COPtimism: Five Reasons to Be Optimistic About Climate

Droughts. Floods. Wildfires. Hurricanes. Every day seems to bring another news story about damage wrought by climate change. And since the international Paris Agreement for climate action was signed this time last year, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have continued to soar, making 2016 the hottest year on record. In other words, don’t expect the news stories about climate-related calamities to slow down anytime soon.

And now the United States, a leading signatory of the historic Paris Agreement, has elected a climate change-denying president.

The news is grim, to be sure. And yet, we need to recognize the substantive progress we’ve made: Companies, governments, NGOs, people, and communities around the world are taking significant actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the dangers of misguided government policy can’t be dismissed, we are encouraged by signs of cooperation, collaboration, and a growing understanding of the urgency imperative to address climate change. People are getting it. Implementing the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement was the focus of this year's UN Climate change conference (COP22), which just wrapped up in Marrakech, Morrocco. We can’t afford to lose heart—there’s too much at stake. But the good news is that we don’t have to. Here are five reasons to remain optimistic about climate action: 

  1. The Paris Agreement came into force faster than any multilateral agreement, ever (the Kyoto Protocol, by comparison, took eight years to be ratified, and the United States never signed it). Fifty-five countries, representing at least 55 percent of global emissions, needed to ratify the Paris climate deal for it to take effect—and as of October 2016, 92 parties have done so. Five signatory countries alone (China, the United States, India, Brazil, and Indonesia) represent about 46 percent of global emissions, so their contribution is significant. COP22 marks the starting point for countries to fulfill their national determined contributions to reduce emissions enough to limit the increase in global warming to 1.5C, the target identified in Paris. Although that target will likely be unattainable, even if all nations meet their current pledges, world leaders have moved to try. These nations understand that it’s in their best interests to act on climate change; collaboration between them could prevail and vault other countries, such as China, into compelling leadership roles. For those worried about what a climate-denying U.S. president could do to the Paris Agreement, it’s worth noting that the historic accord was drafted to withstand just such a threat: it would take the U.S. four years—the length of a presidential term—to pull out of the Paris Agreement. 
  2. While governments and diplomats are toiling on policy, forward-thinking companies and other non-state actors are making climate change and sustainability the core of their businesses. More than 400 consumer goods companies have set targets to reduce or stop outright the sourcing or producing of commodities that drive deforestation. Unilever and McDonald’s, for example, have pledged to try to eliminate deforestation from specific supply chains and source products responsibly. Fast-fashion giant H&M has pledged to move to a circular supply chain; while paper and personal care companies such as Domtar and Kimberly-Clark have holistic forest and environmental conservation programs already in place. Google has become the biggest corporate purchaser of renewable energy, with an aim to transform the tech industry. Sustainability is becoming a mainstream concern, and public pressure is shifting attitudes in boardrooms and with corporate policy makers.
  3. Clean energy is gaining ground, showing potential to compete with fossil fuel use. Last year, 500,000 solar panels were installed every day around the world. The cost of solar and wind power is dropping fast, often without subsidies, making clean energy accessible and cheap. Meanwhile, coal use continues to decrease across the world, notably in China—the world’s largest carbon emitter—against a backdrop of global economic growth. The world now has a larger capacity to generate energy from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. In the United States alone, the solar industry added 35,000 jobs in 2015 (70 percent more than the coal industry), and is expected to add 44,000 in 2016. Clean energy is not yet the norm, but it’s becoming mainstream. With financing of technology transfer to poorer nations, some may leapfrog the fossil fuels-dependent stage of their economic development. The growth of clean energy is critically important—if we can’t wean ourselves off of hydrocarbons as the engine of global economic growth, all other strategies to reduce carbon emissions will prove insufficient.

     

    A barefoot solar engineer in the solar powered village of Tinginapu, in the Eastern Ghats of Orissa. 

    Off the grid, but on the up: A barefoot solar engineer in the solar powered village of Tinginapu, in the Eastern Ghats of Orissa. 

    Photo credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/UK DFID (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
  4. There are 500 million smallholder farms globally, supporting about 2 billion people and providing the majority of food for Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The movement to support and invest in these farmers to improve their livelihoods and achiever greater food security is growing. For example, 1.2 million farmers have adopted climate-smart agricultural practices that reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, pesticide use, and increase their yields per acre. Their farms are Rainforest Alliance Certified™ and follow the strict standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network to achieve three important things through their climate-smart farming. First, better practices lead to more food produced on the same amount of land. This can reduce the need to convert natural forests to cropland, thereby avoiding carbon emissions and conserving wildlife habitat. Second, this greater productivity helps farmers generate more income establishing better livelihoods. Third, the farmers’ technical know-how improves, so farms are better poised to respond to and withstand the hazards of drought, increased temperatures, and erratic rainfall. This is climate resilience, while difficult to quantify, is a significant outcome of widespread investment into climate-smart agriculture.
  5. While agricultural expansion is the biggest driver of deforestation, forests provide the best defense against climate change. In the tropical forests from Asia Pacific and the Congo Basin to the Amazon, indigenous peoples and local communities are gaining land rights to the forestland they call home, and developing sustainable forest economies. The people who live in the forest have the strongest incentive to keep it standing, and where their tenure is clearly established, they use the forest—without destroying it—to build meaningful livelihoods. In fact, where local communities and indigenous people have legal or official rights to their land in the tropics, deforestation rates are lower than anywhere else in the latitude. All told, these communities sequester 37.7 billion tons of carbon. That’s 29 times the annual CO2 emissions of all the passenger vehicles on the planet.
Cocoa training in Ghana

A Rainforest Alliance cocoa farmer training in Ghana

Photo credit: Marcus Schaefer

Clearly, then, countries would do well to clarify, secure, and protect community and indigenous land rights. It’s not just an effective way of meeting the Paris Agreement targets, it’s a low-cost one. Recent studies in Latin America have shown that the cost of securing land tenure for indigenous peoples is only about one percent of the total value of benefits obtained by protecting the forest. Today, nearly one-third of tropical forests are under some form of local community control, and that share is growing. Enshrining tenure has a twofold effect: It protects forests, thus mitigating climate change, and respects human rights.

Reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement requires high-level policy changes, advances in technology and infrastructure, and government action—but even small and local actions can help. As the world moves into the implementation phase, we’ll need a lot of inspiration and optimism to surmount what’s likely to be an uphill battle. It’s absolutely necessary that we continue to apply pressure and a sense of urgency to our leaders—and not just to the President of the United States—as businesses, communities, and organizations throw their considerable collective weight behind the common goal of reducing climate change. 

This article originally appeared on Sustainablebrands.com.

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