Jan 13 2016

COP 21 sends low-carbon signal to businesses

Fannie Delavelle - small


Reporting back from the COP 21 UN climate summit in Paris, Fannie Delavelle found the international gathering to be a huge opportunity for organisations from across the globe to make new connections, seeking innovative solutions to shared challenges.  But not everyone sees eye to eye, there are still major barriers to collaborative relationships developing between key groups of institutions. 


 Connections and partnerships

Beyond the ambitious agreement reached in Paris, the conference was an opportunity for business, NGOs and subnational entities to connect and build partnerships. This was as important an outcome of the COP as the agreement itself. Knowledge and experience sharing are crucial to ensure the rapid uptake and dissemination of clean technologies, and to enable the identification and replication of best practices. The launch by BP of its own carbon trading scheme in 1997 was for instance key in demonstrating the system’s feasibility, leading several other companies as well as subnational entities and countries to design similar mechanisms. Similarly, the creation by Bill Gates of the Breakthrough Energy coalition, a network of billionaire entrepreneurs committed to funding innovations on new energy mixes will boost R&D in clean technology through a ripple effect, as companies hasten to become first movers in introducing new energy efficient technologies.

At the subnational level, the successful experience of California on climate change mitigation was at the centre of many conferences at COP21, giving the opportunity to representatives from other subnational entities to learn from this experience and engage into partnerships in order to create a multiplier effect. Both the causes and impacts of climate change can be found at the local level, making local involvement in climate action a key element in reaching the 1.5°C target. Furthermore, subnational authorities can be instrumental in fostering support for climate action from the bottom up, by proving the feasibility of green growth models and making them more acceptable to the wider public. The example of Canada is particularly revealing: while the federal government was until recently very weak on climate action, the involvement of Canadian provinces in international partnerships to reduce their carbon emissions such as the Western Climate Initiative is likely to have played a role in the recent election of a more environmentally friendly government, who announced that it will design a new, more ambitious Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC).


Sending a message to business

As Secretary John Kerry declared in his final speech in the plenary, a main success of the agreement was its ability to send a clear message to the private sector, that the world’s governments are now united in their decision to follow a low carbon economy pathway. This signalling effect, along with the more precise commitments made in INDCs, is likely the most important outcome of the conference. The ripple effects of the agreement on company strategies and investor concerns will be essential to mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction efforts. By signalling this global will to advance toward green growth models, COP21 will encourage greater investment from the private sector in R&D on clean technology, and further increase critical investor interest on the matter, thereby driving companies down the low carbon pathway.

The agreement, while not sufficient to reach the 1.5°C target, represents a stepping stone towards intensified action and partnerships between local, national and business entities. A South Africa delegate cited Nelson Mandela during the last plenary: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb”, referring to the challenges which will be faced during the implementation of the agreement and the necessary ratcheting up of national targets over the years.


Building trust between NGOs and the private sector

Among these challenges, one was particularly striking throughout the conference, namely the lack of exchanges and discussions between certain constituencies that have emerged throughout the last decades. While knowledge exchange and cooperation flourished during the COP within the confines of particular interest blocs, constructive discussions between the BINGO (Business and Industry) and ENGO (Environmental NGOs) constituencies were not as mainstream as I had expected, each side tending to remain within their own boundaries and avoiding a confrontation of their views with the other side.

While the relationship between NGOs and the private sector, which used to be combative rather than collaborative, has greatly evolved in the last years, with an increasing number of NGOs engaging in close partnerships with business, for instance on private environmental standards such as the Forest Stewardship Council, many vocal NGOs still tend to systematically differ from business in their views of climate change and their sense of international priorities. These two widely different worldviews co-existed at the COP, but rarely interacted. I often had the feeling of moving from one quite impermeable bubble to another, for instance when having the choice between attending conferences on the mutual benefits of trade and climate action organised and attended by an overwhelming majority of private sector representatives, and events demonstrating that free trade is not compatible with environmental protection, almost exclusively attended by NGOs.

While the relationship between NGOs and business has undeniably improved in recent years as both sides have grown to understand the mutual benefits they could gain from such partnerships – for instance to improve their public image or bolster supply chains for the private sector, and for NGOs gaining access to financial resources- I was struck by the large degree of distrust which dominated relations between business and NGOs on many occasions at the COP, the latter tending to portray business as ‘the enemy’ and the former regarding NGOs as a nuisance – at the expense of cooperative approaches which have proved to be mutually beneficial.

Fannie Delavelle graduated from a dual master’s degree in International Political Economy between the LSE and Sciences Po Paris. Following a placement at the European Commission, she was appointed trade attachée at the Embassy of France in Washington DC in 2015. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/fanniedelavelle

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