PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images

OnePlanet Summit: Unconscious Uncoupling?

16/12/2017

World leaders, both political and commercial, gathered in Paris on December 11 and 12 for two days of typically stylish Gallic razzamatazz.  Intended to celebrate the second anniversary of the Paris agreement, and inject urgency into raising the money to implement it, President Emmanuel Macron’s OnePlanet Summit was preceded by the third “Climate Finance Day”, an initiative launched in the run-up to COP21 and primarily corporate in its target audience.  A raft of side-events surrounded the two main shows.

Macron had called the OnePlanet Summit, he told the 4,000 launch attendees, because “we are losing the battle” on climate change, and he stressed the need for more urgency in the global approach.  What followed – from UN and World Bank chiefs, Presidents and Prime Ministers, heads of global corporations, city mayors and state governors (and the occasional actor for added glitz) – was essentially a recitation of the thesaurus entries for “action” and “fast” and “now”.

Highlight of the Summit  were 12 “commitments” made by various groups of actors.  As a series of headings for where progress needs to be made, these constitute an excellent agenda.  As for the actual commitments, you can judge for yourselves by reading them both how new some of them are and how likely they are to materialise.  I can assist you in one respect, though, with a bit of maths: though multiples more are of course targeted over time, the actual money on the table to support these commitments as of the date of the Summit was $5 billion.

Missing in action

There were two notable absentees from the OnePlanet Summit.  One, perhaps not surprisingly, was Donald Trump (apparently not invited, and the subject of quite some vitriol from US politicians that were present, including John Kerry and Arnold Schwarzenegger alongside the ubiquitous Michael Bloomberg).  The other, perhaps more surprisingly, was the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that underpin the Paris agreement.  These were never once mentioned, at least as far as I heard.  Although UN head Antonio Gutierres was a co-host of the Summit, the UNFCCC didn’t have a prominent role in proceedings – indeed was barely mentioned. Nor, except for a sideways mention in the DFI pledge, were the NDCs mentioned in any of the 12 Summit commitments.

What seems to have happened since Paris is a kind of unconscious uncoupling of the NDCs from global climate action

What seems to have happened since Paris is a kind of unconscious uncoupling of the NDCs from global climate action.  Many leaders spoke of Paris as giving a “signal” or helping them to get “permission” from their stakeholders to pursue new paths. But the action they are pursuing is based around talk of “transitions” and “trajectories” towards this or that date, usually some distance into the future.  That there’s a global agreement based on some very specific (though not yet ambitious enough) undertakings – the NDCs – seems to have been almost entirely forgotten.

The reasons for this are not hard to divine, the key one probably being the lack of any substantive financial capability at the UNFCCC, commensurate with its negotiation capability and speaking a language that could have communicated both the challenges and the opportunities contained in the  NDCs to both the business and the donor communities.

The harder question is: does it matter?  Since just 250 companies and half a dozen large economies are responsible for ¾ of the emissions problem, as long as the really dirty sectors of the economy, like coal, get closed down, and the big polluting countries clean up their acts by revving up renewables, all will be well, won’t it?  This certainly appears to be the theory of change adopted by a number of prominent philanthropies and think-tanks, and you can see its attraction to a “think big” habit of mind.

There are five reasons for nurturing NDC implementation

We would argue, however, that there are at least five important reasons why simply forgetting about the NDCs in favour of sweeping theories and largely “freeform” activity is dangerous and should be of concern to those engaged on Paris implementation.

Bottom up not top down

First, the genius of the Paris agreement was that it was bottom-up, not top-down. The decision to move to country-level commitments, which made the agreement possible, was the epitome of the axiom to “think global, act local”, and the distributed nature of the agreement has helped it weather the top-down shock of the threatened US withdrawal.  Abandoning the NDCs as the bedrock for action would thus go against the spirit of the agreement.

The only way to measure progress

Second, the NDCs are the only way we can measure actual progress against the agreement, and encourage ambition.  Most of the initiatives launched at the OnePlanet Summit – and indeed at COPs before it  – are loosely structured and voluntary, and although President Macron said that “we will be following up to see what happens,” it won’t be the first time that high-octane pledges delivered in a hothouse atmosphere rapidly dissolve into a puffs of smoke.  The NDCs themselves aren’t ultimately enforceable, but they are systematic and can be monitored. This is not to say, of course, that non-state actors don’t have a massive role – just that what they do needs to be kept track of on some basis.  Hard though this may be to achieve – and probably needing quite a bit of guesstimation – the need to keep track means there needs to be a link of some kind back to the NDCs.

If we only pick the low-hanging fruit …

Third, undoing the link to the NDCs increases the likelihood that only the “low-hanging fruit” of climate action will be pursued.  Huge advances can, of course, be made by global corporations in new technologies and the efficiency of existing technologies, and these will have important effects in reducing GHGs. Those effects and their benefits, however, are likely to be concentrated in already developed economies.

… we risk damaging trust …

Such an outcome would create, fourth, a lack of trust in the Paris agreement at the emerging economy level.  Many developing countries laboured mightily over their NDCs, and signed up to them on the basis that they would receive external assistance for implementation.  That assistance is already painfully slow to materialise, but the fact that it materialises at all is a result of the creation of mutual undertakings as specified in the NDCs.  If the promised finance  – not just aid, but de-risked private finance too – is not flowing to the “higher-hanging fruit” in these countries, then it won’t be surprising  – or a matter for censure – if developing countries start to abandon the Paris agreement in their turn.  If that happens, you can be sure that fossil fuel interests fleeing prohibition in the global north will soon be setting up speakeasies in the south.

 … and forgetting about adaptation

And finally, abandoning the NDCs will likely mean abandoning any structured approach to climate adaptation.  There was much beating of breasts and furrowing of brows in Paris over disappearing islands and ice-caps, but very little presence of civil society and no mention of any specifics on progress towards the $100 billion.  Again, this is a matter of trust.  As low emitters themselves, the GHG reductions embedded in the NDCs of poorer and smaller nations are minimal at a global level, but the NDCs contain the best snapshot we have of actual adaptation needs on the ground.

With the right help for countries and governments at different levels, the NDCs could be linked to other national low-carbon and sustainable development strategies and become the basis for investment plans in both mitigation and adaptation, taking into account the actions of non-state actors such as cities.  With the right donor finance and finance for de-risking private investment, these investment plans could be funded in a systematic fashion, ensuring both decarbonisation and “climate justice” ambitions are realised with transparency across the world.  Put simply the NDC’s offer the chance for a ‘million flowers to bloom’, in terms of the set of local, national and international actors who can implement them.

For sure, NDC implementation will be a painstaking business, levering stone on stone like the builders of pyramids.  Much easier to mount a magic carpet and sweep off into transitions and trajectories.  Pyramids, on the other hand, last.

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