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A Bend in the River: ICANN Should Prepare for a 2 °C World

Katim S. Touray

Toward the end of last week, the world waited with bated breath for the outcome of the 21st annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The meeting, commonly called COP 21, was held in Le Bourget, Paris, from November 30 to December 12; a bit too soon after the terrorists attacks on Paris earlier in November. COP 21 was important because COP 15 in Copenhagen (2009) failed to arrive at a global consensus on halting the scourge of climate change, and COP 18 held in Doha in 2012 pledged that a new global compact on climate change would be achieved by 2015. Fortunately, COP 21 delivered the much-heralded Paris Agreement, which provides plenty of space for various actors, including businesses, to help reduce climate change.

COP 21 was a huge meeting, not only because of the gravity of the issues discussed, but also in terms of sheer numbers. For a start, the conference was budgeted to cost €170 million (about US$187), and as at December 12, had accredited almost 39,000 participants, including 19,385 national delegates, over 8,000 observers, and almost 3,000 media representatives. Some 2,500 meetings and 202 side events were held, and true to form, over 3,300 journeys were made in 100 percent electric vehicles; over 3,045 kg of unsold food were given out, and 70 percent of visitors came on public transport.

A bend in the river

After all was said and done, COP 21 produced the Paris Agreement which has been described by political and business leaders as "historic" and a "turning point," and as both by President Barrack Obama. The Paris Agreement confirms the commitment of governments to keep the rise in global temperature to below 2 °C, but the aim is to have an increase of no more than 1.5 °C. Toward this end, about 186 countries have submitted action plans, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), to combating global warming. Under the Paris Agreement, these INDCs will be subject to review every 5 years.

The Paris Agreement also commits countries to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and acknowledges that $100 billion will be needed to help countries adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Paris Agreement also stipulates that industrialized countries will fund climate finance for developing countries, who are also invited to voluntarily contribute to the climate fund. Finally, the Paris Agreement recognizes that it is not only the States that can combat climate change, and proposes the involvement of businesses and other actors in efforts to combat climate change.

What are businesses doing?

Businesses, especially IT companies, are jumping onto the climate change band wagon over the past decade, by voluntarily engaging in various climate change activities such as sharing best practices, promoting market mechanisms, and setting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. According to the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Change (NAZCA), the UNFCC portal to showcase climate change actions by companies, over 2,000 companies ranging from Baosteel Group Corporation to Exxon Mobil and Wal-Mart have made voluntary contributions to reducing emissions, increasing energy efficiency, and investing in renewable energy. In addition, over 1,000 companies around the world reporting to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) are using carbon pricing to drive their investments in reducing emissions.

In the same vein, business have formed various alliances and groupings such as The Climate Group, and the World Business Council for Sustainability to help the mitigate climate change and its impacts, and promote sustainable growth. In addition, 100 leaders of international companies and 9 organizations presented the "Business Proposals for COP 21” which were presented during the COP 21 meetings in Paris.

Many companies have also taken their own initiatives to reduce global warming, and mitigate climate change. Examples of such companies are Apple and Microsoft which were the only companies that received the 2015 Green Power Partner of the Year award of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in recognition of their leadership in the use of green power, and impact on the green power market. Furthermore, Apple, Google and Microsoft all have environmental policies and plans in place and at the hearts of their corporate philosophies.

Smooth operator

On the premise that climate change is everybody's business, I won't ask if ICANN should do anything about climate change, but what it should do. In this regard, the suggestions provided by KPMG are a good start for ICANN to ponder what to do in its own small way to contribute to global efforts to mitigate, and adapt to climate change. KPMG suggests that businesses should see climate change from an operational and strategic perspective, and plan along these lines.

From an operational perspective, KPMG suggests that business should fully understand and be prepared for the impact of climate change on their supply chain, or in the case of ICANN, its core mission. For example, what would be the effect of sea-level rise on data centers housing root servers given that many of them are located in cities susceptible to being flooded by a sea-level rise, or increasingly subject to periodic flooding with climate change.

Other operational considerations that might concern ICANN with regards to climate change include ensuring compliance with carbon reporting requirements, protecting brand and reputation with a clear and consistent position on climate change issues, and understanding how the INDCs made by countries in which ICANN operates are likely to affect it and/or its partners (e.g. the myriad of organizations that operate copies of root servers).

ICANN in a 2 °C world

In terms of strategy, KPMG suggests that businesses should understand how the INDCs (in the case of ICANN, the US INDC) can trickle down to them as regulation, penalties, and incentives, and anticipate regulatory carbon pricing in their business planning and risk management. Companies should also understand how climate change impacts future profits, and reassure stakeholders that they are prepared to thrive in a "2 °C world" (in which carbon emission is reduced to a level which ensures that global warming is 2 °C or less) and toward this end, should produce so-called 2 °C report. In the case of ICANN this means that it must convince stakeholders it will be able to discharge its function in 2 °C world, and should produce a 2 °C report.

KPGM also suggests companies should collaborate with their peers, suppliers and customers to mitigate climate change risks, and develop innovative products and services that emit low levels of carbon. For ICANN, this means that it should work hand in glove with the community (including industry, governments, end-users, civil society and international organizations) to assess the impact of climate change on relevant Internet infrastructure and services, and determine how these can be better managed to reduce adverse climate change effects. For example, what is the carbon footprint of ICANN meetings, and how can the meeting strategy be improved to make it environment friendly? ICANN also assess various business initiatives and climate change groups with a view toward identifying which of them would be most appropriate to its needs.

Playing toad

Will ICANN respond to COP 21, or roll over and play toad — and like the metaphorical frog, get boiled alive by global warming? The question is pertinent not only because it's being asked soon after COP 21, but also because ICANN has to answer it if it is to remain relevant to the on-going global discussion on climate change, and sustainable development. The question is also important to ICANN from an operational perspective, as evidenced by disruptions in Internet services in Asian countries, and the US where hurricanes Katrina and Sandy wreaked havoc on Internet and wireless services.

As always, the choices come with their risks and benefits, not to mention resource implications which, for an organization like ICANN, can be intimidating. Despite this, climate change and global response to it, as well as their impact on the work of ICANN cannot, and must not, be taken lightly. As noble as ICANN's work is, it must also be recognized that all of it will come to naught in a world ravaged by the effects of a climate change we all could have done our bit to avert.

By Katim S. Touray, International Development Consultant, and ICT for development advocate
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