Just a couple of days before the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) came to an end, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron made an iconic appearance at the World Conference Center in Bonn. Not only did they give a speech before the party delegates gathered in the hall, but they sent a clear message to the entire world: climate change is real and climate action is urgent. Macron told the delegates that not only is Europe leading the way in efforts to fight climate change, it can also make up for the withdrawal of the United States of America from the Paris Agreement.

“I would like to see the European countries at our side all together. We can compensate for the loss of U.S. funding,” said Macron on November 15, before the 25,000 participants of COP23. “I can guarantee that starting in 2018, the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC will have all the money that it needs and [will] enhance our decision-making. I hope Europe can replace the U.S. as a climate leader and I can tell you that France is ready for that.”

Macron speaks at COP23. America's Pledge

French President Emanuel Macron in COP23. CC: UNclimatechange

“[Macron] has to get the EU to increase its ambition,” Executive Director of Greenpeace International Jennifer Morgan tells progrss. “I don’t know if he understands what it means to take that on and how much work there is to be done.” Morgan believes that the ambition is great, but that the EU, especially France, has got a long way to go. “Mr. Macron needs to do his homework… They’re missing their renewable energy target, his comments on nuclear energy were incorrect,” she elaborates.

France derives over 75 percent of its electric power from nuclear energy. Macron said his government was “obsessed” with reducing greenhouse gas emissions across France and promised to close all domestic coal-fired power plants by 2021. However, he stressed that the country’s 58 nuclear power reactors would remain in operation as part of the climate change solution.

“Actually, if you want to go on a 100 percent renewable energy system, then the grid that is built in France for renewable energy isn’t the grid you need. Nuclear [energy] is a hindrance to building up to a 100 percent renewables in France. And he was talking about storage, but actually if we [are] to decentralize energy systems, it’s not about a big storage,” she adds.

On the other hand, Morgan understands what the French president is driving at: “I think if you look at the history of the climate negotiations, it’s been the European leadership – especially back in Kyoto [and] Copenhagen…that was pushing for stronger targets,” she concludes.

Jennifer Morgan on America's Pledge

Jennifer Morgan CC: Greenpeace.

The U.S. Climate Action Center at COP23 was organized by a coalition that includes The American Sustainable Business Council, B Team, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Center for American Progress, Ceres, CDP, Climate Mayors, Climate Nexus, C40, C2ES, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Entrepreneurs, Georgetown Climate Center, ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), National League of Cities, Rocky Mountain Institute, Second Nature, Sierra Club, The Climate Group, We Mean Business, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

We Are Still In” is a bottom-up network supported by many individuals and organizations. America’s Pledge is a separate initiative spearheaded by Former New York Mayor and UN Special Envoy Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown that is working in parallel with “We Are Still In” to compile and tally the climate actions of states, cities, colleges, businesses, and other local actors across the entire U.S. economy.

Lou Leonard, Senior Vice President on Climate Change and Energy at WWF, took part in the U.S. Climate Action Center Pavilion. Asked about his opinion of Macron’s proposal, he tells us: “One of the places where we miss U.S. leadership the most is on public-sector finance.” In an attempt to compensate for this, New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg pledged $15 million to cover the financial gap that the U.S. withdrawal is leaving.

“It’s a good thing that [Macron] said that. In the overall leadership, we need other countries to step up at the national level because the U.S. is stepping back,” he says. “EU certainly needs to be one of those [players]. I think what leadership looks like for me in the EU includes setting stronger NDCs [nationally determined contributions] in the next couple of years. I think – in some way – that’s going to be the biggest test of that leadership. So far, they’ve got a long way to go to get their protocol pollution inline to be able to do that, but I think more leadership from France, more leadership from Germany – which we didn’t see yesterday (on November 15) – [is] what we need. That’s what the Paris Agreement was designed to do, because everybody is in.”

Leonard explains further why it’s important to take climate action inline with the Paris Agreement, in spite of the debate around its ambiguity and problems with it not being legally binding. He says that climate change is a global problem and for years, without having a framework that all parties could agree to, it was just too easy for everybody to say: “‘Well, I’m not going to do my part because China is not doing theirs,’ and China would say “I’m not going to do my part because the U.S. is not doing theirs.’ Then [the] Europeans would say, ‘Oh India’s really the problem.'”

“The Paris Agreement [is] not perfect, for sure, [all of] us wanted a stronger agreement, but the thing is it worked because we have a single place for everybody working together and [we] have global goals that are roughly at the level of ambition that we need, like 1.5° C, global 2° C – these are science-based goals,” he says. “For the first time, you have not [only] everybody signing on to the agreement, but everybody coming and saying ‘this is what I’m going to do at home.'”

These commitments are not enough, Leonard admits. But he also finds that the Paris Agreement bridges the commitments countries have made with global goals. “The [Paris Agreement] says every five years we’re going to take stock of how we’re doing and we’re going to bring everybody back together and…say ‘you need to increase your ambition’ because we need to keep bending the curve towards the global goals [with time],” Leonard says. “That’s why the next couple of years between now and 2020 are so important, because it’s the five-year cycle that is supposed to ratchet up ambition.”

In the U.S. – at the national level – politics is very broken and stuck, Leonard tells us. “What we find is that on the local level, climate change is much less political. When we opened this [U.S. Climate Action] Center a week ago [at COP23], our first speaker was a republican mayor from a deeply red state – Indiana – and he was explaining why at the local level, it’s much easier to talk about climate change,” he says. “It’s much more real to people, because they see it happening in the community – so I think it de-politicizes the issue on the local level, which then opens up a whole level of opportunities to add.”

One of the big issues that has been talked about a lot at this year’s COP is that the transport sector in the U.S. has moved from being the second highest source of emissions in the country to the first. Leonard explains that this is partially because the power sector’s emissions are in decline. “Renewable energy is becoming cheaper, corporations want to buy renewables, the market is driving renewables, so emissions from that sector are going down,” he says. “That’s where mayors have a lot of power; they’re the ones who set transportation plans for the local community, they [make] land-use decisions about where the roads go, where the housing goes, where the public transit goes, so I think that all of those issues that we don’t think about as climate change are actually decisions that affect the future of emissions in our communities. Having the mayors here and committed is how we actually get at those drivers of emissions.”

Leonard points out the importance of America’s Pledge report because it shows the potential for these types of actors to have an impact. “Everyone will say it is great that these [U.S. local] leaders [came to Bonn], but what impact can they have? America’s Pledge showed the footprint of this larger set of actors,” he says. “The report is a good reminder of the potential, and next year when the second version of this report comes out, it will be important because it will be able to add [to] what happened to the rest of the movement between now and then.”

Lou Leonard on America's Pledge

Leonard raises a sign that reads: “Cheap, easy, smart, clean, doable” at the WWF climate march in April 2017. Courtesy of Lou Leonard’s Twitter.

While it doesn’t look like the U.S. president will change his country’s stance on the Paris Agreement anytime soon, Leonard says that is not a priority, and that these U.S. cities committed to the Paris Agreement aren’t going to wait for Washington. “This is more about creating a new face of leadership on climate in the United States. We have no ask for the president; many of these same actors asked the president not to pull the U.S. out of the [Paris Agreement], but he decided that’s what he wants to [do] anyway.”

There are plenty of things that people can do on a grassroots’ level to decrease carbon emissions, like choosing to buy only renewable energy for their utilities – by buying electric cars, if feasible, or taking public transit or thinking about the food they eat. “But we need to realize that this is not just an individual issue, this is a system issue. So that means that the role of people should be to push their leaders to do more,” he argues. “These actors; the mayors, the governors, the companies, they are here saying ‘we are leaders,’ but they need to be reminded when they get home that they told the world that they’re leaders and they need to do more – so that means there’s a role for individuals to put pressure on these actors to do more.”