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At The Bonn Climate Talks, Cities And States Fight Back Against U.S Policy

While the official U.S. stance at the summit includes sponsoring a pro-fossil-fuel talk, other parts of the U.S. government and business community have shown up to make it clear they’re still fighting climate change.

At The Bonn Climate Talks, Cities And States Fight Back Against U.S Policy
[Photo: Ole-Gunnar/iStock]

At the international climate negotiations happening in Bonn–a key meeting to figure out how to meet the goals of the Paris agreement–the U.S. government is hosting a talk in support of fossil fuels. After Trump’s announcement of withdrawal from the agreement, the U.S. has no visible representation at the summit. But a 15-minute walk away from the panel about coal, American cities, states, and businesses are hosting a massive “U.S. Climate Action Center.”

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“This is the first international climate conference where non-federal, sub-national actors have literally pitched their own tent on the steps of the negotiations,” says Dan Firger, a director with Bloomberg Philanthropies, one of the sponsors of the pavilion. “You can’t miss us, and we don’t want anyone to miss us.”

It’s meant as a message to the other countries at the summit. After Syria announced plans to join the Paris agreement last week, the U.S. is now the only country that has rejected the deal. “We are right now in a very important political dynamic here in Bonn, where the world is watching and waiting with bated breath to see what Trump’s announcement actually means, and so Mike Bloomberg and Jerry Brown felt that the most important thing to do at COP23 was to tell the world that ‘we are still in,'” says Firger.

A new report launched at the pavilion, called America’s Pledge, outlines the scale of the action that non-federal organizations have taken. The cities, states, and businesses that mobilized after Trump’s announcement to withdraw make up more than half of the U.S. economy, and if they were a country on their own, would be the third largest economy in the world.

[Photo: Nsey Benajah/Unsplash]
Some changes are driven by the market. Solar power is growing in the U.S. in part because the cost has fallen around 80% since 2010. The shift away from coal is likely to continue despite Trump administration rhetoric, and may make it possible for the U.S. to meet the emission-cutting goals of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan by 2030.

“The pace of coal plant retirements since Trump was elected has actually accelerated as compared to the period in the five years leading up to his election,” says Firger. “That’s not because of dog whistle policy signals from Scott Pruitt, it’s about the market for cleaner energy.”

Most companies that are leading on climate action already had plans in place before Trump took office, and that work has grown since then. The food giant Mars, for example, which set targets in 2016 for cutting its emissions in line with climate science, made a commitment in September to spend $1 billion over the next few years to fight climate change. The new administration also made many companies much more vocal in their support.

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“I think most of the companies were on track to make improvements . . . what’s different, what companies weren’t planning on doing, was standing up for a statement that really told the White House that it was moving in the wrong direction, and doing that publicly,” says Anne Kelly, senior policy director at the sustainability nonprofit Ceres. “That’s unusual–and to do it in such large numbers, so that we have companies from 50 states, knowing full well that this is a president who hasn’t been shy about lashing out at enemies or those who disagree with him. I think that took a certain amount of courage.”

Cities and states are also acting on climate. Several cities, including San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the small, Republican-led town of Georgetown, Texas, have committed to 100% renewable electricity (Georgetown has already reached this goal). One hundred ten cities and 20 states have specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. After the 2016 election, several states increased or extended their renewable energy targets.

There’s a lot of room to do more–of the businesses that have targets to reduce emissions, for example, many don’t yet have full plans about how to actually meet those goals. Others have yet to set targets. In a subsequent America’s Pledge report, researchers will attempt to do the math to see how far existing commitments, and market trends, can bring the U.S. toward meeting its original pledge under the Paris agreement. And while that number will be significant, it’s also true that federal support will be necessary.

“Long-term, the goals of the Paris agreement require, and the health and safety of our grandchildren requires, deeper and more accelerated carbon emissions cuts than are currently on the table,” says Firger. “To get there, we and everyone in the world agrees that we need all actors at all levels of society to do more. That includes the federal government. Certainly, post-2025, and to get to our deep decarbonization and transformational goals for 2050, we’re going to need everyone, including, of course, the federal government. That’s not up for debate.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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