Eco-Leadership

Inside the 'snug bubble' of COP21 empty seats and talk of inclusion

Anna Clark
COP21 volunteer Marion Dupont-Enzer gets her photo taken with climate celebrity Al Gore, former U.S. vice president.

Government heads of state and delegates are in the final throes of negotiations in Paris at the 21st annual U.N. climate talks. Meanwhile, the corporate green contingent has been convening all week to discuss how to de-carbonize their value chains in order to align with the IPCC's RCPs (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Representative Concentration Pathways) and honor governmental INDCs.  

In the snug bubble of insiders, everyone gets that the goal is for countries to reach a deal that will limit warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — the threshold regarded by scientists as the edge of the cliff for climate change. But outside the bubble, does anyone else know or care?  

"What are we going to do to make sure that all the people who are not here during COP21 understand all the ways that we need to act?" asked U.N. Global Compact Executive Director Lise Kingo at the Caring for Climate Business Forum.

This year’s climate talks may be the most inclusive yet, but strict security has prevented many from getting in, leaving a number of seats empty at several sessions that I attended at the COP21 Solutions conference in the Grand Palais. In other cases, events geared toward climate elites were inherently (and ironically) exclusive as speakers repeatedly emphasized the need for inclusive green development.

Whether privileged by position or limited public access, a relatively tiny yet activated core of COP21 attendees is charged with spreading their climate change insights to spur cultural change. What are the best methods for bridging the information gap in order for insiders to engage more people in climate action?

One need is to offer business and civil society more obvious and beneficial pathways to participation.

"COP21, like Silicon Valley, is a self-referential community," said BSR President Aron Cramer. As Cramer told an audience at an Accenture-hosted event, companies interested in translating sustainability concepts into results have five roles or behaviors they can engage in: market maker; radical collaborator; product innovator; consumer; and policy influencer.

One means of becoming a market maker is participating in a coalition. Whether coalescing to advocate for a specific policy or to pursue longer-term goals, companies magnify their impact when they collaborate with their peers.

For example, We Mean Business is a coalition of hundreds of organizations working with thousands of the world’s most influential businesses and investors to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. The coalition uses a common platform to amplify the business voice, catalyze climate action and promote smart policy frameworks.

Another way that business can share the green wealth is to support suppliers in lowering emissions through operational efficiencies and green product innovation. With 80 percent of emissions in supply chains, companies that offer suppliers a way to participate in sustainability can have a tremendous multiplier effect.

Companies can help by creating incentives and offering support for suppliers to align with the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which uses the power of measurement and information disclosure to improve the management of environmental risk among thousands of companies. 

"Companies are inherently unilateral," said CDP Chairman Paul Dickinson, pointing out the advantage that businesses have over the national governments trying to negotiate climate deals. "When 800 boards agree with the need to address climate change, that’s tremendous fiscal authority." 

Alert the local authorities

"There’s been a vast narrative for the past 30 years called globalization, but there’s a new one coming, I think, called localization," Dickinson added.

The rising relevance of localization gives city leaders more reason and authority to pursue projects to address global climate change. In an official pre-COP21 conference in Dallas, Mayor Mike Rawlings contextualized the local benefits in terms of economic risk, a message that particularly resonates with Texan business leaders.

In Paris’s Le Bourget airport at COP21’s Cities & Regions Pavilion, mayors on a European cities panel focused on the need for local governments to engage civil society in local climate action.

The key is to "educate, educate, educate," said Anneli Hulthen, mayor of Gothenburg.

"I take pride in engaging in sustainability agendas and, in particular, in the climate process of a local to global scale," said Mayor of Bonn Ashok Sridharan.

In 2011, the City Council of Bonn adopted a Climate Master Plan aiming at a 40-percent emission reduction until 2020, followed by an integrated climate protection plan to evaluate the feasibility. The city expects to decrease local emissions by 28 percent with investments amounting to $57.97 million.

To steer this process, the local government has engaged citizens in an independent advisory board, allowing stakeholders and experts to consult the municipality on how to advance climate action step-by-step and project by project.

"I would say that the key to our low-carbon future is scaling up our action and involving our citizens," said Sridharan.

"You’ve got to include all people," said Tony Lloyd, interim mayor of Greater Manchester.

One initiative Lloyd supports is the Carbon Literacy Project, an effort to raise the ecological IQ of citizens through carbon literacy training, which teaches individuals in the field to share knowledge with others in their places of work, communities, schools, churches and homes.

"The support of local government leaders such as City Council Leader Sir Richard Leese and Greater Manchester Mayor Tony Lloyd has been essential. Recognition of the Climate Literacy Certificate by employers also drives take-up in education," said Phil Korbel, co-director of the Carbon Literacy Project.

The local council policy is to create a Carbon Literate City where a "carbon instinct" is simply part of Manchester's way of life. Partnerships have helped to extend the reach, notably with the BBC and other TV companies, the fire service and local housing providers.

"Our learners are still in the low thousands, but looking at tens of thousands in 2016," he said. Although results have been difficult to quantify, Korbel has received "loads of great anecdotal feedback" on how well the training is received: "We're really keen to share our tools, with anyone, anywhere; we've designed this to be spread."

Hope and help from ordinary citizens

Citizen action and education are clearly essential to the carbon-cutting process, and a host of NGOs were on hand at this year’s COP to further that goal, including the initiative of the world’s most well-known environmental advocate, former Vice President Al Gore.

The Climate Reality Project is uniting millions to influence leaders to "seize this historic moment and sign a strong agreement in Paris in December and work to continually reduce emissions and expand renewable energy in the years that follow."

The organization has three main aims: Create a critical mass of activists who transform the politics of the climate crisis; build momentum and support for a global commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and accelerate the switch to a low-carbon economy.

Marion Dupont-Enzer and her husband spent their Saturday volunteering at the booth sharing about their experiences as climate reality leaders.

"Al Gore even stopped by earlier today and took his picture with us!" she told me excitedly. She shared the experience with others in her sphere of influence through her Twitter feed, which represents a pathway to participation in climate dialogue for a growing cross-section of officials, business people and citizens alike.

The issue of climate change touches every human being on earth, but climate elites still constitute a tiny few. Research shows that one of the most effective strategies for engagement in social movements is strengthening relational ties, which comes down to personal outreach. In other words, change is not only rational, it’s relational. COP21 attendees who are truly committed to magnifying their impact can pay it forward by sharing their knowledge and contacts, and helping others learn how to work these to their benefit.

Until sustainability includes more people, the concept will remain locked in the ivory tower, or at least hidden from the many that don’t have access. It will take government, business and civil society working together to unlock the potential of sustainability if we truly intend for it to sustain the rest of the world.