A productive week in Paris

From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, leaders from more than 190 nations are gathering in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21. The conference aims to achieve a binding international agreement to slow the pace of climate change. If we as a global community take bold and meaningful action in Paris, we can change course and leave our heirs a better world. Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to raise public awareness about the serious ways our carbon emissions affect ocean health, including ocean acidification, warming sea waters and other impacts on marine life. Today, we take a look at the highlights of COP21’s first week.

On the Sunday before COP21, more than 20,000 empty pairs of shoes — including, reportedly, those of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Pope Francis — filled the Place de la République in Paris in a symbolic call for a strong climate accord. (French officials banned a planned climate march in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks.)

That same weekend, an estimated 800,000 people took to the streets of more than 175 countries for the Global Climate March, organized by a coalition of environmental groups in anticipation of COP21. Their collective message, as described by 350.org: “Keep fossil fuels in the ground and finance a just transition to 100-percent renewable energy by 2050.”

Unprecedented momentum

The annual climate talks started in 1995 and have broken down many times since. But this year — with the process reconfigured to better empower nations in the Global South — there’s a widely shared hope that the Conference of Parties will reach a legally binding, long-term agreement to collectively curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Empty shoes represented the marchers in Paris who called for immediate action by global leaders on climate change.

And there’s a shared sense of urgency that it’s time to act. “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change,” U.S. President Barack Obama said at the conference, “and the last generation that can do something about it.”

Leaders of more than 150 nations attended the opening ceremonies, an unprecedented turnout. “Never before has a responsibility so great been in the hands of so few,” conference Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres told them. “The world is counting on you.”

The goal: for all of the world’s 197 countries to agree to cut carbon emissions to a level that will cap global temperature rise, compared to the pre-industrial average, at or below 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. (We’ve already risen about 1 degree.)

A worker sprays water at India’s first 1 megawatt canal-top solar power plant in Chandrasan village.

A lot of the planning is well underway: 148 major emitters have submitted climate pledges to the United Nations. For example, the United States promises to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The European Union is aiming for a target 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. And China intends to produce 20 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2030.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country will produce more than 40 percent of its energy needs from solar by 2030. “We are guided by our ancient belief that people and the planet are inseparable; that human well-being and nature are indivisible,” he said.

COP21 attendees listen during a session. Photo: Flickr public domain_Benjamin Géminel

COP21 negotiators will try to strengthen these pledges over time, create transparency and verification systems, discuss financing to help poorer nations, and hash out a formal review process.

By Wednesday, most of the heads of state had departed, leaving their negotiating teams to tackle the details. On Thursday morning a new draft agreement, still very much a work in progress, was made public.

More funds for clean energy, less for fossil fuels

Two major announcements at COP21 sent a strong message to the energy industry: In a decarbonizing world, money will flow toward clean sources and away from dirty ones.

A partnership of businesses and almost two dozen countries unveiled a new initiative — called Mission Innovation on the public side, Breakthrough Energy Coalition on the private — to support research and development for zero-emission energy.

The private-sector effort, led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is also backed by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Alibaba Group executive chairman Jack Ma, among others.

Getting colorful in COP21’s Climate Generations areas. Flickr Public Domain

India and France announced the International Solar Alliance, which aims to generate $1 trillion for investment in clean solar energy projects.

Meanwhile, funding for fossil fuels is getting scarcer. Climate activist group 350.org announced it had convinced more than 500 public and private institutions, with a collective $3.4 trillion in investment assets, to divest from the coal, oil and natural gas industries.

The blue whale in the room  

Because so much of the global ocean falls outside of national boundaries, it wasn’t factored into the formal talks.

But the omission didn’t go unnoticed. In the weeks before COP21, Mission Blue launched an online campaign to give the ocean a seat at the table. Supporters can sign the petition and Tweet their support using the hashtag #OceanForClimate.

Just before the conference kick-off, the Global Ocean Commission and its partners hosted “Because the Ocean,” an event dedicated to the connections between climate change and the sea. They’re calling on the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a report about the ocean impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, among other steps.

Thursday was Oceans Day on the sidelines of COP21. UNESCO co-hosted the Ocean and Climate Forum, bringing scientists, businesses and civil society together to discuss and debate the many links between ocean and climate.

On Tuesday, Dec. 8, the U.S. Department of State will host an event focused on the world’s ocean and climate change. It’ll be live-streamed on the U.S. Center at COP21website at 2:15 a.m. Pacific Time, and viewers can Tweet questions using the hashtag #AskUSCenter. Building on the Our Ocean Conference, speakers will address the connections between climate change and seafood, coastal and marine resources, shifting ecosystems and the marine economy.

Here’s Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson’s take on why the ocean is a crucial part of the COP21 conversation.

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