congress never ratified it and we disengaged from the Protocol in 2001). All because the United States is the only country in the democratic world with a major political party that questions the scientific theory of anthropogenic global warming.

But all is not lost, not by a long shot.  Non-ratification won’t gut the U.S. INDC commitments that form the basis of our non-binding obligations under the Paris Agreement. The Obama administration is confident that the U.S can meet its INDC target based on the regulatory actions already taken to reduce emissions, as part of a broad Climate Action Plan announced by President Obama in June 2013. These actions include:

  • The EPA’s fuel economy (CAFÉ) standards;
  • The Clean Power Plan to regulate emissions on existing power plants;
  • The Better Building Challenge, focusing on helping commercial, industrial, and multi-family buildings cut waste; and
  • Making up to $8 billion in loan guarantee authority available for advanced fossil energy and efficiency projects to support investments in innovative technologies.

On the positive side, the people, businesses, and markets are acting!

World business leaders were present and vocal in Paris. With the two weeks of the Paris talks complete, and the agreement in place, they as well as governmental leaders, have returned to their countries to start implementing changes, focusing on private and public investments.

Todd Stern, who led the U.S. team in finalizing the deal in Paris, said now we have to “take the steps, which are almost always at a national level, to meet the targets that they put forward.” No “price of carbon has been imposed, but it is likely to become a real factor for the finance and business sectors in America in the near future. A price on carbon pollution will spur innovation and clean energy technologies to move us away from being an intensely carbon-emitting society.

Shareholders are choosing more environmentally-conscious investments and taking stronger stances on where their money is held. “After all, Wall Street’s money doesn’t come from the sky—it is the people’s money. It’s their savings, investments, pensions, and retirement funds,” said Cyrus Sanati in Fortune. And while consumers are becoming more serious about impact investments, institutions must react. U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management just launched The Carbon Reserve Free Strategy, or CRF, which creates a portfolio of investments that excludes companies that own, extract, distribute, and/or process carbon reserves. Moreover, research shows that the market for responsible investments will continue to grow as the millennial generation acquires more wealth.

And national public groups will keep the pressure on!

The movement to keep temperatures under 2°C of global warming is percolating in all regions of the world. We continue to see promising movement in the public arena. On December 12th, the White House released a statement outlining several important national commitments. These wide-reaching organizations will raise awareness of environmental concerns and create solutions, as indicated:

  • Compact of Mayors: 117 United States mayors (including Philly’s outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter) have pledged collective actions through standardized measurement and reporting of emissions and climate risk.
  • Under-2 MOU: Seven states have signed onto the Under-2 MOU, committing to cut GHG emissions 80-95% below 1990 levels, share technology and research, and more.
  • American Business Act on Climate Pledge: 154 companies have signed the White House pledge to reduce emissions, increase low-carbon investments, deploy more clean energy and take other actions to tackle climate change.
  • American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge: 311 colleges and universities representing over 4 million students have demonstrated their commitment to climate action.

The Paris Agreement: a good step forward, but not the only one.

There’s much work to be done – by individual organizations, cities, states, and nations. Science points to a hard road ahead, but it’s a goal that can and must be achieved.

It’s gratifying to see people stepping up to the challenge across all sectors. Humans have historically conquered hurdles of famine, war, and epidemics. A changing climate poses some daunting hurdles… so we must fight these changes before they defeat us.

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