Shifting Gears on Climate Change

Rather than relying solely on national level leadership to foster change, we believe local governments and the private sector need to play a more central role in shaping the world's climate change action plan.
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The sun rises behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
The sun rises behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

As world leaders gather this week in New York, the pressure is mounting to produce a new climate change agreement in Paris in December. The outcome of that meeting will set the stage for the global response to rising temperatures and ongoing environmental disruption. Rather than relying solely on national level leadership to foster change, we believe local governments and the private sector need to play a more central role in shaping the world's climate change action plan.

The climate change conversation has begun to change. Until recently, the world focused its political efforts on pushing national government leaders to sign treaty commitments based on greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets. Setting goals is a start, but this top-down approach has failed to produce significant on-the-ground changes in behavior. The world community needs a new climate strategy. In this regard, we identify four ways to ramp-up the global climate change response at the Paris "Conference of the Parties."

First, we need to engage a wider array of actors to ensure a more robust response to climate change. Presidents and Prime Ministers do not have day-to-day control over the factors that determine a society's carbon footprint. In contrast, mayors, governors, and premiers often can enact policy changes and bring about meaningful action much more quickly than national leaders. Business also has a central role to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy. A strategy that embraces broader engagement thus needs to bring in CEOs as well as sub-national political leaders. To push cities, state/provinces, and private companies to undertake climate change action, their work must be measured, and their successes publicized.

Second, we must expand the focus of our climate change agenda. Although "mitigation" strategies that reduce emissions will continue to be important, these efforts need to be matched with a new emphasis on adaptation. Developing countries, in particular, are already grappling with the early effects of a changing climate as shifts in rainfall patterns, increased intensity of hurricanes, and rising sea levels wreak havoc on traditional communities and livelihoods. For the world's most exposed people, a reduction in emissions in the industrialized world does little to address their pressing need for safety, resiliency, and economic progress.

Much attention has been paid to financing the suite of actions the planet needs to take to avert catastrophic climactic harm. Much of that focus -- and a fair bit of political posturing -- has been devoted to assessing the appropriate financial role for countries seen as accountable for historic emissions. These are legitimate and complex issues. But, again, the results have been inadequate to the scale of the needs. We thus need a new climate finance strategy that uses limited public resources to leverage private capital. This argues for new structures - Green Banks, Green Bonds, and other creative finance mechanisms -- that can be directed to adaptation, energy efficiency, and the imperative of a transition to a clean energy future.

Finally, we must broaden our efforts to reduce emissions. Until now, the policy focus has been aimed largely at the supply side. Expanding renewable energy and ending fossil fuel subsidies will continue to be important. But we ought to be paying much more attention to the demand side of the energy equation. Indeed, energy efficiency investments hold tremendous promise as a cost-effective element of the world's climate change mitigation program.

The opportunities in both existing buildings and new construction are significant. With an estimated 40 percent of the world's energy consumption and 25 percent of total carbon emissions, buildings are ripe for transformation. In many industrialized nations, only 1 percent of existing buildings are renovated each year, meaning the vast majority of our structures deploy outdated lighting, heating, and ventilation technologies -- and thus consume far more energy than they need. Energy efficiency programs do exist, often as a function of productive partnerships among governments, utilities, and local businesses. But these efforts must be expanded and incentives developed that reward efficiency.

As all eyes turn to Paris in December, the world community needs a reinvigorated climate change program. We believe that any new commitment to action must include broadened "ownership" of the climate change agenda and efforts to highlight progress particularly at the city, state/province, and corporate scales. Reframing of the challenge to include adaptation, demand-side energy management, and broader funding sources would also help to raise the trajectory of the global response to climate change. As illustrated by the positive response to the Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo's offer to host a Climate Summit for Local Leaders in Paris on December 4, mayors, governors, and other subnational leaders are ready to lead -- and the new Paris Climate Change Agreement should put them in a position to do so.

Daniel C. Esty is professor of environmental law and policy at Yale University and co-author of Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage. Rudy Provoost is CEO of the Rexel Group, a global leader in the distribution of products and services for the energy world.

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