By Ann Hunter-Pirtle
Last weekend in Paris, negotiators from nearly 200 countries reached a historic, universal climate agreement that had eluded the global community for two decades. I was proud to be at COP-21 helping communicate EPA and U.S. efforts on climate action at the U.S. Center, the State Department’s public diplomacy space at the COP. I had the opportunity to meet attendees from around the world and to hear about global efforts to combat climate change—so I wanted to share a few thoughts from the conference.
The most striking thing about the COP was its size. Forty thousand attendees came from around the world—educators, students, government officials, and non-profit and private sector leaders—so it was held at Le Bourget, best known as the airplane hangar for the Paris air show. The U.S. Center was one of the many pavilions where visitors could learn more during COP21.
This short video gives a sense of the scale of the COP21 venue at Le Bourget, outside Paris, France.
In the spirit of the event, conference organizers went all-in on sustainability with an extensive biodegradables and recycling program. Participants could return reusable plastic coffee cups for a 1 Euro deposit, and the cups quickly became as good as currency. Participants were spotted scooping up coffee cups from empty tables and desks, returning several at a time.
Something I didn’t fully appreciate before arriving in Paris was that the COP is a consensus process—so for the negotiations to succeed, all 195 countries had to be in favor of a deal. So the Paris Agreement reflects the threat climate change poses to every nation on Earth, as well as the global community’s determination to do something about it.
The Paris Agreement is ambitious, universal, and durable. Before the negotiations even began, 180 countries, representing more than 95 percent of the climate pollution on Earth, put forward individual pledges to cut carbon pollution.
The Paris Agreement was built from country-level plans, and it states that countries will limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius on average and make efforts to keep it under 1.5 degrees Celsius—levels science tells us will help avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
The agreement calls for transparent reporting and accountability about how nations keep track of carbon emissions. It creates a mechanism for countries to come back to the table every 5 years with increasingly ambitious national carbon pollution reduction pledges, and it includes provisions for financing to developing countries to help them grow their economies with clean energy.
American leadership paved the way for global action. Secretary Kerry spoke in the second week about the need to seize the moment for an ambitious, universal climate agreement, and how U.S. efforts have led the way. EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a centerpiece of U.S. climate efforts, and Administrator McCarthy spoke at the U.S. Center about why she’s confident the rule is built to last.
American businesses are also leading the way. On the first day of the COP after President Obama and other world leaders spoke, Bill Gates and other business leaders launched “Mission Innovation” to develop the next generation of clean technologies. Meanwhile, 154 of the largest U.S. companies including WalMart, AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Facebook, representing 11 million jobs and more than 7 trillion dollars in market capitalization, signed the White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge. Major companies know that climate impacts increase their financial risk, while climate action represents an unprecedented economic opportunity.
That is the real triumph of the Paris Agreement: it sends a global market signal that a low-carbon future is inevitable, and climate-smart investments are not only the right thing to do, but the profitable thing to do.
Despite the size of the COP, climate change is personal. So it was powerful to hear from the following two local leaders at a U.S. Center side event hosted by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Councilwoman Maija Lukin of Kotzebue, Alaska, and Alson Kelen of the Marshall Islands each explained that climate change threatens their communities’ existence today. Homes in Kotzebue are slowly sinking into the sea as the permafrost underneath thaws and the sea level rises. Traditional food sources—caribou, seals, berries—are disappearing. And thinning ice has made travel dangerous—Councilwoman Lukin lost 2 uncles when they fell through thin ice while traveling to the next town, which doesn’t have a road. In the Marshall Islands, rising sea levels mean just about every time it rains, garbage and sewage wash through communities, making people sick. Warming waters mean fish are disappearing.
Climate change is threatening our health, our economy, and our national security today. But I am convinced we will meet this challenge, in part because of the incredible will it took from countries around the world to reach the Paris Agreement. Attending the COP was a tremendous opportunity and an experience I’ll never forget—it’ll be a story for the grandkids. Read more about COP-21 here and here.
About the author: Ann Hunter-Pirtle serves as Speechwriter in EPA’s Office of Public Affairs. Previously, she served as Special Assistant for Land and Water Ecosystems at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She holds an MS in Agricultural Economics and a BA in Political Science and French from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.