Three Keys to Climate Action, Five Years after Paris

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Shyla Raghav, VP of Climate Change, Conservation International

Five years ago this month, after years of tense negotiations, the gavel sounded to announce the adoption of the Paris Agreement. Like many who participated in the negotiations, I was relieved, hopeful, and exhausted. Everyone in the conference room recognized that this was just the first phase in a long journey ahead.

Five years later, that journey has featured both successes and setbacks. We are now entering into a new phase for the agreement, one that must be defined by real, immediate action. Starting this year, the world must rapidly reduce its emissions – and continue to do so with every passing year – if we are to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change. Yesterday’s anniversary summit, with its emphasis on elevating ambition, was definitely a step in the right direction, with many countries increasing their commitments. We anticipate hearing more on a U.S. proposal next month after an anticipated return to the agreement under President-Elect Joe Biden.

Government leadership will be key, but it will take more than that, I believe. It will take centering solutions not just on technology, but also on conserving and restoring nature. As we approach the end of 2020, here are three steps we must take to succeed:

First, Corporations Must Take Concrete Actions

Businesses played a key role in the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement, and their support was essential to the agreement’s adoption. After the Trump administration announced its plans for withdrawal in 2017, I applauded the corporate leaders who stayed the course on climate action. Today, they must continue to move forward with bold commitments and decisive actions. Otherwise, companies risk pushing their responsibilities onto future generations.

To make a difference, corporate sustainability strategies must now include concrete measures in four areas: reducing carbon emissions and shifting to cleaner energy sources; disclosing climate risks; minimizing the environmental impact of their supply chains; and proactively promoting regenerative practices to keep ecosystems intact and reverse the destruction of nature. Changing our energy sources and decreasing emissions have long been the focus.  But looking at the impacts on the natural world caused by those emissions – and correcting them — should also be a key focus.

Second, We Must Be Innovative —  Not Just Recover — Recreate

Throughout history, pandemics have transformed societies and economies. The Plague of Justinian contributed to the end of the Roman Empire. The Black Death transformed labor practices in Medieval Europe. And yellow fever led to the end of slavery in Haiti. The COVID-19 pandemic demands a similar global reset. As governments around the world commit to massive economic recovery packages, they must not prop up the same practices that led to climate change, environmental degradation, and the spread of the coronavirus.

Instead of reinforcing the status quo, governments should seize this opportunity to create economies that maintain a healthier relationship with nature. In other words, recovery isn’t enough. Now is the time to build something new. Stimulus packages should create green jobs, redirect subsidies away from polluting and environmentally destructive industries, and accelerate a much-needed transition towards renewable energy sources.

In all of these actions, governments must maintain a clear focus on environmental justice. Black and Indigenous communities, as well as other communities of color, have repeatedly and systematically borne the brunt of industrial pollution and land degradation. Governments must correct for these injustices by advancing policies that support frontline communities.

Third, We Must Invest in Nature Now

Projects to protect and restore ecosystems are some of the most effective and immediately available solutions to fight climate change. These investments help prevent deforestation – the second largest cause of climate change — and deliver benefits faster than any technology that we can create. In fact, protecting and restoring tropical forests and mangroves can provide at least 30 percent of mitigation action needed to avoid the worst climate scenarios by 2030. These ecosystems also boost biodiversity, prevent soil erosion, and create sustainable livelihoods for local communities – making them uniquely good for both people and the planet. Bottom line: investing in nature is an enormous opportunity to couple commitments with immediate action.

The Future We Want to Create

Five years after the Paris Agreement, in the midst of a devastating pandemic, we have a choice about the economy and the future we want to create. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have said that they intend to re-enter the Paris Agreement, which has renewed the prospect of American leadership on climate change. It’s clear that the decisions their administration makes will be a critical factor in propelling global climate action forward. Their commitment to conserving 30% of the U.S. by 2030 is bold and new, and I applaud it.  I hope that they will extend that commitment to leading the world to achieve it as well.  If we can reach that #30×30 target globally, we will heal our environment and mitigate climate change at the same time.  The U.S. is indispensable to achieving this goal globally as well.

Finally, acting on climate change is not just the government’s responsibility. Our best chance of avoiding climate catastrophe is for everyone –corporations, governments, and communities – to reject complacency and pursue immediate action. If we do this now, we can ensure that the path forward creates a more sustainable future and a more stable climate.


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