COP21 blog

It’s not just national governments who are pledging climate action

It’s rumoured that Bill Gates will announce a new multi-billion dollar fund for clean energy research and development on the opening day of COP21. The New York Times is hinting that Gates may be using the fund to mollify India, which has been signalling that it is not inclined to cooperate with the rest of the world and could insist on a watered-down final agreement.

While Gates’s initiative is the most spectacular example, it is only part of a much broader phenomenon that will be strongly represented at the Paris conference but which will probably fly under the media radar. Less than a year old and known officially as the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), the process brings together the multitude of “non-state actors” that are increasingly taking the initiative in combating climate change.

In addition to the official national delegations, thousands of representatives of subnational governments, city councils, businesses, financial institutions and on-the-ground NGOs are converging on the conference centre at Le Bourget.

In a strong sense what these non-state actors do is crucial to what the state actors can credibly promise. While one must be wary of hype and greenwash, there seems to have been a palpable shift over the last two years as public and private organisations want a piece of the climate change action. In a striking example of Girardian mimesis, more and more organisations are asking “hey, there’s something big going on, why aren’t we part of it?”

And so some of the globe’s biggest financial institutions have come together under the LPAA umbrella to facilitate and encourage divestment from fossil fuels and investment in low-carbon alternatives. The organisations involved account for US$2.7 trillion in assets.

State and local governments are now at the forefront of the push to cut emissions, with some 6,000 cities and local authorities signing up to the LPAA, committing themselves to the 2℃ or less objective and adopting action plans to match.

As a sign of what is possible, in a stunning reversal last week Alberta’s new government announced it would impose a carbon price of C$30 per tonne of emissions, rising to C$100 by 2030, as well as the phase out of all coal-fired electricity by 2030 and a cap on new investment in tar sands. Alberta is the archetypal fossil fuel state, which is why the reach of the new carbon controls was so unexpected, the more so as the moves have been backed by the province’s biggest fossil fuel companies.

The LPAA boasts initiatives promoting cooperation in urban transport and electric vehicles, an international solar energy promotion alliance (initiated by India) and a group of major businesses committed to zero deforestation in their supply chains.

Non-state actors will have their day in the sun next Saturday 5 December when the COP will be turned over to them. As a sign of the importance attached to the process, the day will be graced by the heavy hitters – French President Francois Hollande, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, COP President Laurent Fabius, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney and, ahem, Sean Penn.

Despite the undoubted momentum of the LPAA, putting our faith in the activities of non-state actors has an element of wishful thinking to it. But given that US Republicans have vowed to do everything they can to wreck any intergovernmental agreement, it may be our best hope.

The daily themes for COP21, including Action Day on December 5. LPAA