Impressions from COP21

Posted by Steve Nicholas
on December 7, 2015
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ISC’s Vice President for Urban Programs Steve Nicholas is attending COP21 – here’s his second report (read Parts 1, 3, and 4). Follow us on Twitter for frequent daily updates. 


Paris appears back to normal, but it’s not. On the surface, Paris seems to be back to its lively and picturesque self. Remarkably. In my five days here so far, I’ve seen just one small band of French army soldiers roaming the streets, heavily armed. Security around Paris City Hall has been very tight, but that’s understandable, given the thousands of local, national and international officials – including French President Hollande himself – who are cycling through for COP21-related events. In the bustling and diverse neighborhood where I’m staying, on the northern outskirts of the city, there are no visible signs of heightened stress or security; the cafes and bars are packed (noisily!) every night. But Maxime, the friendly, 30-something web designer who is my Airbnb host, remains visibly stunned. “I still can’t believe it,” he says, shaking his head. “Those are the normal places where we go – where I go,” he says of the three sites of the November 13 terrorist attacks, all of which are within a few miles of his flat. He and his girlfriend were nearly at the Le Bataclan that night, where 89 of the 130 victims were killed. They decided at the last minute to do something else to celebrate his birthday.


The “Green Zone” is abuzz. I’m spending most of my time in the Climate Generations Area, known as the “Green Zone,” designed for civil society organizations to gather and “arouse debate on solutions to climate change.” It’s working! More than 350 nonprofit organizations are here, engaging in a dizzying array of presentations, panel discussions, film screenings, exhibits, demonstrations and debates. In one room a group is talking about how coastal ecosystems can adapt to climate change. Another group in another room is debating the question: Can Africa become the first continent with green growth? Elsewhere, the topic is “21 ways to repower your campus.” Down the hall people are waiting in line to pedale pour le jus (pedal for juice) at the Juice Energy Bar. About 45 seconds of vigorous cycling generates enough power (130 watts) to produce a small but yummy cup of apple, beet and carrot juice. Meanwhile, a mesmerized throng is gathered around a huge screen on which the group Climate Nexus is projecting video simulations of the impacts of sea level rise on cities around the world. [Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty. The Mall in Washington, DC will be completely inundated – with the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capital Building all surrounded by water – if global temperatures increase above two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).]



Signs of hope abound. At the same time, an overarching sense of hope continues to pervade here in Paris – and the emergence of local leadership is one important source of that. As expected, urban climate solutions are on unprecedentedly prominent display. About 20 US mayors, the largest such delegation ever to attend a UN climate summit, are here telling their stories (accomplishments as well as lessons learned), and energetically expressing their strong support for a strong international agreement. Officials from more than 500 cities around the world who gathered at Paris City Hall last Friday delivered that same message. “They came not only to ensure that their voices were heard by heads of state, but also to express their determination to act on their own, and to learn from one another and share best practices,” said former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who co-hosted the event with Paris Mayor Anne Hildago. And today, cohorts of mayors will make forays into the Blue Zone to make their case directly to negotiators.


But will all of this buzz bring home the bacon? Will this flurry of activity – from the big buzz in the Green Zone to the angry protests of the corporate-sponsored “Solutions COP21” exhibit at the Grand Palais to the many works of climate art and “brandalism” on display around downtown Paris to the Blue Zone talks themselves – culminate in a sufficiently strong agreement? What kind of deal, if any, will emerge? Will it be strong enough? Will it constitute the turning point we need? That is the big question as week two of COP21 begins, and with just five days remaining, the tension is mounting. Over the weekend negotiators released a 48-page draft, and it falls far short of where it needs to be. The consensus coming into COP21 was that the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – the climate pollution reduction commitments that about 150 nations brought into the talks as a starting point for the negotiations – were both the strongest ever and woefully inadequate. The hope is that the deal that emerges from the Blue Zone black box includes a legally binding requirement for countries to periodically review and ratchet up their efforts, as technologies advance and best practices spread.

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“It can be done.” Of the dozens of talks, speeches and presentations I’ve heard these past five days, among my favorites has been Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Sustainable Development Goals, has a message that’s clear-eyed, science-based, and (for me) a motivating mix of scary-but-still-hopeful: “What we know from the science is tough,” Sachs said the other day to a large crowd at the Cities & Regions Pavilion. “We wish it wasn’t so, but it is. We’ve run out of space for a fossil fuel-powered world. We love the world that fossil fuels have created for us, but that world cannot continue. Somehow, within the next 50-60 years, we must get to a new world – a new economy – that is very different from the one we’ve built over the last 200 years. It will be the biggest transformation in human history. But when you look at it, carefully and analytically, it can be done. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.”