Impressions from Paris Climate Talks

The U.N. climate conference, or COP21, is the 21st such meeting since 1994, being held at a convention center in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget. It’s not a typical-looking convention, given the green walls, tent-like cover, and wind turbine trees, all protected by armed police.

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Untitled3It’s an incredible experience to be in a place with people from over 190 countries – almost the entire world – gathering with a common transformative idea in mind, but with very different perspectives and specific concerns. My first three encounters: first, a business person from Cameroon (Cameroun in French) who works in waste management. When I told him I was American, he scoffed at the U.S. commitment for emissions reductions, and said “then why won’t they sign an agreement?” I said Obama will likely sign the Paris agreement, but Congress still won’t support it. Cameroun’s climate commitment to the U.N. (its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution in U.N. parlance or INDC) calls for a 32% reduction in CO2 equivalents by 2032; read more detail if your French is good.

Next, I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman from Birnam, a town in Scotland made famous for its woods in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The town recently held Birnam Live Earth, an arts and climate change event where they created flags (“bunting”) representing the things they love about the place they call home.

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After that, I was shown a 3D video telling the story of the “Great Green Wall” project, an 8000 kilometer band of forest planned across the continent of Africa to hold back the desertification and increase climate resilience, food security, and green jobs. The wall also represents a sustainable alternative to forced migration, and a symbol of peace amidst conflict. See the video: http://www.greatgreenwall.org/#growing-a-world-wonder.

Besides the official work of COP21, the tens of thousands of visitors here from around the world are all here to learn from each other and to share their opinions about climate solutions. See the tweet from Christiana Figueres, the ever-optimistic Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

The official, real work of COP21 is negotiating a global agreement that builds upon all 175 climate pledges (INDCs) made by nations in the lead-up to Paris. Meeting rooms across the sprawling convention center are filled with parties representing nations, haggling over specific word choices, additions, and omissions. Some of these are open to observers like me, and some not.

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As one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in history, many speeches called the COP21 process an important first step. But President Obama was right in characterizing it instead as a critical turning point. “There is such a thing as being too late,” said Obama, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “That hour is almost upon us.” COP21 is a remarkable turning point, where for the first time since the UN has endeavored to address climate change, nearly every country of the world is making some sort of self-determined commitment. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which only required wealthy countries to reduce emissions, was rendered largely ineffective when U.S. Senators Byrd (D-W. VA) and Hagel (R-NE) unanimously passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which said that the U.S. should not ratify the protocol. A COP21 Paris agreement will, for the first time, include emissions limits for the U.S. as well as China, India, and other developing countries who are large carbon emitters.

There are still many issues left to be resolved, especially to ensure national commitments are strong enough and will ramp up over time, and to ensure equity so that less developed countries can adapt to climate change and adopt clean energy. Here in Paris, the momentum for change is strong and growing. And in the U.S., it is clear from recent polling that a strong majority of Americans want to see progress.

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