Commentary

Commentary: At global climate conference, international becomes local

November 30, 2021 5:45 am
A climate protester holds a sign that says "This is an emergency"

Protesters pushing for action on climate change disrupt a campaign event for Joe Biden on Oct. 9, 2019, in Manchester. (Scott Eisen | Getty Images)

The city of Glasgow, Scotland, became the epicenter of global climate change action negotiations during the first two weeks of November. The agreement that emerged from many rounds of intense discussions among nearly 200 nations has been met with mixed reviews. Despite new momentum on some fronts, COP26 (United Nations Conference of the Parties) delivered incremental progress when the science clearly demands big breakthroughs. 

One outcome of COP26 is certain: The fight for ambitious climate action continues, and it will be led by governments, organizations, and individuals on the local level. The upward pressure of local climate action on national governments across the globe is essential for true progress to be achieved.

I was honored to participate in COP26 as an observer. The swirl of activity inside and outside the conference venues was at times overwhelming, and the urgency for action was palpable. Indeed, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming found that emissions reductions of approximately 45 percent by 2030 from 2010 levels are consistent with keeping the rise in global temperatures within the 1.5 C threshold from pre-industrial levels, above which multiple and truly catastrophic impacts of climate change will follow. Countries are making progress toward these critical temperature goals first included in the Paris Climate Agreement, but not nearly fast enough. The global temperature has already risen by 1.1 C, so we have little margin for error remaining and much work to do to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. 

Youth Climate March in Glasgow.
Young people push for action on climate change during a march in Glasgow earlier this month. (Courtesy of Rob Werner)

I spent much of my time conferring with fellow local elected officials from both the United States and across the globe under the banner of the LGMA (Local Government Municipal Authority) constituency. While nations set the carbon emissions goals necessary under the COP process, it is the specific and concrete initiatives of local governments across the globe that create success, and local governments are the true implementors of climate change action. Here in New Hampshire, cities and towns such as Concord, Hanover, Keene, and Peterborough are leading the way, making ambitious 100 percent renewable energy commitments and pursuing projects to make that real. I found a great deal of commonality among the efforts we see here in New England to move toward a clean energy economy and global efforts to do the same.

A prominent feature of this COP was the insistent and constant demands of young people for aggressive climate action in the streets of Glasgow outside of the formal negotiation venues. I’m told by COP veterans that the outside actions have become ever more important in these gatherings to keep pressure on negotiators to stay at the table and keep agreements on track. Generation Z – the demographic born between 1996 and 2010 – became the largest and most diverse generation on the globe last year, comprising 32 percent of the global population. While the oldest members of Generation Z are just 24 years old, their influence is already being widely felt and they are finding their voice. After all, it is their future that is seriously compromised by our climate change inaction.

A consistent theme at COP26 was the need for energy efficiency efforts to be substantially brought to scale in the built environment to reduce the demand for energy. The adage that “the least expensive unit of energy is the one that is not used” is appreciated across the globe, and municipalities are the leading edge of efforts to strengthen building codes and require clean energy components in building construction that increase energy efficiency. While in Glasgow, I learned of the astounding news that the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission issued an order that absolutely decimates support for New Hampshire’s energy efficiency programs. The PUC order follows the efforts of some of our New Hampshire state legislators to undermine energy efficiency programs that have proven their worth over many years, saving money for residents and businesses while reducing the overall demand for energy. From afar, the dissonance caused by the rejection by the PUC of the most basic principles of how current investment creates future benefits was very unsettling. 

The re-emergence of the United States on the international stage as a result of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement was very welcome in Glasgow. International trust has begun to be rebuilt, and the importance of American leadership cannot be underestimated. As the world’s second largest carbon emitter, we must enact serious climate action and clean energy policies here at home to successfully claim legitimate and credible leadership. The United States is on the path to doing just that with the recent enactment of the infrastructure bill and the progress of the Build Back Better budget in Congress as both initiatives include unprecedented investments in climate action and clean energy.

COP26 delivered some forward progress amidst a challenging geopolitical backdrop and difficulties caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The final pact adopted in Glasgow calls for nations to strengthen their emission reduction targets by the end of 2022, recognizes the need for the reduction of the use of fossil fuels and the acceleration of renewable energy sources, and calls on governments to incorporate the critical role of nature and biodiversity in plans to keep the 1.5 C threshold within reach. Left unresolved by COP26, discussions will continue in the run-up to COP27 in Egypt next November on some very big issues, including global climate finance as well as financial support for loss and damage experienced by developing nations.

Local action to implement state, national, and international climate and clean energy goals will continue to be the most important venue for developing practical and sustainable solutions. Positive outcomes for our citizens here in New Hampshire and beyond that will protect our precious earth while creating economic opportunity and jobs are well within reach. Let’s work together to ensure our future.

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Rob Werner
Rob Werner

Rob Werner is the New Hampshire state director for the League of Conservation Voters and serves as a city councilor in Concord.

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