On Sunday September 21, something in the region of 400,000 people belonging to 1,574 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other individuals convened on the streets of New York City (NYC) and became part of the largest climate change march in history. Over 600,000 social media posts went out and 5,200 articles were generated. This one makes it 5,201 (and counting).
Marching and talking in NYC
The marchers in NYC were not alone. According to the organizers as many as 570,000 marched in 2,646 events in 162 countries around the world over the course of that weekend. By comparison, there were around 80,000 demonstrating for climate action during the time of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) and Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009. Still a big crowd but the change up in numbers is significant.
Political and commercial leaders also came out in numbers leading up to and during Climate Week and the UN Climate Summit convened on September 23rd. The world’s media listened intently and responded with a plethora of television features and newspaper editorials. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, reinforced the calls from the streets for action by calling on world leaders to take the threat of climate change as seriously as ISIS or Ebola.
Put together, a stronger, more collective call across society at large for actions on climate change is brewing. Climate Week might just be the turning point we need or at least a critical stop-over, for climate travelers to re-energize, get their voices heard again and prepare for COP 21 in Paris at the end of 2015. It’s time to leave climate deniers behind.
A New Climate Economy and some authentic emotion from an economist
The major New Climate Economy report published ahead of the Climate Summit, has provided governments with new evidence on how the economy can benefit from actions on climate change. The report is the flagship of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, a major new international initiative that seeks to help governments, businesses and society make better-informed decisions on how to achieve economic prosperity and development while also addressing climate change.
One of the world’s most respected economists working on climate change, Lord Nicholas Stern, is part of the development and review of the New Climate Economy. He spoke (produced as a TEDTalk) during Climate Week about the need for two transformations: a basic structural change of economies and societies (we are doing that….we need to decide whether to do it well or do it badly; and a climate transformation-we have to decide to do.
His TEDTalk, delivered the day before the UN Climate Summit, is highly recommended, not only for its insightful coverage of cities, energy and land degradation/deforestation, but also for its “must-see” authentic staging of emotions at the end. In this, Stern appeals to us all: Are we going to look our grandchildren in the eye and tell them we understand the issues, that we recognized the dangers and the opportunities, and still we failed to act?
Banking on a carbon price
On September 22, The World Bank announced that 73 countries (later updated to 74) and 11 states and provinces (later updated to 23) – together responsible for more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and over 50% of GDP – joined 11 cities and over 1,000 businesses and investors in signaling their support for carbon pricing. The list includes countries like high emitting countries like China as well as countries at high risk from climate change, like the Marshall Islands. It includes energy, transportation and industrial companies plus institutional investors with more than $24 trillion in assets.
If the feet and voices of the Climate Marchers aren’t loud enough to wake up the world, this is a supplementary alarm. Carbon pricing if expanded at this scale across the world has the potential to bring down emissions in a way that supports clean energy and low-carbon growth while giving businesses the flexibility to innovate and find the most efficient choices.
In or out of fossil fuel stocks?
While there is something to be said for working internally, staying invested and taking climate action through measures such as shareholder resolutions, the movement to divest from fossil fuel stocks was joined by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) in September. RBF stated their intention to “a two-step process to address its desire to divest from investments in fossil fuels” which included their commitment to “reducing [their] exposure to coal and tar sands to less than one percent of the total portfolio by the end of 2014”. The irony of this announcement is notable- the fund came about from the wealth created by an oil company. Nevertheless, Stephan Heintz, president of RBF, said: “John D Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum. We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy”.
Company and investor calls for a price on carbon
Ahead of the UN Climate Summit in NYC, nearly 350 global institutional investors representing over $24 trillion in assets called on government leaders to provide stable, reliable and economically meaningful carbon pricing that helps redirect investment commensurate with the scale of the climate change challenge, as well as develop plans to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels.
Earlier in the month, Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO, Ben Van Beurden spoke at the Center on Global Energy Policy, University of Columbia, NYC. The speech outlined a series of measures society will need to take to address the double challenge of meeting the rising global demand for energy while tackling climate change. He urged policymakers to embrace cleaner-burning natural gas as a fuel for power generation; to increase their support for the potentially game-changing technology of carbon capture and storage; and to widen the use of carbon pricing systems. He also called for an urgent rebooting of the debate around energy and climate change that paves the way for a new pragmatic and collaborative approach to building the lower carbon, higher energy future the world needs.
Short but significant speeches at the UN Climate Summit?
Heads of state and government from more than 120 countries accepted UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to come to the Climate Summit in NYC on September 23, 2014 and make short speeches (four minutes each) about climate change. Many of these leaders were not in the positions they have today when the disappointing Copenhagen Climate Summit took place in 2009. This was their chance to put something new on the public record, about emissions reduction or reporting or other actions they are taking or going to take.
The timing as much as the rhetoric of this was significant since every country in the world is expected to publish a new set of climate targets over the next six months as part of the international negotiations leading up to COP 21 in Paris at the end of 2015. The objective there will be to achieve a legally binding and global agreement on climate action. With these public statements now out of the bottle, there is a better chance of that happening compared with the Danish experience five years ago.
The short film production What’s Possible commissioned to start up the Climate Summit is worth a look as is the backstory if, like me, you are interested in film and photography around energy issues. The sequel A World of Solutions is already out.
A peak at China’s emissions
Perhaps the most important speech at the UN Climate Summit came from China’s Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. He said that China would publish “as early as possible” a date at which it expected its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to reach a peak. China is by far the world’s largest emitter of GHGs and its per capita emissions are rising (The Global Carbon Project recently published a study stating that China’s per capita emissions (about 7.2 tonnes of CO2 per person) have now exceeded those of Europe (6.8 tonnes per person) for the first time. Clearly, the world’s action on climate change is crucially dependent on when emissions stop rising and can begin to fall in countries like China.