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Fighting climate change from the ground up

More city and regional governments, businesses and investors are taking action to reduce climate change, complementing efforts by national governments. And as bottom-up initiatives continue to grow, better accounting of their impact is needed.

By 2017, banks in Singapore will be expected to share their plans to integrate sustainability considerations such as greenhouse gas emissions into their lending and business practices.

The groundbreaking move by the Association of Banks in Singapore, announced late last year, was in line with a growing trend of businesses and investors across the world taking the initiative to address climate change and supplement similar efforts by national governments in the wake of the Paris Agreement.

The universal, legally-binding agreement, adopted by 195 countries in Paris in December last year, is intended to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

Even prior to the agreement, businesses, investors and city and regional governmentsotherwise known as non-state and sub-national actorshad made numerous pledges to help the national governments to achieve this goal.

In a report released in December, Dr Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the Yale-NUS College, analysed more than 10,000 environmental commitments from the non-state and sub-national actors and found that these could have a significant impact on mitigating climate change.

Presenting her research findings at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on April 14, she highlighted that the UN had also called such scaled-up efforts from all levels of stakeholders “a central pillar” in the bid to limit global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius.

“This was a marked change from the previous conferences because it elevated and included the participation of different actors, including civil society organisations, companies, states, cities and local governments, and this is really remarkable,” she said.

In 2014, for instance, prominent city mayors, civil society organisers and businesses committed to nearly 30 environmental pledges at the Climate Summit held in New York and organised by the UN.

While only five of theseincluding a commitment to stop natural forest loss by 2030 which was endorsed by 53 global companies such as Unilever, McDonalds and L’Orealhad enough details for their impact to be quantified, Dr Hsu, who is also director of Yale University’s data-driven environmental solutions group, calculated that the five pledges would substantially help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if fully implemented.

At the time, commitments by national governments were insufficient to reduce the emissions to the point where global warming could be limited to 2 degrees Celsius.

The world had to eliminate the equivalent of another eight to 10 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2020 to keep on track and Dr Hsu found that the five pledges could bridge the gap by one-fifth.

More recently, she led a team of researchers to analyse more than 10,000 environmental commitments by cities, regions, businesses and investors, who had recorded their pledges in two UN-backed platforms, namely the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action and the Lima-Paris Action Agenda.

The team found that 1,192 city and regional governments had made 1,268 commitments that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 gigatonnes of carbon emissions.

Furthermore, 16 cities and regions, 33 companies and 56 investors had issued green bonds worth US$47 billion (S$63 billion) to finance climate change projects. The utilities industry alone had issued US$13.8 billion worth of bonds to fund renewable energy projects.

The UN’s climate chief Christiana Figueres is optimistic about the growing alignment of goals between government policies and actions with companies, investors, cities, regions and provinces.

“Collectively, they do not yet keep us below a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise, but they keep that objective well within the affordable reach of humanity,” she noted in a statement on Dr Hsu’s findings.

At her NUS presentation, however, Dr Hsu warned that as such non-state and sub-national efforts continue to grow, better accounting of their impact is vital. One key issue is to determine whether such commitments are already accounted for in countries’ national climate change plans.

“If a city like Barcelona says that it is going to become carbon-neutral by 2050, for example, but its country, Spain, makes a different pledge, how do you make sense of whether the city’s efforts are additional?” she asked.

Complicating the matter, multinational companies that could help make a dent in the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have operations in many countries. “If a company like Coca Cola says that it will reduce its emissions by 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2050, how do you take into consideration where those reductions are actually happening? It becomes a very complicated accounting question very quickly,” Dr Hsu added.

There is also a need to make sure these commitments are actually implemented.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002 for instance, non-state actors and sub-national governments made several environmental commitments. “In the wake of those commitments, however, 67 per cent of them were still searching for funding and never began implementation,” Dr Hsu said.

Still, every commitment is a step in the right direction, experts said. Laurent Fabius, president of the climate change conference in Paris, said ahead of the meeting: “The many thousands of governors, mayors, companies and investors who have so publicly committed to climate action are telling governments that our job in Paris is a climate change agreement that opens every possible door to help them push further and faster ahead.”

Singapore, for instance, has pledged to stabilise its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and slash its emissions intensitythe amount of greenhouse gas emitted per dollar of gross domestic productby 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

In January, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said the government would work with businesses to help them adopt greener practices and improve their energy efficiency.

This was a marked change from the previous conferences because it elevated and included the participation of different actors, including civil society organisations, companies, states, cities and local governments, and this is really remarkable.

Dr Angel Hsu, assistant professor of environmental studies, Yale-NUS College

It had introduced funds such as the Energy Efficiency Improvement Assistance Scheme and the Grant for Energy Efficient Technologies, for instance, to help companies pay for equipment that uses less energy.

Several Singaporean firms have also set their own targets. Property developer City Developments (CDL), for example, has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions intensity by 25 per cent by 2030, compared to business-as-usual levels from 2007. It publishes an annual report that tracks its progress.

CapitaLand, another Singapore-listed property firm, has committed to reducing its energy and water use per square metre by 20 per cent by 2020, using 2008 as the base year.

The energy pledge is expected to reduce its carbon intensity by about 23 per cent by 2020, using 2008 as the base year, and it too produces an annual sustainability report.

Dr Hsu noted that scholars are divided on whether the emergence of so many influential players in the climate change fight is a net positive or negative.

Some are afraid the trend will lead to a diffusion of responsibility where every party believes it can do less.

Dr Hsu said: “Then again, you have others who say that with multiple actors and multiple regimes, you have functional redundancy. If someone’s plan falls through, you have someone else who can pick up the slack.”

The story was first published on the NCCS website. Subscribe to their newsletter here or follow them on their Facebook page.

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