The Most Important COP21 Outcome: The Signal Sent to Businesses

The UN Climate Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris proved to be a great opportunity for companies and subnational authorities seeking to build new partnerships and to find innovative solutions combining climate action and economic growth. Nevertheless, there are still lasting barriers to cooperation between certain constituencies as a result of communication failures and diverging world views.

Beyond the ambitious agreement reached in Paris, the 2015 UN Climate Conference of the Parties (COP21) was an opportunity for business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and subnational entities to connect and build partnerships. This outcome was as important as the COP agreement itself.

Knowledge and experience sharing are crucial to ensure the rapid uptake and dissemination of clean technologies, and to enable the identification and replication of best practices. For example, the launch of BP’s own carbon trading scheme in 1997 was key in demonstrating the system’s feasibility, which led to several other companies as well as subnational entities and countries designing similar mechanisms. Similarly, California’s successful experience with climate change mitigation was at the center of many conferences at COP21, giving the opportunity to representatives from other subnational entities to learn from this experience and build constructive partnerships. Both the causes and impacts of climate change can be found at the local level, making local involvement in climate action a key element in reaching the 1.5°C temperature reduction target outlined in the agreement. Furthermore, subnational authorities can be instrumental in fostering support for climate action from the at the grassroots level, by proving the feasibility of green growth models and making them more acceptable to the wider public. Until recently, the Canadian government was very weak on climate action, but the involvement of Canadian provinces in global partnerships to reduce their carbon emissions encouraged citizens to advocate for a more environmentally friendly government. As a result of these partnerships, negotiators were able to design a new, more ambitious intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) which will contribute to scaling up global climate mitigation efforts.

Similarly, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared in his final speech in the plenary session of the Conference, a main success of the agreement was its ability to send a clear message to the private sector, that the world’s governments are now united in following a pathway to a low carbon economy. This signalling effect, along with the more precise commitments made in INDCs, is likely the most important outcome of the conference. The ripple effects of the agreement on company strategies and investor concerns will be essential to mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction efforts. By showcasing this global will to advance toward green growth models, COP21 will encourage greater investment from the private sector in R&D on clean technology, and further increase critical investor interest on smarter, cleaner, and more efficient innovations in all industries. The agreement, while not sufficient to reach the 1.5°C target, represents a stepping stone towards intensified action and partnerships between local and national governments, and the business world. A South African delegate cited Nelson Mandela during the last plenary: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb,” referring to the challenges which will be faced during the implementation of the agreement and the necessary ratcheting up of national targets over the years.

The lack of exchanges and discussions between industry, government, and NGOs still presents a significant challenge to constructive dialogue. While knowledge exchange and cooperation flourished during the COP within the confines of particular interest blocs, constructive discussions between the BINGO (Business and Industry) and ENGO (Environmental NGOs) constituencies were not mainstream, each side tending to remain within their own boundaries and avoiding a confrontation. The relationship between NGOs and the private sector, which used to be combative rather than collaborative, has greatly evolved in the last years, as both sides have grown to understand the mutual benefits they could gain from partnerships. An increasing number of NGOs are engaging in close collaboration with business, for example on private environmental standards such as the Forest Stewardship Council. These partnerships enable companies to improve their public image or bolster supply chains, while NGOs gain access to their financial resources.

However, many NGOs still tend to systematically differ from business in their views of climate change and their sense of international priorities, and a large degree of distrust still dominated relations between business and NGOs on many occasions at the COP, the latter tending to portray business as ‘the enemy’ and the former regarding NGOs as a nuisance. One widely held feeling was of moving from an impermeable bubble to another, for instance when having the choice between attending conferences on the mutual benefits of trade and climate action organized and attended by an overwhelming majority of private sector representatives, and events demonstrating that free trade is not compatible with environmental protection, almost exclusively attended by NGOs. These two widely different worldviews co-existed at the COP, but rarely interacted. These attitudes resulted in a missed opportunity to consolidate the cooperative framework which has repeatedly proved to be mutually beneficial.


*To read the first part of this two-part series, see “Three Things I Learned at COP21.”

Fannie Delavelle is a trade and public policy attaché at the Embassy of France in Washington DC. She has served in leadership capacities in several organizations, most recently as President of the International Relations & Sustainability Committees for young professionals at the European Commission. She graduated from the London School of Economics and Sciences Po Paris in 2014, where she studied International Political Economy. After graduation, Fannie worked at the European Commission on a climate change adaptation initiative. Previously, she had conducted research on climate-induced migration at the Earth Institute (Columbia University), and developed a risk assessment model for food security for the World Food Programme.

Image credit: Presidencia de la Republica de Mexico/Flickr.

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