“Business as urgent”: Reflections on COP21 Funders Initiative

Catherine Brown, CEO of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation in Melbourne, attended the recent UN Climate Change Conference, or COP21, in Paris. Below, she offers her reflections, including what she is taking back with her to Australia. 

Having attended many briefings, presentations and conferences over the last seven days, I have gained a deeper understanding of the climate change challenge. Philanthropy has an important role to play in supporting communities as we transition to a low carbon future.

Following the negotiations in the COP21 Blue Zone from a distance, with extra input from presenters and regular email updates from the Australian delegation, has been an education in itself! The art of diplomacy requires such persistence and the ability to think clearly about the potential meaning of one word in the draft Agreement, and all while being sleep deprived. Hats off to all those who worked to ensure that the Agreement between 196 countries is a watershed moment. The agreed international goal of keeping global warming to well below 2 degrees, and even below 1.5 degrees, will mean that the Agreement is a huge milestone in taking a joint international proactive approach to the climate change challenge.

The importance of monitoring and reviewing each country’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions after COP21 and clarifying the financing arrangements for both mitigation and adaptation measures, especially for developing countries, will require a continued shared commitment. There is a lot of work to do.

The most moving presentations this week have been from developing countries, including the Pacific Islands (increasing cyclones and rising sea levels), African countries (dealing with drought and air pollution), Bangladesh (dealing with flooding), India (dealing with air pollution) and the organisations representing farmers who are dealing with rapidly changing agricultural conditions. The concept of a “just transition” has resonated with me. The transition to a low carbon economy must not ignore human rights and vulnerable communities. The knowledge of both Indigenous communities and local farmers is extremely valuable to adaptation.

National governments can set goals but there are many other groups who will make the transition to a low carbon future actually happen. Cities and states (subnational governments) are responsible for many aspects of greenhouse gas emissions. It has been inspiring to see the work of the world’s cities here in Paris. On 4 December 2015, hundreds of mayors from all over the world met at the Paris Town Hall for as part of the largest ever global gathering of mayors, governors and local leaders focused on climate change.  I personally heard several Mayors (of Boulder, Vancouver and Marin County) speak at the Green Zone at COP21 on projects related to renewable energy, disaster preparedness, waste management and green transport.

Philanthropy has a very important role to play in supporting community education and resilience and supporting organisations to reduce their carbon footprint. Food security is a critical issue which crosses sectors – without nutritious food, there is no health; there is a need for sustainable food systems. I would like to hear the voices of the health profession more in Australia. There is an important story to be told about managing disasters and the health impacts of climate change, especially around food security and asthma from air pollution.

There was a powerful panel presentation on coal divestment led by the UK’s Sainsbury family, whose foundations have or are in the process of divesting from investments in coal related companies. European foundations also spoke in support of this.

As a community foundation CEO, I have come to understand the importance of bringing everyone along as the world transitions to a low carbon future. I am heartened by the possibility of India and some African counties leapfrogging their development plans to bring people out of poverty using renewable energy. There are also opportunities across the world to grow green jobs for our young people.

Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN COP21, said to philanthropy at the beginning of the second week of COP21 that it could not be “business as usual” if we are to reduce global warming to below 2 degrees – and preferably 1.5 degrees . We needed to move to “business as urgent.” That is still the over-riding message that I am bringing home with me.

Catherine Brown

CEO, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation