5 things to watch at this week’s San Francisco gathering

Source: Jean Chemnick and Debra Kahn, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — The summit that kicks off here tomorrow has been billed as the next big moment in the global struggle to contain global warming.

But California Gov. Jerry Brown’s last major foray on the world stage is also partly a trade fair for companies — many based in the San Francisco Bay Area — that hope to flourish in the low-carbon global economy of the future.

It’s also a resistance rally for state Democrats like Brown offering an alternative view of American power to that of President Trump.

All of this has given the summit more of an American “center of gravity” than Brown may have hoped when he launched the summit, said David Victor, who co-chairs the Energy Security and Climate Change Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

“There’s a conspicuous effort to do the opposite of what the Trump administration is doing,” said Victor. “That’s going to be highly visible because of the politics inside the country.”

Still, the Global Climate Action Summit has an international set of co-chairs, including Patricia Espinosa, who heads the U.N. climate process; China’s lead architect of the Paris Agreement, Xie Zhenhua; Indian businessman Anand Mahindra; and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his capacity as U.N. special envoy for climate action.

Proponents of the Paris deal, which Trump has promised to walk away from, hope the summit demonstrates to both the United States and other federal governments that local jurisdictions and money markets stand ready to support stronger greenhouse gas reduction commitments.

In remarks Monday previewing his own high-level summit in New York City next September, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres touted not only the ability of non-federal players to move the ball on climate change but also the role of investors in driving the market.

“All the pioneers I mentioned have seen the future,” he said. “They are betting on green because they understand this is the path to prosperity and peace on a healthy planet. The alternative is a dark and dangerous future.”

Here are five things to watch throughout this week’s event.

The international view

While U.S. climate advocacy groups are deploying to San Francisco, attendance from international nongovernmental organizations will be lighter. And with the focus squarely on subnational actors, some countries are sending relatively sparse national delegations.

“It is true that interest in participating is very low here in Europe,” said Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe, putting it down to a difference in philosophy.

“I would say that Europeans still believe in the central role of national governments in further developing and improving the international climate regime,” he said. “Non-state actors can support that, can support that strongly, but this should not be used by governments to do less.”

Meena Raman, legal adviser for the Malaysia-based climate justice group Third World Network, agreed that there is a risk that the message will take pressure off federal actors.

“This is indeed a U.S.-centric event, which is perceived by civil society groups in developing countries like mine to be more greenwashing than about serious climate action,” she said.

But the summit will bring together some international federal actors as well as subnational leaders and mayors. France, a perennial leader in advancing the goals of the Paris Agreement, will send former ecology minister Ségolène Royal, who became her delegation’s leader when Nicolas Hulot, her successor, abruptly quit last month, citing differences with President Emmanuel Macron.

European Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete will also attend, and China will host two days of programming at a Chinese pavilion highlighting its nascent emissions trading program and other ventures.

What the conference won’t do

Victor of Brookings said the decentralized character of this week’s conference is good for spurring creativity and experimentation.

“But it’s not a process that shifts you from trying lots of stuff to ‘Here’s the plan; here’s what we need you to do,'” Victor said.

Rather than focusing on the host state’s established leadership on climate change, he said, the test would be whether other international actors come prepared to offer anything new.

“Leadership requires followership, because California is less than 1 percent of global emissions,” he said.

Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow and strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute, said the conference illustrates the leadership vacuum at the federal level created by the departure of President Obama.

“Obama’s leadership I think really did help inspire and put pressure on other countries,” he said. “But I think that one maybe under appreciated aspect of Trump’s presidency is not just the domestic rollbacks of fuel efficiency and the Clean Power Plan and others, but there’s no one pressuring major countries around the world to act.”

Big commitments from California — and attacks from the left

Conference host Brown has prepared a goodie bag of new climate policies for the event, including an executive order signed Monday that sets a goal of completely decarbonizing California’s economy by 2045.

He also signed bills over the weekend attempting to block the Trump administration’s proposal to open federal waters off California to offshore oil and gas drilling. And on Monday, he signed S.B. 100, which raises the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 60 percent by 2030 and sets a 100 percent “zero-carbon” target for the electricity sector by 2045 (see related story).

At the same time, advocates of radical action on climate change have been escalating their rhetoric.

Campaigns like the “keep it in the ground” movement and Brown’s Last Chance are aiming to get Brown to tackle California’s own oil and gas industries. Groups on the left are also rallying against carbon trading, particularly attempts to create carbon-trading instruments from the preservation of tropical forests.

They’ve been demonstrating outside the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force meeting since Monday and are planning a big protest outside the start of the summit tomorrow.

And they’re not mollified by Brown’s regulatory push.

“Despite his signing of an important and historical bill he did nothing to draft or support, Governor Brown can expect to be greeted with large-scale, sustained protest at the Global Climate Action summit this week,” the group Consumer Watchdog said in a press release yesterday.

Quantification of subnationals’ efforts

To keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, state officials and think tanks are touting the value of bottom-up policies.

“A bottom-up strategy is fundamentally a much more powerful strategy than one that relies on a single federal mechanism,” Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, told reporters yesterday in San Francisco. “Any single federal mechanism will fail to harness the creativity and ingenuity of America’s society.”

The United States is still on track to get two-thirds of the way to its Paris Agreement pledge, or 17 percent below 2005 levels, by 2025, according to a report released today by Pope, Brown and Bloomberg under the America’s Pledge aegis.

The report projects the United States will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.6 percent annually through 2025 and then 2.1 percent through 2030, thanks to slow-turnover sectors like transportation and buildings. That approaches the 2.3 percent rate that’s needed to reach 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

“It’s amazing how much we can do with a not-unrealistic effort on the part of those who are still in,” said California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols.

One exception: federal regulation of methane emissions. President Trump’s EPA yesterday proposed to reduce monitoring of methane leaks from new and modified oil and gas wells, while the Bureau of Land Management is expected to soon propose rolling back Obama-era standards limiting waste methane from oil and gas operations on public lands (Greenwire, Sept. 11).

“It’s hard to get at from the bottom up,” Pope conceded.

Corporate commitments

Expect lots of announcements from businesses increasing their commitment to renewable energy, electric vehicles and other emissions-cutting decisions.

Ride-sharing company Lyft announced that it would buy enough carbon offsets to cover all rides taken on its platform, and enough renewable energy and renewable energy credits to cover its building use and the miles driven by electric vehicles.

Sony Corp., McKinsey & Co. and Royal Bank of Scotland all pledged to buy 100 percent renewable electricity to cover all their global operations.

And health care provider Kaiser Permanente announced it would achieve carbon neutrality by 2020 through a purchase of 180 megawatts of renewable energy credits from NextEra Energy, generated through the construction of a 50-MW wind farm, a 131-MW solar farm and 110 MW of battery storage capacity.

Brown’s summit is serving as a magnet for such commitments, if not spurring them directly.

“It sort of created a goal for us to complete that work and be able to make the announcement,” said Ramé Hemstreet, Kaiser Permanente’s vice president for operations and chief sustainable resource officer. “It was going to happen anyway, but the timing was propitious.”

Environmentalists are pointing out that businesses’ decisions can reverberate further than those of national governments because they are motivated by economics rather than ideology.

“If you think about tribalism as something that characterizes a lot of our politics these days, business is the opposite of that,” said Derek Walker, the Environmental Defense Fund’s vice president of U.S. climate.