Despite a weak outcome: Paris was first “renewables COP”

The UN Climate Conference in Paris was a test to see whether national politicians could keep up with the change we are seeing in the real world. Looking at the final agreement published today, one must note: No, unfortunately, our national governments have not passed the test. Instead of a climate deal that phases out emissions by 2050 and allows the world to keep global warming below harmful 1.5 degree, we rather see a text that still tries to manage emissions instead of phasing them out. This is well reflected by the fact that parties could only agree upon the goal of “achieving a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases” rather than a pact for decarbonisation.

However, something important and very encouraging has happened in Paris

The sense of urgency among the local implementers of a climate agreement is palpable and cities, citizens, businesses and communities are actively plotting how to best leverage their important role, despite the fact that national negotiators in the UN are slowing down action.

About 1000 mayors pledged to support a transition to 100% renewable energy. Hundreds of events particularly showcasing the rapid uptake of renewable energy took place in Paris in the framework of COP21. 53 of the world’s largest brands, including Coca Cola, Google, BMW and IKEA, have committed to do the same. Public support for scaling up climate action is atrecord highs. Youth, children and 3.6 Mio citizens from across the world call their leaders to keep fossil resources in the ground and go for 100% renewable energy.

And whereas the UN needs a unanimous agreement on the final negotiation text, countries gather in multilateral groups to take action: Africa for example jointly pledged its support for renewables in Paris by announcing the launch of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI). The goal is to achieve universal access to energy on the continent. 10 GW of new and additional renewable energy capacity is planned by 2020, while the potential to generate 300 GW is expected by 2030. And India unveils a global solar alliance of 120 countries for a large-scale expansion of solar energy use in the tropics and beyond.

Twitter hashtags like #Go100RE, #RE100 or #Go100percent helped amplifying this big movement at COP and gives everyone a great idea on the dynamics in the past two weeks.

COP21 showed: the movement is unstoppable

Indeed, especially cities from around the world are already centers of climate action and innovation, and they don’t wait for international negotiations or congressional action. They come to COP21 with clear messages on what they need from national governments and the international community to leverage and scale up their successes.

In fact, many sub-national governments have achieved the target of 100% RE, such as the US cities Burlington, Greensburg (which rebuilt itself as a community powered by RE after a devastating 2007 tornado), and Aspen. The island of Bozcaada, in Turkey produces 30 times the consumption of the whole island and transfers the excess of electricity to mainland Anatolia. And the German town Wildpoldsried is now producing 469% more energy than it needs and is generating €4 Mio. in annual revenue.

Given the fact that cities account for 75% of global CO2 emissions this movement is very important. Also, looking into the next years, in which national governments are asked to review and scale up ambition in theirIntended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), they will need their local governments. So far, accounting the global GHG emission reduction that was submitted through the voluntary national contributions (INDCs), the world would still be heading to 3°C global warming. Therefore, renewable energies have to play a much more prominent role in the coming years.

Cities are the actors that can benefit from this transition the most. As pioneers already show, local economies can be strengthened by transitioning to 100% renewable energy. And the benefits case for companies is no less true. French energy group Neoen on Tuesday inaugurated a 300 megawatt (MW) solar farm, Europe’s biggest, which will produce power at 105 euros per megawatt-hour (MWh) for 20 years, well below the cost of power from new nuclear power reactors. As M&S, one the leading big companies integrating the RE100 Campaign puts it: “efficiency saves money (£22m pa for M&S), renewables create resilience future proofing biz”.

The role of the Paris Agreement in the coming months

Even though the negotiated text from COP21 does not live up to the dimension of the crisis, what happened in Paris in the last two weeks is a clear signal for investors, businesses, and the public: a signal for the end of the age of fossil fuels, and the transition to the age of renewables.

The UN Climate Conference proved again that our national governments are not ready to keep up with the change that is happening in the real world. It will therefore be job of business leaders, cities, communities and at the end of the day of every one of us.

We all know that “the future of renewable energies is a fundamental choice, not a foregone conclusion of technological and economic trends” (REN21, Global Future Report 2013). The achievements and pledges from local governments and big companies are therefore important catalyzer of change and prove again that 100% RE is not utopic, and that it is actually a real and cost-effective solution.

This becomes even more relevant in a moment of negotiations where phantom technologies such as geoengineering and CCS are being lauded (despite its social risks and dubious technological performance) as one of the solutions to limit the rise of global temperature to 1.5 o C.

We should all welcome those with the conviction to assume their role in changing the course of climate governance and embrace the “100% renewable energy” as opposed to “GHG neutrality” and similar wording. We need the pressure from the champions as well as from the vulnerable, who we stand in solidarity with, to show that another world is possible. And we need action plans so that cities and companies’ commitments can fulfill their commitment sooner than later.