Why companies, cities must be part of a new U.N. climate deal

ShutterstockMarkus Pfaff

The United Nations negotiations in Lima — also known as COP20 — are moving into the final stretch. The goal: Lay the groundwork for a new global treaty to be signed at COP21 in Paris next year, which will commit countries to reduce emissions.

But why stop there, when cities, citizens and corporations are willing to commit as well?

The latest U.N. report on climate change, launched five weeks ago, made it absolutely clear that climate action is needed now, on all societal levels. The report stressed the need for an urgent focus on solutions, technologies and public-private partnerships aimed at transforming society to tackle climate change, pollution and resource scarcity. If we are to succeed, we need the engagement of all key stakeholders.

Companies need to lower energy and resource consumption throughout their supply chains and alter their production to meet the needs of a changing market. Cities and regions need to build infrastructures that facilitate low-carbon lifestyles and are capable of handling more efficient waste, water and energy solutions. They also need to protect their citizens from the climate change impacts that nearly all cities have witnessed recently. Last but not least, civil society groups need to spearhead bottom-up action to create a new mindset among consumers.

If this is the road ahead, and I strongly believe it is, then the U.N. negotiations process should include cities, companies, faith institutions and civil society to a greater extent. The negotiations will attempt to address how we as a global society can solve the greatest challenge facing our civilization. With only one year until the U.N. negotiations in Paris, is there still time to suggest letting companies and cities play a more formal role in the negotiations?

Could we have mayors and multinationals officially sign and commit to the implementation of a new treaty?

New framework needed

Climate change is not a problem that can be solved solely by national governments. Countries need active support from local cities, states, citizens and the private sector. It’s time to think outside the box and formally involve them in the COP-process.

Sustainia is part of a global dialogue facilitated by Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy that includes C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Regions20, U.N. Global Compact, the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development and others focused on proposing a new set of policy ideas to help succeed with an agreement in Paris next year. The ideas, gathered in a public policy memo (PDF), aim to help establish a 21st century policy framework for the U.N. COP process. A central focus is to create broader participation in the climate deal by those capable of taking action. The memo singles out companies, cities, regions and civil society as groups that should be actively engaged in the negotiations. This could be done by simply opening the agreement to signatures by these groups or by making separate signature “boxes” of commitments for cities, businesses and civil society.

The argument is that the exclusively state-to-state model no longer makes sense for global climate change policy and there is a need to “bring key decision-makers to the table, institutionalize their commitments, ground solutions in local knowledge and create a culture of contribution.”

The proof is in the pudding

During Climate Week in New York in September, more than 1,000 companies and investors called for a price on carbon. A group of more than 30 companies even has committed to creating an internal price on carbon to prepare for a time when emissions are no longer a freebie. More CEOs understand that climate change needs to be seen as a driver of innovation as well as an issue that must be addressed in order to create growth now and in the future.

The Rockefeller Foundation, one of many forming a larger divestment campaign during the U.N. Climate Summit, committed to withdraw its funds from fossil fuel investments. With that announcement, the divestment movement became a solid reality.

Large corporate institutions, foundations and multinationals are richer than many countries at the table in Lima right now. Through their products, employees and financial wealth, they have the power to make the implementation of the treaty a reality. Could they officially be included in the process and sign the treaty?

Redefine the role of cities

Cities grow at an alarming pace. By 2050, about 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Although half of the world lives in cities, urban areas generate 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Cities have played a key role in creating our climate vulnerability, but they also hold the solutions for solving it. Cities have become a new power player in global decision-making. It’s time we reflect that in global climate agreements.  

The newly initiated, Michael Bloomberg-led Global Mayors Compact will enable cities to publicly commit to greenhouse gas emissions reductions. With more than 1,000 local governments participating, these cities’ existing commitments alone could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 454 megatons in 2020. Numerous other organizations also already are committed to formalizing an agreement for cities and regions. Why not have them sign the treaty as well?

The definition of insanity

Einstein’s famous quote about insanity — repeating something while expecting a different result — comes to mind while watching the negotiations in Lima from afar. It reminds me of COP14 in Poznan in 2008. Expectations were incredibly high for COP15 in Copenhagen the following year. NGOs hosted one side event after another. Negotiators firmly focused on the tracks for which they were responsible. But no one took a step back to focus on how to mobilize key parties towards the same goal.

The side effects were obvious in Copenhagen when the host government failed to deliver a process that engaged all stakeholders equally. Despite the momentum that had built up to this important meeting, it failed miserably. The key reason, in my opinion, was an old world, arrogant mindset failing to acknowledge a new world power structure of emerging economies, cities, corporates and the civil society.

I know I’m not the only one to think this and I’m worried to see that a lot hasn’t changed. I acknowledge and admire what Christiana Figueres has done to revitalize the UNFCCC. Her efforts and persona truly have reenergized the vibe and atmosphere surrounding the COP process. However, I fear that it is far from enough and that mentally, we are back in Poznan without a plan for how to turn momentum into results next year.  

These days, a lot of cities are represented in COP20 in Lima. Yet they don’t have an official seat at the table. They can’t commit to a strong global deal. This means that due to an unwillingness to think truly outside the box after a failed COP15, we lock negotiators back into the same rooms and expect them to somehow work miracles. We fail to actually involve all-powerful forces in making sure Paris next year becomes a global success. This is, to me, the definition of insanity.