Climate and Prosperity: Two Roads Converge in Paris

2015 marks the potential for integrated global action for climate action and a new vision of prosperity

Next week delegates. ministers, heads-of-state and civil socity meet in Paris at COP21 in hopes of striking an international commitment limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.

Data recently released from the MET Office in the UK projects average global surface temperatures in 2015 are set to reach the threshold of 1 degree Celsius, halfway to the limit of “acceptable” climate change. This temperature change emphasizes the urgency of the task at hand. With additional warming already baked into the system the risk, challenge and opportunity of our present moment could not be more sharply defined.

If we are to meet with any measure of success in Paris, we must realize that global warming does not exist in a vacuum, metaphorically speaking. It is a manifestation of the larger picture of sustainable human development. For far too long the challenges of global prosperity, sustainable development and climate change have shared a common ambition for a better world, but lacked a sense of context, at least in terms of a cohesive strategy aimed at integrated goals and solutions.

“Over the years we’ve managed to speak to them in silos,” special UN Advisor Amina Mohammed told TriplePundit in a recent interview, “and now we really do need to come back to that convergence of how one matters to the other.”

There is no sustainable human prosperity without addressing climate change, there is no hope of containing climate change without insuring human prosperity. This is the year that the two roads meet.

Sustainable Development Goals: uniting a vision for a better world

Economist Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speaks to this integration of ambition toward sustainable global prosperity and how “this year is a unique opportunity for our generation to set clear goals and clear pathways to a safer, more prosperous world.”

“Governments have to achieve a new vision,” said Sachs in an interview earlier this year. “That is the vision of sustainable development, which means combining economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. That’s the path that can keep us safe, that can be a path to fairness in the world and a path to prosperity.”

In September the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) building on the Millennium Development Goals set in place in 2000 and expiring this year. Many of the targets embedded within the Sustainable Development Goal framework reflect the interconnection between climate action and human prosperity:

Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

A key component of integrating sustainable development with climate action, SDG 13 addresses mitigation, adaptation, resilience, education and climate finance, linking the aims of the post-2015 development agenda with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) as the “primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.”

Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

The goal calls for universal access to modern energy sources, doubling energy efficiency (perhaps the most effective means of meeting climate targets in the short term), building infrastructure and substantially expanding the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Clean energy development throughout the developed and developing world is essential for continued economic development, prosperity, and, obviously, climate action. SDG 13 will cannot be implemented without SDG7.

Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

“A lot of what we have to talk about in the new (post-2015 development) agenda has got to do with infrastructure,” Ms. Mohammed says. “We’re very concerned about how we tackle climate change. We want to see people green the way they do business.”

SDG 9 supports infrastructure upgrade and retrofit, technology development and financial support for developing countries to sustainably scale-up industrialization and employment. “The financing that we had in place successfully before adoption of the SDGs helps provide for renewable energy and infrastructure,”

Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable 

Humanity is an urban species, with more than half of all people now living in cities. By 2050 an estimated 6.5 billion people with live in urban areas – two-thirds of humanity. The rapid migration into cities often brings with it concentrated pockets of extreme poverty, pollution and unrestrained development.

Ensuring basic human services such as access to clean water and affordable housing are obviously imperative to human well-being. Beyond that, sustainable urban development in both the developed and developing world will drive change toward clean energy development, climate resilience, energy efficiency and emissions reductions.

Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

The Great Accelerationof the mid-20th century, when resources seemed inexhaustible and expendable, is over. All nations must incorporate responsible, rational patterns of production, consumption and waste generation. But the developed world must take the lead.

“How do we deal with lifestyles?” asks Ms. Mohammed, whose home country is Nigeria. “When we talk about countries, I’ll tell you that our carbon footprint is of little significance. But if we go the way we intend in terms of growing our economy, then we’re going to be a major emitter. We have to take precautions now and we need the partnership, the technology to do that.”

Only through sustainable consumption and production patterns will climate change be tackled, and only through international partnerships and an honest assessment of lifestyles will endless consumption equate to prosperity – and in the end, human happiness.

Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

The oceans drive our weather patterns, feed millions and are home to much of the life on Earth. Ocean warming, acidification, pollution and over-exploitation are a direct threat to habitability of the planet.

SDG 14 calls for urgent action to minimize acidification, preserve and protect ocean fisheries, clean up the mess and reduce future pollution. Again, the health of the ocean is inextricably linked to climate. We will not have healthy oceans without a stabilized climate.

Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. 

Climate change has already adversely impacted forests all over the world. Plant and animal species are migrating, and when they can no longer adapt to a changing climate, they are go extinct. Human prosperity and every economic system on Earth depends on healthy ecosystems. SDG 15 addresses the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; wetlands, freshwater systems, mountains and drylands.

COP21: The end of the beginning

The history of the COP process stretches back decades, to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 establishing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adoption of the Kyoto Protocol at COP3 in 1997 (and put in force, absent the United States, in 2005), the heartache that was COP15, and the struggle to recover in the years since in hopes of finally reaching a framework beyond the Kyoto Protocol that is fair, equitable and effective.

For its flaws, and there are many, with the Kyoto Protocol and COP process, it has arguably served us well, even if only by learning from its shortcomings. Many of the roadblocks that hobbled COP15 remain, most notably climate finance and coming to terms with the idea of “common but differentiated responsibility.” But now we have a chance to learn from those mistakes and overcome the obstacles in our path.

“The Kyoto Protocol was a remarkable achievement in many ways,” UNFCC secretary-general Christiana Figueres said earlier this year to mark the 10th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol “It not only underscored the scientific reality that greenhouse gas emissions need to fall. But it also put in place pioneering concepts, flexible options, practical solutions and procedures for accountability that we often take for granted today.”

“Paris will not solve climate change at a pen stroke,” Figueres added, “But similarly it must trigger a world-wide over-achievement and a clear sense of direction that can restore the natural balance of emissions on planet Earth.”

In other words COP21 will not be a conclusion, we will not go home on December 12 thinking “well, now we’ve taken care of climate change.” But we can know that real change is set in motion – that it is, at last, the end of the beginning.

The arc of history, the climate of prosperity

Each generation places history in the context of events; no generation is without its place in history. The “greatest generation” of my father endured the ravages of world war, witnessed the birth of the atomic age and, in its aftermath, the genesis of the United Nations.

With Europe in ruins and two Japanese cities flattened by the splitting of a single atom, the world was thrust onto a new path. The decline of colonialism, the shadow of Mutual Assured Destruction in a cold war that defined my childhood and an economic boom led by the U.S. set the stage for the most rapid upending of human society in history.

What does this mean for us 70 years on? The arc of history reaches beyond any one generation or sliver of time. Progress is the fluid culmination of human endeavor, punctuated by periods of seemingly unprecedented advances (and setbacks). It is the steady commitment to a vision for a better world, maintained in times of trial and disappointment, that leads to breakthroughs of human spirit and understanding. Like an earthquake, the pent up energy for change slowly grinds away until resistance gives way and the world pushes forward.

We now live on the precipice of change. A confluence of events forged over decades and generations marking an opportunity to either meet the challenges of the modern world, or fail, falling back into fear and distrust. in any case, it will surely define our generation. COP21 represents the capstone moment to a year in which history may, just may, look back and see this as the time when humanity took its first real steps to meet the challenges of a new century.

It was in the midst of the crisis of an earlier generation that Robert Kennedy spoke these words:

“Few have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

To all but the most altruistic among us, self-interest is at the core of our actions. That is human nature. But the great achievements of humankind, of civilization itself, rests on mutual cooperation. There is obviously no denying the forces in the world that would undo all we have achieved and hope to achieve. We will remain unbowed, each one doing what we can to change a small portion of events and together, with firm ideals and goals in mind, we push forward to a just and healthy planet. We get nowhere without working together.

That’s an easy sentiment to express, but much harder to realize in the real world we inhabit, especially in light of ongoing events – the context of our generation. But the alternative is unacceptable.

Paris is the next step.

The article first published in TriplePundit.com

Public domain image courtesy of Pixabay

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