Cal­i­for­nia hosted its own cli­mate sum­mit. Now what?


SAN FRAN­CISCO — For years, pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters have been the pub­lic face of the fight against cli­mate change, gath­er­ing at U.N. sum­mit meet­ings and pres­sur­ing each other to re­duce emis­sions.

The re­sults have of­ten been lack­lus­ter.

A cli­mate con­fer­ence in Cal­i­for­nia last week tried some­thing dif­fer­ent. The meet­ing, or­ga­nized by the state’s gover­nor, Jerry Brown, had far fewer na­tional lead­ers present. In­stead, an ar­ray of gover­nors, may­ors and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives from around the globe met to pro­mote their suc­cesses in cut­ting green­house gas emis­sions lo­cally and to en­cour­age one another to do more.

A key premise of the con­fer­ence was that if a hand­ful of lead­ing-edge states, cities and busi­nesses can demon­strate that it’s fea­si­ble — and even lu­cra­tive — to go green in their own back­yards, they might in­spire oth­ers to fol­low suit. That, in turn, could make it eas­ier for na­tional lead­ers to act more force­fully.

“If a re­searcher does an ex­per­i­ment, and you find out they’ve got a medicine that works, it spreads,” Brown said.

There was no short­age of an­nounce­ments at the meet­ing. Cities such as Tokyo, Rot­ter­dam and West Hol­ly­wood signed joint pledges to only buy zero-emis­sions buses af­ter 2025. Com­pa­nies such as Wal­mart and Unilever rolled out new pro­grams to limit de­for­esta­tion in their huge sup­ply chains. Dozens of phil­an­thropic groups com­mit­ted $4 bil­lion over the next five years to fight cli­mate change.

But it will take time to tell whether th­ese lo­cal ac­tions can scale up quickly enough to make a sig­nif­i­cant dent in global emis­sions. And sci­en­tists are warn­ing that time is short if we want to avoid the worst ef­fects of cli­mate change.

On Thurs­day, a group of re­searchers re­leased a road map for what it would take to keep global warm­ing be­low 2 de­grees Cel­sius, the in­ter­na­tion­ally agreed-upon goal. It en­tailed a rapid trans­for­ma­tion of the world’s en­ergy sys­tem (mea­sures such as ban­ning the sales of gaso­line ve­hi­cles in many cities within a decade) that went far be­yond many of the pro­pos­als made in Cal­i­for­nia.

The sheer scale of that chal­lenge hasn’t fully sunk in with many pol­i­cy­mak­ers, said Jo­han Rock­ström, a sus­tain­abil­ity sci­en­tist and co-au­thor of the report. “We need to be think­ing about ex­po­nen­tial changes.”


The Amer­i­can politi­cians at the con­fer­ence, who typ­i­cally came from lib­eral cities and blue states such as New York and Wash­ing­ton, had a more im­me­di­ate con­cern: Try­ing to per­suade the rest of the world that the United States hasn’t com­pletely aban­doned the fight, de­spite the fact that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has vowed to with­draw from the Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change.

Brown met with Xie Zhen­hua, China’s chief cli­mate ne­go­tia­tor, and an­nounced plans for Cal­i­for­nia and China to work to­gether on zero-emis­sions ve­hi­cles and fuel-cell re­search. Later in the week, sev­eral blue-state gover­nors met be­hind closed doors with the en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ters of Canada and Mex­ico to forge new part­ner­ships on is­sues such as elec­tric ve­hi­cles and curb­ing emis­sions of meth­ane, a po­tent green­house gas.

It was an un­usual situation: A hand­ful of Amer­i­can gover­nors were ef­fec­tively tak­ing the lead on in­ter­na­tional cli­mate diplo­macy at a time when the pres­i­dent has dis­en­gaged on the is­sue. But some for­eign of­fi­cials were happy to re­cip­ro­cate.

“It is im­por­tant to show the world that we’re still work­ing with U.S. states,” said Cather­ine McKenna, Canada’s min­is­ter of en­vi­ron­ment and cli­mate change, in an in­ter­view. “There re­ally are prac­ti­cal things we can do to­gether.”

There were even a few sub­stan­tive pol­icy an­nounce­ments. Cal­i­for­nia, New York, Mary­land and Con­necti­cut said they would craft new reg­u­la­tions to cur­tail hy­droflu­o­ro­car­bons, the highly po­tent green­house gasses used in air-con­di­tion­ers and re­frig­er­a­tors. In 2016, na­tions agreed on a treaty to phase out th­ese gases, but Trump has not sub­mit­ted the pact for rat­i­fi­ca­tion or writ­ten fed­eral reg­u­la­tions.

While busi­nesses would pre­fer a sin­gle fed­eral stan­dard, even a few states act­ing to­gether could cre­ate a sig­nif­i­cant mar­ket for cleaner al­ter­na­tives to HFCs, said Caro­line Davidson-Hood, gen­eral coun­sel for the Air-Con­di­tion­ing, Heat­ing, and Re­frig­er­a­tion In­sti­tute, an in­dus­try group.

Yet for all that, lo­cal lead­ers in the United States who have promised to up­hold the Paris cli­mate agree­ment still face an up­hill bat­tle.

Their coali­tion — which now con­sists of 16 states, Puerto Rico, hun­dreds of cities and nearly 2,000 busi­nesses — has vowed to press ahead with cli­mate ac­tion and en­sure that the United States meets former Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s Paris pledge to cut green­house gas emis­sions 26 to 28 per­cent be­low 2005 lev­els by 2025.

A new report com­mis­sioned by the group found, how­ever, that U.S. emis­sions are on track to fall only about 17 per­cent over that span.


While the Cal­i­for­nia con­fer­ence did see a flurry of an­nounce­ments by states, cities and busi­nesses from around the world, some of them seemed more as­pi­ra­tional than any­thing else, at least for now. It is un­likely this meet­ing, by it­self, will dras­ti­cally al­ter the tra­jec­tory of the world’s emis­sions.

For ex­am­ple, may­ors from dozens of the world’s largest cities promised to cut the amount of trash they send to land­fills in half, build more car­bon-neu­tral build­ings and en­cour­age walk­ing and cy­cling in their cities over the next few decades. But how well th­ese may­ors fol­low through re­mains to be seen.

De­spite ques­tions like that, how­ever, some an­a­lysts made a case that one big ben­e­fit of the con­fer­ence could be to gen­er­ate a broader sense of mo­men­tum around ac­tion on clean en­ergy and global warm­ing as U.N. cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions are en­ter­ing a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult phase.

In De­cem­ber, coun­tries will meet in Poland to fi­nal­ize a “rule book” for im­ple­ment­ing the Paris Agree­ment — touch­ing on con­tentious top­ics like how to track and ver­ify emis­sions cuts. Over the next two years, many na­tions will then have to de­cide whether to strengthen their na­tional pledges on cli­mate ac­tion, which are cur­rently far too weak to avoid dras­tic warm­ing.

Yet pre­lim­i­nary ne­go­ti­a­tions around those is­sues fell into dis­ar­ray at talks in Bangkok this month, as poorer coun­tries ac­cused wealth­ier na­tions, in­clud­ing the United States, of reneg­ing on their prom­ises for fi­nan­cial aid to fight cli­mate change.

“The U.N. talks are still locked in this fin­ger-point­ing dy­namic, where peo­ple act as if tack­ling cli­mate change is a zero-sum game,” said Alden Meyer, di­rec­tor of pol­icy and strat­egy for the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists, who had flown to San Fran­cisco from the Bangkok talks.

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