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'Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st Century,' according to The Lancet medical journal earlier this year. (Image: Public domain)

60% of Emissions Reductions Pledged in Paris Were Inspired by Pursuit of Benefits In Health, Well-Being Or Social Justice

The majority of the commitments to reduce emissions in Paris were motivated by multisolving, the search for climate solutions that produce immediate, local benefits. Climate strategists should take note.

Elizabeth Sawin

When French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, the results were clear. As it stands, the Paris agreement is insufficient to meet climate goals, but it does create a process for countries to make progressively stronger commitments to climate action over time.

While strong climate action might call forth visions of burdensome costs and high levels of sacrifice, some city, state and national leaders arrived in Paris confident that climate ambition can be a pathway to improving the lives of their constituents. Mirroring a logic that has long been articulated by environmental justice advocates, many Paris commitments referred explicitly to the intersections between climate and other issues such as health, equity, jobs, or resilience.

In fact, as the following three examples from Paris demonstrate, commitments that were motivated by pursuit of co-benefits contributed more to long-term climate protection than did commitments that were framed narrowly in terms of carbon and climate.

We found that 60% of the emissions reductions pledged to the UN can be attributed to countries that used the logic of co-benefits. Mexico’s pledge is a good example. “Regarding mitigation, the LGCC [Mexcio’s General Law on Climate Change] sets a clear obligation to give priority to the least costly mitigation actions, that at the same time derived in health and wellbeing co-benefits to the Mexican population.”

Ethiopia’s pledge offers another good example. “The emission reduction component of Ethiopia’s INDC will help Ethiopia avoid the unintended consequences of a carbon-intensive development path, fossil fuel dependence, health issues, traffic congestion and land degradation.”

Some larger countries also show signs of multisolving logic in their climate plans. For instance, on the official website for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which bolsters the US pledge, ten bullet points describe the benefits of the plan. All ten are co-benefits in jobs and health.

China’s pledge is also connected to its desire to capture a public health co-benefit by minimizing dirty energy from coal in its energy mix. An article from the Guardian newspaper sums up the motivation: “”Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer with Greenpeace, said it [China’s INDC] reflects the actions that are being taken domestically as China attempts to reduce its toxic levels of air pollution that are a result of its rapid coal-based economic growth. China’s premier Li Keqiang has previously “declared war” on pollution, describing it as a ‘blight’ on people’s quality of life.”

Success #2: The emissions reductions announced by regional governments

The Compact of States and Regions (representing 44 states and regions and 1/8 of the global economy) aggregates the commitments of states and regions. In Paris, the Compact announced pledges that will eliminate 1.2 Gtons of CO2e in 2030. That’s an amount roughly equal to the emissions of Germany in 2012. The group’s report includes several references to the co-benefits of ambitious climate action. The following, from Philippe Couillard, Premiere of Québec is a good example. “We continue to lead the way, and do so because we know it will not only create a healthier environment for our citizens, but because it is a significant economic opportunity for a more prosperous sustainable economy.”

Success #3: The emissions reductions committed by cities.

Cities were a major presence in Paris and they made significant pledges for emissions reductions. At a climate summit for local leaders city leaders pledged to deliver up to 3.7 Gtons CO2e of greenhouse gas emissions reductions annually by 2030. That’s a huge amount, equivalent to all of India’s greenhouse gas emissions last year. These commitments are included in the Paris City Hall Declaration, which clearly points to the multiple benefits of climate action.“ An effective, global response to climate change presents one of the greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century, will protect public health, and strengthen sustainable development mindful of human rights and women’s empowerment.”

These climate successes change the narrative of our response to climate change. In the words of Portland, Washington Mayor Charlie Hale, “We see climate action as an economic strategy for success, not a burden that we have to shoulder.”

Of course, there is a big difference between seeing the potential for co-benefits and implementing policy and investment strategies that capture them. There’s a new body of practice to be developed in reducing emissions while making progress in health, well-being, and social justice.

There is also a new style of leadership needed, one that may be more typical of the environmental justice campaigner than the policy wonk. That is a leadership style that listens to all the people of place and draws perspective not just from climate and energy experts but also from community organizers, health care workers, youth, poor people, ecologists, city planners, economic development experts, and more.

It won’t be easy, but, if the successes of Paris are any indication, it will be worth it.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Elizabeth Sawin

Elizabeth Sawin is the co-director of Climate Interactive,  a US think-tank that applies systems analysis and computer simulation to climate change.

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