Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America – 2014-09-25 02:13:24
(September 24, 2014) — A day after world leaders gathered for United Nations Climate Summit in an attempt to garner the political will needed to confront climate change, New York’s Empire State Building played host Wednesday to an alliance of civil society, private sector and diplomatic leaders planning a transition to a carbon-neutral future.
In the absence of strong action by political leaders, many have wondered what can be done outside of governments to stave off the worst effects of global warming.
Participants at the Empire State Building event said new alliances between the private sector and civil society are increasingly taking on that challenge.
The event, hosted in the office of Swedish construction firm Skanska — recognized as an industry leader in green buildings — included speakers from the World Bank, The Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The iconic American skyscraper was chosen as a venue because of its symbolic value. A 2009 energy efficiency retrofit helped the Empire State Building nearly double its energy efficiency and slash millions of dollars from its power costs. Organizers said they hoped the structure’s “greening” could serve as an example of how urban environments — which they said are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — can be made more climate-friendly.
Meeting participants celebrated the launch of a new website called Track 0, which will act as a framework to unite those involved with working toward the goal of a carbon-neutral world by 2050.
Track 0 will attempt to connect the scattered actors and information related to the vision of a green future, its CEO Farhana Yamin said.
“What Track 0 will try to do is to connect these threads: the science, the politics, the law, the diplomacy, the evidence that is being generated day by day,” Yamin said Wednesday at the Empire State Building, adding that fragmented efforts would be less effective toward the goal of reducing emissions.
World leaders have generally agreed on the goal of reducing carbon emissions enough to limit the Earth’s temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a limit scientists have said is necessary to avoid abrupt climate disruption.
But those efforts to avoid the worst effects of climate change will “really only [work] if we can unify businesses, investors, communities and all sectors that make up society,” Sharon Johnson, Track 0 director of operations, told Al Jazeera.
Tuesday’s United Nations Climate Summit was an effort to get world leaders to pledge concrete actions to address the challenges of global warming, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who hosted the event. And unlike many previous political climate conferences, the summit was attended by many members of the private sector, including businesses and investors who have recognized the economic risks associated with climate change.
If alliances formed outside of governments are able to create plans to tackle climate change, massive funding would still be required to enact such projects. That’s where private-sector investment, philanthropy and a growing coalition of “green banks” enter the picture, according to leaders in the sector.
Investors are increasingly realizing that climate change is as real an economic threat as inflation, said Mindy Looper, president of Ceres, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes investors and business leaders to promote sustainable business practices.
Ahead of Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit, 346 investors worth at least $25 trillion released a letter calling for an international deal on policy changes to address the financial threat of climate change and emphasizing the need for carbon pricing to dissuade companies from continuing business practices that don’t contribute to a carbon-free vision, Looper told Al Jazeera.
“Climate change is our greatest economic threat,” Looper said. “The risk is across the market.” She cited the agricultural sector’s losses due to increasing droughts and floods as an example of climate change fallout that “hits the bottom line.”
Looper said the investors’ letter is perhaps the first time capital market leaders have been ahead of policymakers on the climate change issue. While world leaders have been holding climate negotiations for about a decade without agreeing on much meaningful action, companies including Apple and Ikea are making major commitments to switch to renewable energy for their manufacturing and data centers, she said.
In this way, investors are now guiding businesses toward more sustainable practices by divesting from companies that promote the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry or by investing in renewable energy efforts. As major corporations do their part to move toward clean energy, the question remains of how to bring down the prices of renewable energy sources for consumers.
Green banks can help this transition, said Reed Hundt, CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital, a nonprofit group that aims to provide capital to promote clean energy markets through private investment.
Hundt said his organization’s goal is to focus on providing renewable energy breakthroughs to consumers at low prices with the help of financing from the private sector and green banks.
“For example, if you want to buy an iPhone 6 the list price is $700 but if you want it financed you sign the service contract and pay $200 instead,” Hundt said. There are similar possibilities with clean energy, he said, adding that consumers should be able to sign an agreement to buy electricity from solar or wind power with the help of a green bank that would provide financing at low rates.
“The idea here is let’s have the move to clean power be driven by consumer demand,” Hundt said. “Let consumers say, â€˜You mean this can be both cleaner and cheaper? I want some of that.'”
Apart from using their consumer clout by choosing green businesses, individuals can help tackle climate change by supporting politicians who back clean energy, said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. Citizens can also push for strong laws and regulations at the local, state and federal levels, he said.
An example of this type of ground-up approach is the success of an ongoing upgrade of New York City buildings to make heating more efficient. Andy Darrell, chief of strategy for U.S. Climate and Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Al Jazeera that before the project, more local air pollution came from heating oil in buildings than all cars and trucks combined.
In an effort to reduce that pollution, a project called the Clean Heat Program was launched through collaboration between government institutions, civil society, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector, Darrell said.
Working together they upgraded nearly 4,000 buildings in just three years and reduced the sulfur dioxide pollution in the city by 69 percent, he said, adding that the same type of alliances could be used to make the transition to solar energy, energy-efficient lighting, better insulation technology and better windows.
“If you look around the country, you’ll see it’s civil society, cities, states, companies, NGOs and neighborhood leaders that are creating the path to a low-carbon society,” Darrell said. “The role of government, and of our leaders at the highest level, is to help find pathways for these solutions to be scaled up and become accessible to everyone.”
While it is unclear if these types of collaborative efforts among civil society, the private sector and governments are coming in time to stave off the worst effects of climate change, Brune said progress is clearly being made toward a clean-energy economy. For example, he said nearly a third of U.S. coal power plants will be retired by the end of 2015.
“We are in the process of displacing coal with solar and wind, and displacing the internal combustion engine with plug-in hybrids and electric cars,” Brune said. “The rate is increasing, and clean energy is being installed in record amounts. At the same time, it is inarguable that we aren’t doing enough, we have to do more because we’re already seeing the effects of climate destruction.”
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