Climate Week NYC: Reflections on Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project in a new world context

Richard Adamson, Managing Director

Author: Richard Adamson, CMC Managing Director
Richard Adamson was in New York the week of Sept. 22  for meetings with Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project participants. At the same time, the UN Climate Summit and many other climate-related events were occurring. Below are Richard’s reflections based on the week.

OK.  It’s 3 am and I’m packing my bag in a tiny NY hotel room getting ready to fly home after three very full days and four nights in NYC.  Still integrating the avalanche of impressions and great conversations with a huge spectrum of brilliant and dedicated people from all round the world.

First, it is not a big stretch to say that this week the world turned the corner on climate change action.  While it is always possible that they will step back, but the shift has happened.

This isn’t simply because the largest rally since the Million Man March (estimates here are north of 300,000 people participated) kicked things off on Sunday.

Plans of grand top-down global regulation, global carbon pricing & global carbon trading in a single centrally administered market are a thing of the past.  The path forward is much messier, and much more realistic.  It will be one of regional, bilateral and multilateral agreements.  Leadership continues to come from sub-national governments – provinces, states and cities. There will be linked trading schemes, such as Quebec and California or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the US northeast. Even cities like Tokyo have carbon trading.

So what is the role of the UN and the Conference of Parties?

  1. To register and enforce (assuming enforcement mechanisms are part of the agreements) commitments by national governments;
  2. To publicize official commitments (not legal obligations) to long term pathways – and perhaps to point out when short-term political decisions stray from the path;
  3. Facilitate international trading through setting minimum standards.  This ensures that, in the words of Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the UN FCCC) and Laurence Tubiana (Special Representative for the Climate Conference in Paris, 2015 – COP21), “a tonne is a tonne is a tonne” and that double counting will not occur, no matter the region or market.

DDPP report influencing discussions

Second, it becomes clear that the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP), the resulting Interim Report, and the CMC-led Low Carbon Pathways group that contributed on behalf of Canada, has had a profound influence in setting the thinking, tone and language for the conversation in the run up to COP21 in Paris 2015. Delegations are discussing decarbonization of their own and the global economy.  Not just decarbonization, but deep decarbonization.  They are talking about the need for pathways as well as targets, but targets as way-points on a larger journey.

In the meantime, efforts at the global political level will turn toward near-term national commitments (2020/2025) and long term pathways aimed at alignment with a 2C world in 2050.  This new language that has permeated international diplomatic and high level political circles in recent weeks, is straight out of the Interim Report from the DDPP.  It has played a role to frame the conversation for the next few years

So what happens next?

For DDPP the focus of the next phase will be to deepen and broaden.  Deepen, in that the narratives and associated models will be refined and enriched through input received from regional and sectoral players. Broaden, in that each country chapter will involve multiple scenarios, providing a sense of the breadth of potential pathways that are open to decision makers.  But there will be new dimensions added.  The focus will shift to the “How”.  What are potential policy levers and other initiatives that could accelerate the necessary transitions?  Not just policies at national and sub-national levels, but international agreements such as multi-national collaborative innovation initiatives – essentially global “moon-shot” scale programs aimed at delivering game-changing transformational approaches.  Part of this second phase of DDPP will challenge the various national teams to identify their biggest technical challenges.

Growing urgency

There is a growing sense of urgency, not just among the grass roots activists and the usual suspects, but among governments at national and sub-national levels.  While in general the sense is that, though the window of opportunity to capture a 2C world is still open a crack, it is closing rapidly.  Paris will be the last opportunity to have a serious chance of achieving it.  There needs to be concrete, binding near term commitments and agreement to long term pathways.  There needs to be real commitment to multilateral action on crucial technical and structural aspects of transitioning to a deeply decarbonized future.  But we need to be wary of making action dependent on global agreements.  Waiting for permission or leadership from somewhere else is no longer an acceptable stance. There is no political cover for inaction because the realization has finally struck that the cost of inaction is far worse than any imagined loss of competitive advantage that might arise for a first-mover.  In fact, the reputational damage and associated implications on market access and social license due to delay, dithering, or other inaction are likely to have rapidly escalating weight.  Rather than seeking excuses for inaction we need to all be looking for opportunities for leadership.

Most profoundly the conversation is not whether, but how.  It is not who is to blame, or minimizing impacts or allocating burden sharing.  It is finding leverage points, opportunities for collaborative action, and positioning for emergent opportunities.

Climate change has ceased to be an abstraction.  Dr. Figueres spoke passionately of having recently met with a 53 year old woman from an island off Papua New Guinea whose village of 100 people was under threat from salt water encroachment and erosion in the face of rising seas and increasingly severe storms.  She was tasked by the village elders to acquire land on the mainland so they could move the village.  Having accomplished that it was determined that everyone under the age of 50 must move.  Over that age villagers have the option of staying behind and being buried with the bones of their ancestors.  It is now this woman’s role to partition these families and move the village from their ancestral home.

Gambling with blank cheques

It isn’t that something definitive happens at 2C.  It is that the number of unknowns, non-linearities, and domino effects multiply as we move further into territory that has not been experienced previously.  It could be that we can over-shoot to 3C, or even further, and still recover.  But we are not just gambling, we are gambling with blank cheques.  We don’t know the cost that might be incurred, we only know that delay means greater cost to respond and recover.  The world seems to have finally agreed that the inevitability of crossing the 2C threshold should not be lightly accepted.  That it really is a line worth fighting to hold.

Will this new resolve translate into concrete commitments?  Will the momentum build to create the technical solutions and international systems and processes to both elevate vast populations from poverty and provide universal low-emissions electricity?  Can we decarbonize the cement and steel industries while Africa adds 1.5 billion plus new members to the world population and builds tens or hundreds of mega-cities?  Can we move transportation to low-emitting modes while producing ever expanding volumes of food and shipping it from afar to feed these exploding metropolises?

We can choose excitement and engagement at this huge global challenge, or we can choose despair and surrender and descend into petty, parochial, short-term thinking and squabbles.

Rounding a corner

I choose to get excited.  We have rounded the corner.  Years of research, debate and individual action are finally making a difference.  It is time to come together in ways never considered possible.  Through collaboration among dedicated, committed individuals and organizations, between private, public, academic and not-for-profit sectors. To address the challenge of climate change will be the focal point that moves from either-or thinking to both-and thinking.  Both a more sustainable economy and a more prosperous one.  Both more efficient systems to support life, and improved health and equity. Both top-down accountability and bottom-up agility and innovation. Not industry-vs-environment but recognition of the need for each to support the other.

Living in the Anthropocene is not about squabbling and blaming for the degradation of our planet and our well-being, it is about taking responsibility as individuals, industries and as global organizations. It is about owning the outcome, no matter how difficult the challenge.