The Paris climate talks begin next week and the forecasts are positive. It is widely believed that – unlike previous efforts, in Kyoto in 1997, and Copenhagen in 2009 – a deal will emerge that brings together more than 200 countries, responsible for all the world’s carbon emissions. Given the hurdles, this would be no small feat of diplomacy. The trouble is that the bar has been lowered to increase the likelihood of international co-operation, but may yet be left so low that the world is only marginally diverted from a disastrous rise in temperature.
The two previous UN conferences failed for a variety of reasons, Kyoto primarily because the US Congress failed to ratify the deal agreed, Copenhagen because too little preparation in advance left delegates facing a mountainous task. Both also took place with little enthusiasm from China, now the world’s largest polluter. And in 2009, many nations were too busy firefighting the economic crisis to commit resources to global warming.
The skies today are clearer. Barack Obama intends to skirt Congress entirely, thus not risking the Republican-dominated body blocking any US contribution; preparations for Paris have been under way for four years, providing a more developed launch-pad than ever before; China is now serious about reducing emissions, and has signed a preliminary accord with the US that unites the world’s two largest polluters in a vital statement of intent. The attacks on Paris will keep the mood sombre, but should not derail progress.
The broad consensus among nations that action is required is as cheering as it is novel. But its strength has perhaps been exaggerated. In reality, each country has been left to devise its own climate plan, an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, which will then – no matter how low or high it stands – form part of whatever agreement is reached. The 177 proposals submitted so far cover 97.2 per cent of emissions and should, if followed to the letter, see a rise in global temperature of 2.7C – well above the 2C considered an acceptable target, not to mention the 1.5C many believe to be the “safe” limit.
The appearance of a deal is of paramount importance: the “noise”, for once, may be more important than the “signal”. If investors believe world leaders are serious about reducing CO2 emissions, they may divert more funds to green projects and infrastructure. But that leaves rather a lot to chance. Pragmatism may rule out a legally binding treaty imposed on all nations but that remains perhaps the only weapon, alongside a global price on carbon, sufficient to the task.
In the absence of a strong legal treaty, delegates must push for a “ratchet” mechanism requiring nations to upgrade their commitments over time. Rigorous transparency on CO2 emissions is also a sine qua non. And the rich, historical polluters must strengthen their commitment to pay developing countries to taper their emissions (and so miss some benefits of economic growth). The US is struggling to raise the $3bn it promised to the Green Climate Fund, which aims to raise $100bn by 2020. Poorer countries will surely renege on their plans if such aid is not forthcoming.
If such commitments are forthcoming then the deal will be the best within reach. Unfortunately, that reach is limited, and for all the hopes on its shoulders, Paris reveals the limitations of global treaties on climate change. Much still relies on the price of renewable energy continuing to plummet. Make no mistake, we will see progress. It just may not be enough.
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