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Will Paris really put a happy face on planet Earth?

ISC’s Vice President for Urban Programs Steve Nicholas just returned from COP21. This is part three of his four-part blog on the conference (read Part 1, 2, and 4). Follow us on Twitter for frequent daily updates.

The venue where the all-important global climate talks are winding down after two whirlwind weeks is divided into two main areas: the Blue Zone (where the official negotiations are taking place, mostly behind closed doors) and the Green Zone (where virtually anybody – from industry CEOs and high-level government officials to activists, artists and concerned citizens – can go to be part of the conversation). In front of the Blue Zone are 195 tall, stately, white pillars, each emblazoned with the flag of one of the countries participating in the negotiations inside. The entrance of the Green Zone is peppered with pillars too, but they are fewer in number, shorter in stature, multi-colored and decorated with animals, kites and Earth smiley faces.

Right from the start I had mixed feelings about those Earth smiley faces. Sure, I grabbed a couple of lapel pins with the logo for my two young kids. After all, it says what the whole thing is about in a cute, nonthreatening and playful way. But was it too cute and playful? Did it belie the seriousness – the urgency – of the challenge at hand?

I was immediately impressed with the remarkable openness and optimism of the Green Zone. Even getting in wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d anticipated. The security check-in was easy and quick; you could even bring your own water in, as long as you took a few sips in front of the guard to prove its innocence.

But we all know that putting a happy face on Planet Earth (vis-à-vis climate disruption) isn’t going to be that easy. What will it take? What constitutes a “good deal” coming out of COP21? Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (which organizes these annual climate conferences) boils it down, beautifully, to these four features:

  1. It will be strong enough to protect the most vulnerable people and countries.
  2. It will be fair and inclusive.
  3. It will send a sufficiently strong signal of change to the private sector, capital markets, the research community and all of us.
  4. It will establish a process to ensure ongoing transparency and accountability.

Is that the kind of agreement that we’ll be hearing about within the next day or so? We’ll know soon. But, having just returned from six days in Paris, I’m feeling very optimistic – high-spirited, even! I saw first-hand, up-close-and-personal, the same unprecedented outpouring of support that US Secretary of State John Kerry talked about in his official briefing from COP21 the other day: “There is a groundswell of support of grassroots action all over the world. Mayors, individuals, people, NGOs are acting way ahead of federal governments. And you don’t have to travel far outside of the negotiating rooms to see a world that is ready, that is eager, demanding global action on climate change. Walk through the conference site and you see the NGOs, the entrepreneurs, scientists, students, religious leaders, legislators, mayors, men and women, kids from all walks of life who have come here, who are taking on this fight as their own… But they are looking to us to create a framework that enables them to be able to do even more.”

Hundreds of CEOs have come to Paris to declare their support for a strong international agreement, and to make strong commitments of their own. There are justifiable concerns about corporate greenwashing and undue influence at COP21. I’m quite sure some of that was on display in Paris; I saw a bit of it myself. Still, it is clear to me, having been part of the sustainable development movement for more than 20 years now, that a significant shift, in thinking and behavior, is underway in the private sector, as more and more companies see the writing on the wall: that global climate disruption threatens their business models – their very existence – and that becoming part of the climate solution, sooner rather than later, will position them for success in the low-carbon/no-carbon economy toward which we are transitioning, inexorably.

On the same day that Paul Polman, the CEO of the world’s third-largest consumer goods company, was in the Blue Zone declaring that “we need business as unusual,” a teenager-led hip-hop band/activist group called Earth Guardians was on stage in the Green Zone, thrilling a throng with their performance of “Be the change.”

In all, more than 400 civil society organizations inhabited the Green Zone, hosting an overwhelming spectrum of activities too numerous for any one person to track, let alone participate in. Fittingly, a whole section of the Green Zone was dedicated to climate justice, featuring booths from groups such as the Global Coalition to Demand Climate Justice and the Women’s Global Call for Climate Justice. (my photo)

Of the dozens of activities I participated in directly, among the most moving happened in or around the Indigenous Peoples’ Pavilion. There, I saw a pre-release screening of the film “Down to Earth,” by a Dutch couple who traveled the world for five years – with their three young children! – living in six indigenous communities on six continents, in search of “the keepers of the Earth’s wisdom.” The next day, I was in the large crowd that got captivated by Peru Andino’s “funeral procession for an iceberg”; the folk group circumnavigated the entire Green Zone (290,000 square feet), picking up dozens of followers along the way.

Such activism helped give rise to the High Ambition Coalition, which is advocating for the international climate agreement to embrace a global warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius – compared to the 2-degree target embedded in early drafts of the agreement. Their slogan: “1.5 to stay alive.” The burgeoning strength and influence of this Coalition, initiated months ago by small, poor, relatively undeveloped, highly vulnerable island nations but now including more than 100 countries, including many wealthy countries such as the US and Canada, is by far one of the most exciting developments at COP21.

But will all of this culminate in the kind of agreement that Christiana Figueres so eloquently described? With COP21 now in its waning hours, several roadblocks remain. The myriad mayors, civil society leaders, captains of industry, musicians, activists, artists and concerned citizens have done their part. But the seemingly endless supply of energy and inspiration emanating from the Green Zone can only go so far. It’s up to the official negotiators now, toiling away behind closed doors in the Blue Zone, through the night no-doubt. Only they can put that smiley face on planet Earth.

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