COP23, a litmus test for the Paris Agreement…and for us

Harvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. This year’s unprecedented hurricane season is a stark reminder of the realities of a changing climate.

As climate change continues to increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, more and more Americans will be faced with the consequences. No place is this more evident in Puerto Rico, where nearly a month after Hurricane Maria’s winds and rains have passed, American citizens are still coping with the devastation.

We know that climate change is already having an impact on our daily lives and that scientists expect those impacts to intensify. The good news is we still have time to mitigate the worst effects—if we act now.  

Climate change is the great collective challenge of our time. In 2015, nearly 200 nations came together to address it by adopting the historic Paris Agreement. The Agreement outlines long-term global temperature and emissions objectives, and acknowledges the gap between our current efforts and what is needed to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Most importantly, the Agreement also includes mechanisms to close that gap, by calling for nations to set more ambitious emissions reduction targets every five years.

Science tells us that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 in order to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5° C—the level scientists believe can head off the most severe impacts on our planet and people. It’s no easy task, but there are some encouraging signs.

Countries are decarbonizing faster than expected. India is set to achieve its 2030 goal to increase its non-fossil fuel capacity by 40% eight years early, and China’s carbon emissions may have already peaked a decade ahead of its Paris Agreement commitment. Large-scale investments are taking off, with green bonds—financial instruments to fund projects that have positive environmental benefits- increasing from $9 billion in 2013 to $80 billion in 2016. That's expected to increase to an astounding $120 billion by the end of this year. Some nations are planning to ban the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles, some as early as 2025 as is the case of Norway, as one of the key measures to meet their emission reductions targets. Technological breakthroughs are accelerating the adoption of new clean energies. Wind power is a perfect example: wind turbines are now 30 times more powerful than in the 1990s, and its price has dropped by 80% in just the last seven years. The real economy is moving in the right direction, but we must pick up the pace.

COP23, the next round of UN climate talks beginning next week in Bonn, Germany, will be the biggest test yet of the world’s collective resolve to address the global threat of climate change. It is critical that the talks deliver substantive progress on exactly how the Paris Agreement will be implemented. It’s also important that negotiators deliver a plan to encourage national governments to increase the ambition of their emissions reduction goals by 2020, taking into account the role of businesses, cities and states in those efforts.

While national governments may be center stage in Bonn, they will not be the only ones with a prominent role in this year’s negotiations. Signatories to the We Are Still In statement, a group of more than 2,300 mayors, governors, businesses leaders and university presidents will have a prominent presence in Bonn, showing the world that Americans still support the Paris Agreement. Many of these leaders will talk about how they are actively addressing the climate crisis and report on their progress.

The signatories represent 130 million Americans, and account for more than $6 trillion of the US economy. They are America’s wellspring of innovation and engine of economic growth, and they have the collective muscle to help world leaders drive drastic emissions reductions on a global scale. As German State Secretary Jochen Flasbarth rightly stated, "Participation and inclusiveness of all stakeholders will be key at COP23 and gives the signal to the world that the implementation of the Paris Agreement is irreversible."

This year, Fiji will be presiding over the COP negotiations—a powerful reminder of what is at stake. Island-nations are on the front line of climate change. Just last year, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere slammed into Fiji, killing 44 people and leaving a trail of destruction valued at US$1.38 billion. That’s roughly one third of the nation’s entire GDP. For other low-lying nations like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, rising seas represent an existential threat.

As we saw this year, no part of the world is immune to the effects of climate change. And no individual, company or nation can solve this problem on its own. But together, we can steer the world toward a more resilient future for our children and the generations to come. The time for action is now, and we have no time to lose.

At COP23, the main negotiation area will be known as the Bula Zone. For Fijians, the word “Bula” means life—a reflection of the island’s spirit of hopefulness and openness. Let us honor that spirit by offering solutions at COP23 that match the scale of the challenge we face, and deliver on the promise we made in Paris just two years ago.

This oped was originally published by El Nuevo Herald on November 6, 2017.