File photo: People attend a demonstration to urge politicians to act against climate change in Paris, France, December 8, 2018 Reuters

Why communities are key to the success of the Paris Agreement

If the pledges made by each country in the Paris Agreement were fulfilled, they would only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 1% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. Scientists have indicated that the world needs to cut emissions by at least 45% over the next decade to stand any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C.

The Paris Agreement urges a well-informed and responsible global society to limit the risks from climate change by reducing emissions and adapting to inevitable warming. But so far, the focus for climate action has been on the national scale. The pledges each national government makes for cutting emissions by a certain date — their nationally determined contributions — are the only metric we have to track the progress of climate action.

But nationally determined contributions are inherently imprecise. Each nation is expected to commit to their fair share of emissions cuts, but their population sizes vary from the thousands to the billions. China and India have over a billion people each, but the average size of a nation in 2017 was about 39 million — the size of Iraq or Poland. Some small island nations have an average population size of 10,000. Focusing on nations obscures the differences each has in their responsibility for past emissions and their present influence on the climate, as well as their ability to act.

The success of the Paris Agreement may rely on actions taken at a different scale. In new research, myself and colleagues discovered a sweet spot, where climate action can be sped up with minimum intervention but maximum benefits.

The sweet spot

Project Drawdown is a network of experts which model the potential for different climate solutions to cut emissions and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. We looked at 72 of these projects, ranging from renewable energy microgrids and urban mass transit systems, to networks for redistributing surplus food and family planning campaigns. 

We wanted to find out the critical mass of people needed to make each project as successful as possible. We found that, on average, designing them to meet the needs of about 10,000 people would cut the most emissions and generate the largest economic and social benefits.

There will be 10 billion people living on Earth by 2050, or 10 to the power of 10. If we count all the way down to 10 to the power of zero — in other words, one — we’ll count every person who can potentially help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to global warming. 10,000 people or 10 to the power of four — optimizes these 10 orders of magnitude between a single individual and everyone else on the planet. This is the middle way — a size that is not too small for a group to initiate economically sensible projects and also not too big to manage and operationalize them. 

Ten thousand is also the size of 50% or more communities around the world. While national governments are failing to match the urgency of climate change with action, campaigns started by communities, such as Fridays for Future and Fossil Fuel Divestment, have captured the initiative. When Trump took the country out of the Paris Agreement, efforts by communities accelerated.

For the 72 projects we looked at, 56 (78% of the total) are suited for communities of 10,000 people. Implementing these solutions at this scale could alone cut greenhouse gas emissions by 179 billion metric tonnes (highest of all scales) between 2020 and 2050 — almost 20% of the Paris Agreement’s target for cumulative global emissions reductions — and will additionally generate $8 trillion over 30 years.

Community-led climate action

The implication of these findings are many. One of them is that decentralizing current top-down and national scale climate action projects targeting communities will accelerate the rate of greenhouse gas reduction. For example, most homes are connected to national grids, which supply electricity that’s predominantly derived from burning fossil fuels. Instead, if national governments design and scale up microgrids that can supply communities with renewable energy generated by rooftop solar panels and community-owned wind farms, that would create a faster transition to clean energy. 

Similarly, while reforestation and habitat conversation efforts like the protection of the Sundarbans are largely national projects, trusting communities living near these sites to take care of them would be more efficient. This is because people tend to care more about the places they live in than about places far away and it is also easier to act and experience the gains of these projects at a community scale than at a national scale. The other implication is triggering and fostering community-led climate action projects. Self-willed communities of 10,000 people can organize themselves and initiate projects like surplus food redistribution program “Too Good To Go” with little financial and infrastructure support. All that is needed is a platform — an app — where supermarkets and restaurants can showcase their surplus food for discounted prices that will be otherwise thrown away, and consumers can see this information and purchase them. The benefits are both environmental — reduced emissions from food wastes, and financial — reduced food price.

Similar community-owned projects succeeded in the UK — the Eden project and in Sweden — Rekoring. These projects, initiated by groups of roughly 10,000 people, developed regenerative farming, irrigation, and composting techniques to meet local needs and managed to establish regionally sustainable food production systems. These groups are now interacting directly with their local governments to secure funding and infrastructure for developing more projects that best suit them.

Indeed, politics, policies, and finance remain important for climate action. These communities can certainly do more if they are empowered, trained, financially supported, and potentially coordinated by the national and local governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Climate action requires to be seeded in community values, interests, purposes, and ideologies, and embedded in community decision-making.

Climate action communities can be formed in villages, municipalities, and cities, and also as formal or informal organizations and networks of people spread around the world communicating on virtual platforms. These communities can collaborate and share solutions, and aggregate their efforts to amplify climate action impacts globally.

Avit Bhowmik is the Research Director of Centre for Sustainable Societal Transformation, Karlstad University, Sweden, and the Lead Researcher of Exponential Roadmap Initiative.



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