It is now 27 years since the danger of climate change burst upon the global consciousness: in June 1988, in the middle of a drought so fierce that the Mississippi seemed to be drying up, Dr James Hansen of Nasa told a US senate committee that global warming had begun, and his words covered most of the front page of the next day’s New York Times.
Since then we have seen the issue become one of the world’s principal preoccupations, with increasingly refined science suggesting that if we continue to emit the carbon dioxide produced by our factories and motor vehicles, the Earth will undergo an atmospheric temperature rise this century that will destabilise the planet and human society with it.
But over those 27 years the solution to the problem, which in outline is simple – cut back on emissions of CO2 – has often seemed beyond human society’s grasp, so wedded are we to our coal, oil and gas, the fossil fuels that produce it. So what chance of success is there for the UN climate conference opening in Paris in a month, which is aiming at that elusive solution?
COP21, as it is known in the jargon (the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Climate Convention) represents a major moment in history: it will seek to produce a treaty, probably called the Paris Protocol, which for the first time legally binds all 196 member states of the UN to cut back on their carbon emissions.
An earlier agreement, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, only required 52 developed countries take action, and not by very much. The attempt to extend that to the developing nations as well fell apart at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009.
The aim of the agreement planned now is to keep the rise in global temperatures to below two degrees Celsius, which is considered the danger threshold for the world. Catastrophic rises of three, four or five degrees are forecast, if we continue “business as usual”, depending on the scenario chosen.
Some of the omens are good. China and the US, the top and second carbon emitters, with more than 40 per cent of the world total between them, used to be the biggest obstructers of progress, but now both are committed to action and to work together, and both have produced national climate plans for scaling back on CO2.
Even more, 150 countries (and counting) have produced their own climate action plans for the conference, covering nearly 90 per cent of global emissions, which means that for the first time the world is acting together to combat the problem. (The dwindling band of climate sceptics should note that no government shares their scepticism.)
But will it be enough? The blunt answer is no. Last week the UN produced its analysis of the 146 plans received by 1 October, including all the major ones, and concluded that even if they were fully implemented (and it’s a fairly big if) they would only reduce the expected rise in global temperatures to 2.7 degrees C – well above the danger threshold. Other analyses say the present plans would allow for even greater rises of three degrees or more. What the Paris conference will have to agree, therefore, if it is to be a success, is a “ratcheting-up” mechanism by which these commitments can be strengthened into progressively tighter emissions reductions, probably on a five-yearly cycle. That is a pretty big ask. What it will also have to agree is a verification mechanism, to ensure that countries are doing what they say they are, and being honest about their progress. That will involve inspections, and that will be a pretty big ask too.
General agreement could founder on either of these points. And a third point that could wreck a treaty is finance: the amount of money the rich developed countries are willing to disburse to developing countries to help them change their energy systems and move away from fossil fuels.
The devil will be in the detail. There seems to be a general willingness to act, and President Obama in particular will be keen to produce a worthwhile treaty as it would form a major component of his political legacy. But with 196 nations, all grandstanding to different audiences back home, don’t underestimate the chances of at best a fudge – leaving a problem that has vexed the world for the last 27 years vexing us still.
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