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The clear signal from Paris: We’re turning, together

Steve Nicholas’ earlier Paris trip blogs can be found here: Part 1, 2, 3

The reviews are pouring in. Some are raving. Some are ranting. A few – a fast-dying breed, thankfully – still have their heads buried deeply in the sand. But the clear consensus is that Paris was a big success. Those tireless and intrepid negotiators, representing nearly every nation on Earth, did their jobs: they delivered the first-ever truly international, truly transformational climate agreement.

How did they do it? How did they accomplish mission next-to-impossible? Books will be written; courses will be offered. In the meantime, these four factors helped seal the deal:

  • Cold, hard reality. While the negotiators were toiling away in Paris, officials in Beijing were declaring an environmental state of emergency, closing schools and factories and ordering their 20 million residents to stay indoors due to the toxic smog. Meanwhile Chennai, India’s fourth-largest city with a population of almost five million, was largely underwater; unprecedented rains triggered widespread flooding that ultimately left almost 300 people dead and thousands homeless. That climate disruption is here and now is becoming too obvious to ignore or deny.
  • An unprecedented push. As I described in previous blogs, the depth and breadth of support for a strong agreement was equally undeniable. An estimated 40,000 people – government officials, business leaders, activists, artists, academics, students and concerned citizens of the world – travelled to the City of Light to push for the pact. Amid the myriad expressions of support, my favorite was this must-see video plea from astronauts around the world.
  • A winning strategy. Leaders learned important lessons from the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen (and many others in-between). For example, they jettisoned a top-down tack that proved unworkable, and moved to a more inclusive, bottom-up approach. Yes, the national targets are tailored (to local circumstances and capacities), but every country has one. And yes, the achievement of those tailored targets is not legally binding, but tracking and reporting on progress (every five years) is This will bring enormous public and peer pressure to bear. So it won’t be only the United Nations enforcing this agreement, it’ll be all of us.
  • A certain savoir faire. The French government hosted and handled the talks with an elegant and perfect mix of tenacity and grace. President Francois Hollande, Laurent Fabius (Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development) and Segolene Royal (Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy) were ubiquitous and indefatigable. It was an amazing and heroic feat, especially given the terror attacks that stunned Paris, all of France and the whole world just two weeks prior to the start of the conference.

Much is being written about the agreement – what it does and doesn’t do. (My favorite summaries are here and here.) Should that “should” on page 17 really be a “shall”? But much more important than any single word or phrase or provision in the agreement is the signal it sends – to governments, to investors, to the energy industry, to all of us: We are (finally) doing this. We are turning, together. We are turning away from fossil fuels and the climate chaos they create. And we are turning toward clean energy sources, a livable planet and a healthier future for our kids and grandkids.

As always, money was on everybody’s mind in Paris. How much is this energy transformation going to cost? And who’s going to pay for it? Clearly, governments (that is, taxpayers) can’t foot this bill; only the private sector can do that. And that’s where the signal comes in. Is there any doubt that, once the world’s entrepreneurs and investors truly sink their profit-maximizing teeth into solving climate disruption that the pace of positive change will accelerate beyond what’s currently imagined by most?

Here at ISC, we’re feeling reenergized (pun intended) and gearing up to redouble our efforts to help cities and supply-chain factories in the US and Asia do their part to bring The Paris Agreement to life – to “hold the line at 1.5.” We understand that the pact is a starting block, not a finish line.

Just two days after the pact was penned, an elated and exhausted Todd Stern briefed stakeholders and supporters from the White House. “We’ve done something very big here, together,” Stern said, thanking those of us on the conference call for our support along the way. “But this is just a beginning that needs to be followed up with aggressive and enhanced efforts across a broad range of sectors and stakeholders. We can all feel really good about this, take a few days off and enjoy the holidays.   But then we all need to get right back to this important work.”

The negotiators in Paris did their jobs. Now it’s time for us – all of us – to do ours.