Solana Beach leader participates in climate talks in Paris

Solana Beach Deputy Mayor Peter Zahn outside the main conference center in Paris.

Although the second smallest city in San Diego County, Solana Beach had its very own representative during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

Also known as the 21st Conference of Parties or COP21, the Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 climate talks brought people from 196 countries together to discuss saving the planet. Among them was Solana Beach Deputy Mayor Peter Zahn, who praised the historic climate change agreement that was approved.

“A lot of us are very happy with how it went, but now the hard work starts,” Zahn said. “Every single country came in with a pledge and detailed information about how they are going to accomplish their goals around climate change — but they’re not easy. It’s going to take changes in the way we live.”

Zahn was part of a delegation called the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York City-based nonprofit international environmental advocacy group.

Having known people from the nonprofit through their international work, Zahn volunteered to join them in Paris. He arrived for the second week of the talks.

“Not only was it good to be with them, but they really are so knowledgeable about what’s going on,” he said. “It made my experience more valuable to be working with them.”

Zahn also spent time with members of the sizable delegation from the state of California. Led by Gov. Jerry Brown, the delegation included local leaders such as Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego).

Just prior to state officials arriving in Paris, California pledged to make all new passenger vehicles sold in the state zero-emission by 2050. The state joined with 12 partners in Europe and North America in the pledge, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont in the United States; Québec in Canada; and Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom in Europe.

“I was fortunate to be involved with their group as well. They just did a great job representing California,” Zahn said.

“It was really great to be an elected official from the state of California in the midst of all that was going on,” he added. “It was a really eye-opening experience, and an exhilarating one.”

Zahn participated in several meetings and other events, among many different interests groups advocating their positions on the matter.

“We were, in essence, advocating for an agreement that would be most favorable to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the devastating impacts of climate change,” he recalled.

Delegates from 196 countries approved the landmark climate accord on Dec. 12 to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The overarching goal of the Paris Agreement is to reduce pollution levels so that the rise in global temperatures is limited to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial averages. The agreement also aims to restrict the temperature increase even further, to 1.5 degrees C, if possible.

“It’s really very strong,” Zahn said. “A lot of people in the scientific community believe that global temperature increase that’s over 2 degrees Celsius is going to have devastating, irreversible impact.”

The planet has already been impacted, and learning about the damage during the conference, Zahn said, was hard to hear.

“I hadn’t realized the full extent of it, but there were many presentations from scientists all over the world,” said Zahn, noting that La Jolla-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography was one of the many presenters.

From ongoing droughts to rising sea levels, the effects of climate change are evident around the globe. Representatives from small island countries, for example, shared how their homes are being overcome by sea level rise, Zahn said.

“It’s pretty intense and it’s very real,” he said. “There’s already relocations going on.”

Locally, Solana Beach is doing its part.

Shortly before Zahn left for his nine-day trip, the council agreed to join the Compact of Mayors.

Created at the 2014 United Nation Climate Summit, the Compact of Mayors is the world’s largest coalition of city leaders addressing climate change by pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, tracking their progress and preparing for the impacts of climate change. A total of 449 cities, representing more than 391 million people worldwide have already committed to the Compact of Mayors, according to the coalition’s website.

The city of Solana Beach has strived to be a more sustainable community for years.

The city was the first in the county to ban single-use plastic bags in 2012. In 2015, Solana Beach also became the first to prohibit polystyrene food containers. Also at the end of last year, the council formally created a Climate Action Commission, moving another step forward to developing a climate action plan for the city.

To assist with the plan’s development, the advisory group will help update the city’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory, set reduction targets, implement mitigation measures and perform periodic monitoring, verification and evaluations. Zahn and Councilwoman Lesa Heebner will serve on the commission.

“In the discussions in Paris, and even in the final agreement, there is recognition of the important role of cities in enabling this reduction of greenhouse gases worldwide,” said Zahn, who added that none of his travel or other expenses for the trip was paid for by the city or with taxpayer funds.

“The role of cities is so important,” he said. “In Paris, there were very valuable gatherings of cities, city leaders coming together. I was glad to be able to participate in some of those. There’s a lot of benefit to sharing information because cities have a lot in common in terms of how they’re going to address these issues.”