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Putting the action in the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco

  • The second day of California Governor Jerry Brown’s three-day Global Climate Action Summit on September 13 put a hard emphasis on action. There was discernible disgust with national leaders whose words have not resulted in greater ambition to drive down carbon emissions, protect forests and oceans, or provide the promised billions to developing nations who must adapt to or recover their losses from the ravages of global warming.
  • The tone for the summit stood in stark contrast to the ritual year-end United Nations climate summits that are routinely cautious and invariably disappointing gatherings, with one exception in Paris in 2015. Year after year, the world’s largest polluters water down agreements for aggressive climate action and push decisions off to the next set of negotiations.
  • All of this ambition, enthusiasm, and real climate action can leave observers with a distorted sense of optimism in the face of steadily deteriorating climate conditions. Speakers rightly noted that more money is still being spent annually to destroy nature than to protect it.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – The second day of California Governor Jerry Brown’s three-day Global Climate Action Summit on September 13 put a hard emphasis on action, whether in speeches at San Francisco’s Moscone Center or at presentations across the city.

There was discernible disgust with national leaders, not limited to Washington, D.C. and the Trump Administration, whose words have not resulted in greater ambition to drive down carbon emissions, protect forests and oceans, or provide the promised billions to developing nations who must adapt to or recover their losses from the ravages of global warming.

“We are not content to wait for other countries to help us out,” Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, told a standing-room audience at Moscone’s main auditorium. “We have become a leader in the Caribbean of solar energy installations and set a goal to have a fossil fuel-free economy by 2030. We are fighting for our own existence.”

Mottley added: “Climate knows no boundaries and respects no classes. But it will respect people acting in numbers. The time for talk has past. This is truly a time to act.”

The tone for the summit stood in stark contrast to the ritual year-end United Nations climate summits that are routinely cautious and invariably disappointing gatherings, with one exception in Paris in 2015. Year after year, the world’s largest polluters water down agreements for aggressive climate action and push decisions off to the next set of negotiations.

Brown is in the last months of his governorship of California, the world’s fifth largest economy. His legacy will be of a loud and persistent voice for the rise of so-called subnationals — governors, mayors, tribal nations, and business executives — to fill the void left by presidents and prime ministers if the goals of Paris are to be met.

This week, he signed legislation that requires California to use zero carbon for 100 percent of its electricity generation by 2045. Brown was in good company all day.

Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, addresses the crowd at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

Mayors leading the way

His partner in driving the subnational movement, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said that 27 major cities had peaked their carbon emissions as of 2017, including Berlin, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, and San Francisco.

“Cities are home to a growing majority of people,” Bloomberg said during a press conference of global mayors, “and they account for about 70 percent of carbon emissions. So the path to victory over climate change really must go through cities. We still have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.”

Copenhagen Mayor Frank Jensen said that his city intends to be the first national capital to be carbon neutral by 2025. Copenhagen, population 600,000, has already reduced emissions 42 percent since 2005, and 62 percent of its residents use bicycles for daytime transportation, he said.

Zandile Gumede, the mayor of Durban, South Africa, said her city is “completely committed to the goals of the Paris Agreement.” Sixty percent of her residents are without electricity, a number similar for the entire country. Yet she will seek financing to bring renewable energy to more homes instead of powering them with coal, which is in teeming abundance in South Africa.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said his city has reduced carbon emissions 11 percent in the past year, which is like taking 737,000 cars off the streets. Meanwhile, he noted, LA’s unemployment rate dropped dramatically as the city added 29,000 clean-energy jobs in the past five years. Along the way, Los Angeles’ stubborn smog has been replaced with clear skies.

In Milan, Mayor Giuseppe Sala said his city in northern Italy is losing its love affair with the car. Car ownership is dropping as the city restricts driving in larger concentric circles around its historic center. Some 50 percent of Milanese, he said, now use car and bike-share options, and younger people are simply not buying cars. The result: cleaner air and reduced emissions.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a co-founder of the We Are Still In coalition together with California Governor Jerry Brown, speaks at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

It wasn’t just cities talking about what they are doing to fight climate change. Two days prior, governors from 38 jurisdictions across five continents joined indigenous leaders to unveil a planned collaboration to slow deforestation rates and push for official native land ownership.

Research shows that indigenous peoples from Latin America to Southeast Asia are better stewards of the land — and thus more protective of the carbon sequestered in tropical forests and soil — than their own governments.

Going green now Business 101

At the same time, an array of business executives made clear during the summit that going green is no public relations ploy; it’s good for business.

Kyung-Ah Park, head of Environmental Market Groups for Goldman Sachs, told a small gathering of environmental ministers that the New York investment bank has put more than $100 billion into clean energy projects domestically and abroad since 2006. It plans to invest another $50 billion by 2025. Why? It’s profitable for shareholders, Park said.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said he is eliminating plastic straws at his coffee houses around the world to reduce the demand for petroleum and help reduce ocean waste.

Mark Benioff, the CEO of the software company Salesforce, said his 61-story San Francisco headquarters building “is 100 percent powered by renewable energy.” He pledged that his company will be using zero carbon energy at all its locations in a few years.

Anand Mahindra chairs one of the India’s largest corporations, Mahindra and Mahindra, valued at $20 billion. With 200,000 employees across 100 companies, he said all operations will be carbon neutral by 2040. He owns India’s largest solar production company.

Business leaders at the Global Climate Action Summit have made it clear that going green is good for business. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

“This is not only about saving the planet,” Mahindra said, another common refrain at the summit. “Decarbonizing is the biggest business opportunity of the century.”

One caveat: it’s not nearly enough

All of this ambition, enthusiasm, and real climate action can leave observers with a distorted sense of optimism in the face of steadily deteriorating climate conditions. Speakers rightly noted that more money is still being spent annually to destroy nature than to protect it.

For all the progress in renewables, global carbon emissions continue to rise along with global temperatures. So too do devastating drought, extreme storms, and sea-level rise.

Johann Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, said that even if global leaders of all stripes reduce carbon emissions up to 8 percent per decade for the next 30 years, vastly reduce deforestation, promote reforestation, and revamp worldwide farming practices by 2030, “we have a 66 percent chance of keeping temperature rise under 2 degree Celcius” by 2100, the Paris Agreement goal.

For that target to be met, summit attendees agreed, reluctant presidents and prime ministers of the world’s developed nations will need to act like they’ve rarely acted before — with aggressive, sustained climate action for years to come, not simply promises to do so.

Justin Catanoso is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University and a regular contributor to Mongabay. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso.