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The Promise of Paris

Wisconsin Leadership at COP21

The e-mail arrived the afternoon before the event: “CISCO system is down at Hotel Le Méridien in Paris. We need to find another telepresence center.”

The high-tech video system that was supposed to connect a panel of Wisconsin climate change leaders in Paris for the United Nations climate talks with an expected audience of over a thousand people across the world—including two hundred at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery in Madison—was kaput.

Usually I tend to perceive the Academy’s mission of “connecting Wisconsin people and ideas for a better world” as fairly abstract. However, with less than 24 hours before the December 3rd live event, there was nothing abstract about the rising panic I felt. I scrambled to get in touch with co-organizer Kim Santiago from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Global Health Institute to find another way to connect. 

In Paris for the U.N.’s 21st Conference of the Parties meeting (or COP21, as this climate meeting is known), Santiago began the arduous task of finding a new telepresence venue in short order. On the phone and darting from the Paris Metro to various locations, she eventually landed a new site. We spent the next few hours (an all-nighter for us both) testing the connection, altering the agenda, and ensuring that all of our panelists in Paris knew exactly where to go and when.

The panel discussion, titled Live from Paris, exceeded our expectations. It was the first of a two-part series, “Connecting Wisconsin and the U.N. Climate Talks,” that featured Live from Paris and a follow up talk (The Promise of Paris) with the same panelists. With this series, we expanded the boundaries of the Academy’s mission and elevated awareness of the global responsibility Wisconsin leaders have in the face of climate change.

This kind of connection—an action that informs everything we do at the Academy, and, actually, represents the heart of the COP21 climate talks in Paris—was worth the effort. We at the Academy, like our partners at the Global Health Institute, believe it’s crucial that Wisconsin citizens understand the roles that our businesses, researchers, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are playing in this international effort to address climate change.

The goal of COP21 was a lofty one: negotiate and adopt an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, and prevent average global temperatures from increasing beyond two degrees Celsius. If successful, this agreement would mark the first time in history that both established economies (like the United States and most members of the European Union) and emerging economies (like China and India) alike embraced responsibility for reducing the emissions that contribute to climate change.

By this measure, COP21 was successful. And Wisconsin was there for the signing of this historic agreement. 

Representing interests in public health, human rights, business, and government, the Wisconsin-based leaders who took part in “Connecting Wisconsin and the U.N. Climate Talks” played an integral role at COP21. Each had a different perspective and role to play, but as a group they all strove to provide support for—and bear witness to—an international agreement that would hold all nations responsible for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the damaging effects of climate change.

Climatologists are already declaring 2015 the warmest year on record (following the two warmest decades on record). The increase in temperatures and emergence of erratic climate patterns also have many climate experts, including Global Health Institute director Jonathan Patz, leaving behind the term climate change in favor of a more direct descriptor: global climate crisis.

“If we can’t cut our emissions by 50% to 70% quickly, within a few decades we are going to see warming that could get above this two degree Celsius mark that ecologists and climate scientists have said could be catastrophic,” emphasizes Patz.

While the scientific community is in agreement that something must be done, the challenges are myriad in finding consensus among multiple nations—all with varying interests and capabilities as to how to address the global climate crisis.

As such, it’s been a slow process.

In 1997, at the COP3 meeting in Kyoto, 144 nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol, the first international framework devised for curbing greenhouse gas emissions (in this case, by just 5%). While the agreement required established economies to reduce their emissions, it provided no such requirements for emerging economies such as India, China, and Brazil. Furthermore, under the George W. Bush administration the U.S. government formally rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.

The COP nations agreed to craft a post-Kyoto international agreement to reduce global emissions at COP15 in 2009. Unfortunately, negotiations broke down without any agreement. Five years later at COP20 in Lima, participating nations set a 2015 deadline for a post-Kyoto agreement.

After meeting every year for two decades, the major emitters “promised that they would revisit the post-Kyoto legal framework—binding or not—by 2015,” notes attorney Sumudu Atapattu, director of Research Centers and senior lecturer at the UW Law School. Atapattu attended COP21—her first COP meeting—in her capacity as lead counsel for the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law. In her view COP21 is the “last chance” major emitters have to “redeem themselves.”

Atapattu urges the international community to look at climate change as a human rights issue, and “recognize that there are actual victims.” According to NASA scientists, land ice is melting and spilling into the ocean at an unprecedented rate of 421 billion tons per year, leading to a dangerous rise in sea levels. With 44% of the world’s population living in or near coastal areas, billions of people face displacement. Most significantly, perhaps, this rise in sea levels is forcing entire populations of island nations like the Maldives to move as their homeland becomes submerged.

At COP20 in Lima, Peru, participating countries—facing real and immediate threats from climate change—agreed to a new framework that fairly weights the emissions reduction commitment from each nation. This new Indicated Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) framework paved the way for success at COP21.

For Wisconsin participants at COP21, the mood felt electric, like something big was about to happen.

“I didn’t expect it to be that large,” says Atapattu, reflecting on the scale of COP21. “Everywhere you went in Paris, there was something about COP21 [taking place].”

Indeed, the Paris climate meeting was the best-attended COP in history, with more than 38,000 citizens and delegates from the 196 participating nations, and thousands of other attendees, including 147 heads of state. Never before have this many presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, and other national leaders gathered in a single place over a single issue.

The record attendance at COP21 and other recent COP meetings stems in part from a tiered registration structure: attendees with UNFCCC accreditation (typically member-nation delegates) are permitted into the restricted negotiation area while other participants take part in a much larger parallel conference, which includes hundreds of civic events over the two-week period. This larger, more public gathering occurs as a backdrop to the international negotiations and provides scientists, governments, NGOs, citizens, and others an opportunity to share current research and experiences surrounding climate change mitigation.

Patz, a health scientist who served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, spent several months in the winter and spring of 2015 in Switzerland working with climate change experts from around the world to plan the COP21 meeting in Paris. While there, he participated in a conference-within-a-conference hosted by the World Health Organization in collaboration with the Global Health Alliance. Patz also lent his expertise to various meetings and presentations, including chairing a session on energy and health with high-level health officials from India, Turkey, Poland, and the Philippines.

Clay Nesler, an executive for the Building Efficiency division of Johnson Controls, says that prior COP meetings felt “very much top-down” when it came to “defining a common legally binding agreement, which ultimately failed.” Nesler, who has attended four meetings in his role as vice president of Global Energy and Sustainability for Johnson Controls, describes COP21 as applying a more inclusive “bottom-up” approach where each country is responsible for setting their own reduction targets and reporting on their progress.

COP21 is “basically morning to night meetings,” says Nesler. Member-nation delegates rarely see a break in negotiations, especially towards the end of the two weeks. The larger public conference offers plenary sessions, poster displays, workshops, and other events from early in the morning into the evening. As part of the Johnson Controls delegation, Nesler spoke at eight events and moderated a number of panels for the U.N. He had access to the government negotiations, and also received daily briefings on the progress of negotiations along with other business and industry representatives.

Environmental advocate Tia Nelson, who has attended ten of these meetings (COP2 through COP11), says she saw an “increased sense of urgency, attendance, and cooperation between countries” leading up to the December negotiations. According to Nelson, while 10,000 people attended COP3 in Kyoto, almost four times as many came to Paris for COP21.

Representing the Wisconsin-based Outrider Foundation, Nelson attended COP21 as part of a delegation of “over a hundred other funders and foundations who are working for climate solutions.” Her primary objective was to “identify the most impactful niche” the Outrider Foundation’s new climate change initiative can fill going forward, by networking with attendees and receiving regular briefings on the progress of negotiations. 

On her first day of the meeting, Nelson went to an event at the Eiffel Tower for over four hundred mayors attending COP21. These local government leaders are dedicated to “making their cities more livable, healthier, and more resilient,” she says. Local-level greenhouse gas reduction through smart city planning accomplishes this, and mitigates the effect of climate change at the global level to boot. “This is where there’s a lot more momentum,” adds Patz.

Involvement for many local government representatives and businesses went beyond mere participation as some signed greenhouse gas reduction commitments themselves. Nearly five hundred cities from all over the world, including four from Wisconsin—Ashland, Milwaukee, Racine, and Wisconsin Rapids—signed the Compact of Mayors. Founded at the 2014 COP20 meeting, the Compact is the world’s largest coalition of city leaders addressing climate change by pledging to reduce their cities’ greenhouse gas emissions, track progress, and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Recognizing the economic opportunities of climate change mitigation, the private sector has been playing an increasing role in these meetings. Throughout the last several years, business leaders have hosted and participated in presentations on their role in creating a low-carbon global economy. Many private sector entities have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, and educate national governments in the process.

At his first Conference of the Parties meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15), Nesler says he was “surprised to learn that neither buildings, vehicles, [n]or even energy efficiency were mentioned anywhere in the draft text.” As a result, Johnson Controls committed to help educate countries on integrating energy efficiency into their mitigation and adaptation plans and supporting energy innovation in their private sectors. 

“This led to our working with other like-minded businesses, NGOs, and other institutions as a founding partner of the Global Energy Efficiency Accelerator Platform [a public-private partnership program that coordinates with the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative to scale up energy efficiency],” adds Nesler. Since then, Johnson Controls has participated in many of the annual COP conferences, including COP20 last year in Lima, Peru, and has officially declared their support for the COP21 agreement.

Lasting success from COP21 in Paris looks different depending on whom you ask. But Atapattu, Nelson, Nesler, and Patz all agree that it includes discrete reduction goals for all countries, ratifies allowable emissions models, and establishes a framework for updating reduction commitments every five years.

Patz sees climate change mitigation as a chance to improve human health across the planet. “If you look at the public health implications, combating climate change could be free, if not a net gain,” says Patz, noting how seven million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution.

“If you take CO2 out of the air,” he adds, “you take out all the nasty, dirty air pollutants, the particulate air pollution … you reduce all of the air pollutants that kill people today.” For Patz and other public health experts, these “co-benefits” that come from a clean energy economy “need far more attention in the climate change discussions.” This is the message Patz brought to Paris.

Atapattu thinks that success must include an acknowledgment of the human rights implications brought on by a global climate crisis. The international community must have a “date in mind to reach their target reductions, because then people can put in proposals and start working towards that. In the diplomatic world five years is a short period of time, so I think we need to start looking at that now before it’s too late,” she says.

Nesler is pleased the COP21 agreement establishes reduction goals and actions for all countries. He notes how it successfully “sets a framework for periodically updating commitments and ambitions, while supporting market-based mechanisms for leveraging innovation, finance, and clean energy solutions.”

“There is an opportunity here,” Nesler points out, for business to take the lead in investing in a low-carbon economy. “The building, industry, and transportation sectors represent over half of the potential greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to minimize the impact of global climate change,” he says. “Improving energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to achieve these reductions and are applicable to all countries, whether developed, rapidly developing, or emerging.” [Editor’s Note: For an overview of how Wisconsin-based efficiency initiatives can help mitigate the impacts of global climate change, please read the Wisconsin Academy’s 2014 Climate Forward report.]

Patz agrees: “There was a clear signal to the private sector that a low-carbon economy is a priority, and that investors are heading this way."

The 2015 Paris conference brought a renewed sense of hope to those, like Patz, Nesler, and Nelson, who have been involved with these talks for years.

Of course, the COP21 agreement isn’t 100% comprehensive. There is no reference to the millions of people who face displacement due to rising sea levels and increasing instances of severe weather. And, the agreement is only legally binding to those nations that ratify it through their own legal processes. 

But for Atapattu, Nelson, Nesler, and Patz, the COP21 meeting itself was as significant as the resulting agreement in setting the world on a better path for a sustainable future. According to Nesler, this meeting was “a lot more optimistic” than previous COPs—and a great deal more rewarding.

At the end of the day, the COP21 agreement is one of the most significant international initiatives ever signed.

“Almost every country in the world—rich or poor—committed to action to address climate change, and protect public health and the environment,” says Nelson. “While the agreement [itself] is non-binding, each country submitted a plan to do their part” through adherence to the agreed-upon INDC framework—a new approach that is “a real breakthrough,” adds Nelson.

The 2016 COP22 meeting will take place in Marrakesh, Morocco, and will call on member nations to report on their emission reduction progress. It is not yet clear how Wisconsin leaders will be involved. But, if history is any indication, leaders from academe, business, local government, and the nonprofit sector in Wisconsin will be there to lead the way forward—just as the Academy will be there to make the connection and continue the conversation.

Amidst conflicting national, state, and local priorities, the question remains: Will our state choose to engage in this discussion, to connect its people and ideas for a better world? As Atapattu points out, “Climate change affects everybody at every level. Wisconsin, as well as other states, will have to take action. We cannot be complacent; this is just the beginning.”


Meredith Keller was the Initiatives director at the Wisconsin Academy from 2014 to 2016, where she led both the Waters of Wisconsin and Climate & Energy Initiatives, and launched the statewide, annual Local Government Summit on Energy & Resilience.

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