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Three Cheers as We Enter 2016

Pessimists can surely enter 2016 with heads held high. (Do pessimists ever hold their heads high?) The world economy remains anemic. Rising inequality appears unstoppable. So does the threat of terrorist attacks. Extreme weather events are wreaking damage due to climate change. Air pollution in emerging countries like China and India is at all-time levels, and worldwide kills 3.7 million per year. Species loss is at least 100 times its natural level, and temperatures in parts of the Arctic last week were an unprecedented 50 degrees F above the norm.

But heads held high or not, the pessimists would be wrong. Certainly in the area of sustainable development, we have much more reason to be hopeful at the start of 2016 than we did at this time last year.

Three important things have happened over the past year, each giving cause to cheer.

Cheer 1: Multilateral Processes that Actually Work!

Global challenges require international cooperation, which has been a very short supply over the past two decades. Compared to recent experience, where political bickering has led to least-common-denominator outcomes, this year’s negotiations for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate were astonishingly constructive. Part of the reason related to the inclusiveness of processes.  As I sat in the UN General Assembly Hall last September as the SDGs were approved, the most striking -- and encouraging – thing was how heads of state from every regional group noted that these goals represented their views and the aspirations of their citizens. This is a world apart from the mood 16 years ago when the Millennium Development Goals – or MDGs - were adopted. Exactly the same positive sentiments were expressed at the final session in Paris.

A second reason was the role of the private sector, cities and civil society. Outside the negotiating rooms in Paris, deals were being done, ambitious commitments made and negotiators lobbied. Like the musical score of Star Wars, this inspired resolve and even bravery. It strengthened the will of enlightened negotiators and weakened the power of blockers. When Secretary General Ban Ki-moon leaves office at the end of 2016, one of his most important legacies will be his insistence – often against opposition -- that non-state actors be included in the multilateral halls of power. Hopefully, his successors won’t allow the genie back in the bottle.

Cheer 2:  Researchers and Leading Practitioners Agree: It’s Not a Cost, It’s an Investment!

Not long ago the common view was that strong action on sustainability would hurt economic competitiveness, growth and jobs. But recent research by top class teams such as those working for the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate shows convincingly that the trade-off is false, even in the short term. (WRI is the managing partner of the commission’s work.) What has been perceived as a burdensome cost is in fact an investment in a stronger economy. This is not to say that every company, sector or worker will always benefit – which explains why there remains opposition -- but there is now very strong evidence that smart policies to address climate change and other environmental problems can improve efficiency, encourage new technology and provide predictability, raising investment and expanding markets.

An analysis of social media and press coverage suggests that this message has gained unprecedented traction over the past year. Perceptions about trade-offs have shifted perceptibly. But more important, this is evident in the actions and commitments of those with a real stake in the game. Three years ago it would have been unthinkable that more than 1,000 major companies would call for a price on carbon. Or that 400 major city mayors would commit to measure, report and substantially reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet these and many other commitments were made in Paris as part of the broader climate deal. These promises were not made out of a sense of charity. Rather, such actions are now understood to be in the commercial and political interests of those that make them.  

About a year ago WRI, together with WWF, CDP, the Global Compact and We Mean Business (a business group committed to climate action), embarked on a program of Science-Based Targets to work with major companies which are committed to strong, science-based reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, leading to carbon neutrality in their own operations and those of their suppliers. We hoped that by Paris perhaps 20 companies would sign up. Instead 114 major multinational companies have signed on, many of them household names. Something is going on out there! 

National leaders are also demonstrating this new understanding. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office last year on a platform to boost economic growth, decided this year to quintuple the previous government’s 2022 solar program. If successful, India’s 4 gigawatts of solar power would rise to 100 GW in just seven years. Why would Modi do this? Because he wisely understands that by creating a new solar industry in India, investment will be attracted, technology promoted, jobs created and competitiveness raised. In so doing, he joins China and other emerging economic powerhouses in promoting clean technology as a spur to growth.

Cheer 3: An Unstoppable Movement Gains Pace: The Force Awakens!

Some have mistakenly criticized the Paris Agreement for not being legally binding. (In fact, it is a legally binding agreement, as explained in this blog by my colleagues Jennifer Morgan and Eliza Northrop.)  What these critics actually mean is that the individual country commitments, called INDCs, are voluntary. This is a smart decision. Had individual INDCs been legally binding they would have been less ambitious, as countries would have stayed within their comfort zones, with much less chance of building the movement required for transformative change. What is legally binding is the process of monitoring, review and verification. In adopting this legal form, the Paris Agreement is modern in its understanding of psychology and the process of political change. Advances in cognitive and social psychology suggest that major sustained changes in behavior are most likely to come more from shifts in perception, the behavior and urging of others, and the exposure that transparent reporting and review brings. Such “nudging” is often more effective than efforts to formally regulate even within national legal jurisdictions, but especially so when international cooperation is required.  

This is precisely what the Paris Agreement is designed to achieve. Not all of the existing INDCs will be fully implemented, but most will, which in turn will drive down costs. Each year success will be highlighted and every five years, achievements will be reviewed and gaps assessed. Low-carbon investments in energy, city development, agriculture and forestry will be profiled, and the positive synergies between climate action, technological progress, economic growth and the quality of life highlighted. Leaders of nations, cities and corporations will learn from each other.  A New Climate Economy movement will accelerate and become unstoppable. It’s already beginning: new installed capacity of renewable electricity generation in 2015, for example, exceeded the entire new installed capacity using fossil fuels – a trend that vastly exceeded the projections of official agencies.

The Big Pivot

Reality check: We are still a long way from achieving the virtuous cycle envisaged by the Paris Agreement. We are not yet on the right track, and we remain in a race against time. So while we have much to cheer as we enter 2016, now the hard work begins. It won’t be easy. The same passion and grit that so many put into the design of agreements and coalition-building in 2015 needs to be devoted to making implementation on the ground happen. 

With the calendar clicking over to a new year, we at WRI, together with our partners, are gearing up for the big pivot to turn these promises into reality.

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