Two degrees. This has always been the focus, the threshold, the point of no return. Yet as I sat amongst climate leaders, indigenous people, island nation representatives, atmospheric scientists and policy creators at the San Francisco Global Climate Action Summit, a temperature increase of two degrees no longer seemed urgent enough. And it isn’t.
With the release of the recent IPCC report, severe effects are reported to arrive far sooner – “if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2040, inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty.”
With the realities of the severity of our changing climate setting in, San Francisco has been abuzz with environmental action events, conferences, and discussions revolving around climate change mitigation and adaptation. In the month of September, San Francisco hosted the Global Climate Action Summit organized by Gov. Jerry Brown. The summit served as a gathering for climate leaders to collaborate and commit to deeper worldwide emissions goals and focus on international decarbonization. The summit spanned five themes of transformative climate investments, land and ocean stewardship, sustainable communities, inclusive economic growth, and health energy systems. The event also offered numerous affiliate events focusing on everything from virtual reality in climate change communication to turning carbon into value.
So what exactly happened during it all?
With Gov. Brown passing SB 100, which mandates 100 percent of electricity in California to come from renewable and zero-carbon energy sources by 2045, the stage was set for large scale commitments towards reducing GHG emissions. Companies followed suit. The Wold Green Building Council committed to have all buildings they operate, own or build to be zero carbon by 2030. The University of California system has committed to 100% clean energy by 2025. Kaiser Permanente announced their goal of carbon neutrality by 2020.
Yet with commitments upon commitments being made, the specifics of goals can get lost in the jargon of carbon neutral vs. zero energy vs. coal free, etc. To clarify what all these terms mean––
Net Zero/Zero Energy: the delivered amount of energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable energy created
Zero Carbon/Carbon Neutral: the amount of carbon released is equivalent to the amount of carbon sequestered or offset, also achieved by purchasing carbon credits
Zero Emission: often refers to an engine or motor that emits no gases or wastes identified as pollutants
Clean/Carbon Free Energy: any form of energy which comes from clean energy sources; can include nuclear, natural gas, large scale hydropower, but does not include coal or oil.
Renewable Energy: any form of energy which comes from renewable natural sources, whether this be wind, rain, sun, geothermal or biomass.
With one of the stipulations for entities to attend and participate in the GCAS a required commitment to climate change mitigation, both private companies and governments agreed reaching terms like these in the coming decades.
Yet with much of the discussion around climate change involving policy, especially with the recent midterm elections, the Climate Action Summit also shed light on events that are often overlooked in the context of big-scale change. At the focus of many conversations were indigenous rights and nature-based solutions. As Jane Goodall took the stage, she reminded us of the root of our desire to mitigate climate change– protecting nature itself. Elaborating on the necessity of trees, Goodall explained that a third of carbon emissions are sequestered by the world’s forests, approximately 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon per year. In such an urban environment like San Francisco, transportation, energy efficiency, and sustainable buildings are the focus of climate action plans and policy agendas. They are the buzz issues, the topics that garner attention. But in the race towards reducing GHG emissions, the SF Climate Summit also reminded us that certain populations can teach us about a biocentric lifestyle. And that not all solutions lie in tech, but in the nature before us.
Reminding us of the overarching picture and advancing climate goals, the summit was another step in the right direction. Climate action is taking big steps on state levels. California has stepped forth as a leader in aggressive and proactive environmental goals. But the midterms brought mixed success across the nation. With the recent election, Washington State rejected a bill to pass the first carbon tax. And yet, in Florida, gubernatorial candidates in both parties argued that their opponents weren’t doing enough for the environment. We are seeing progress. We are aware. But we must remember now is the time to focus on those two degrees.
IPCC, Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR15). (2018, October). Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/index.html.