Groundswell of Climate Action at 'Summit' Faces Hard Truths


Governors, mayors, CEOs and billionaire philanthropists gather in San Francisco this week to take aim at global warming as the world awakens to the all-too-real threat of climate change run amuck.

The three-day Global Climate Action Summit, which kicks off Wednesday, will see hundreds of cities, regions and companies worth hundreds of billions pledge to run on solar or wind power within a few decades.

California's governor and host Jerry Brown, whose crusade for clean energy started in the 1970s, set the tone by approving landmark legislation Monday that commits his state to purging CO2 from its electricity grid by 2045.

"We all have the opportunity and the obligation to do our part to combat climate change," he told AFP hours after signing the bill into law.

Even heavy industry giants in emerging economies such as UltraTech Cement and Mahindra Vehicle Manufacturers in India, and South Africa chemicals multinational Sasol, have joined the clean energy-only bandwagon.   

Major cities will likely announce greenhouse gas emissions trending downward, and governors will unveil partnerships supporting indigenous efforts to sustainably manage tropical, carbon-dense forests.

Nearly 1,000 institutional investors managing trillions in assets have, at least in part, turned their backs on planet-warming fossil fuels.

"This summit is going to be a showcase for the whole world in terms of climate action," said Ethan Elkind, head of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.

- 'Runaway climate change' -

California's electricity pledge "shows that it is possible to decarbonize while continuing to grow your economy and produce jobs at the same time," he told AFP.

But the flurry of promises and promissary notes run head-on into two hard and unyielding realities, one political and the other rooted in the physics of a warming planet.

A U.N. tally of all the local carbon-reduction initiatives so far reveals "encouraging potential" but will ultimately fall short without deeper commitments from national governments, UN Environment chief Erik Solheim said Monday.     

CO2 emissions -- after remaining stable for three years, raising hopes that they had peaked -- rose in 2017 to historic levels.

"If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a speech Monday, warning of a "dark and dangerous future."

The 196-nation Paris climate pact inked in 2015 calls for capping global warming as "well below" two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and vows to strive for a 1.5 C limit if possible.

But even if nations honor voluntary carbon-cutting vows submitted in an annex to the treaty, we are trending toward a 3.5 C world, a scenario scientists say would pull at the fabric of civilization.

- Ditching the Paris pact -

With only a single degree Celsius of warming since the pre-industrial benchmark, our planet is already coping with a crescendo of climate impacts including deadly droughts, erratic rainfall, and storm surges engorged by rising seas. 

The political reality slowing the transition to a global economy powered by clean energy rather than fossil fuels resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC and has dismissed climate change a hoax.

U.S. President Donald Trump opted out of the Paris Agreement, and has hammered away at the domestic and international climate policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

As a consequence, the United States is unlikely to meet its carbon cutting pledges. 

More worrying, say experts, is the impact his actions may have abroad.  

Still a party to U.N. climate talks, which face a December deadline for finalizing the rules governing the Paris pact, the Trump administration -- after laying low -- tabled demands last week that could destabilize the fragile negotiations.   

So far, the United States is the only country to ditch the landmark treaty. But Brazilian presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro has said he too would pull out if elected in October.

The co-chairs of the San Francisco climate summit include former New York mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa, and China's top climate official, Xie Zhenhua.

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