Why the Paris climate change talks may set us on the path to a cooler planet

Michael McCarthy, our acclaimed environmental commentator, reveals his hopes and fears for next week’s conference

Michael McCarthy
Friday 27 November 2015 21:32
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‘Where the Tides Ebb and Flow’, an artwork by the Argentinian artist Pedro Marzorati, has been installed in a pond at Parc Montsouris, Paris, ahead of the two-week COP21 climate-change summit, which begins in the capital on Monday
‘Where the Tides Ebb and Flow’, an artwork by the Argentinian artist Pedro Marzorati, has been installed in a pond at Parc Montsouris, Paris, ahead of the two-week COP21 climate-change summit, which begins in the capital on Monday

Don’t expect miracles. That’s the best attitude to take to the mammoth UN climate conference opening in Paris on 30 November, where 195 countries will try to construct a comprehensive agreement to cope with the looming threat of global warming.

It’s being talked of in apocalyptic terms – “our last best chance to save the planet”, and the like. Yet despite all the fervent hopes riding upon it and the presence of nearly 150 heads of state from President Barack Obama down, it is already clear that the optimum conference outcome – a deal to keep global warming below the two-degree Celsius “danger threshold” in the years to come – is not going to be possible.

The two-week Paris meeting, officially known in the jargon as COP21 – the 21st conference of the parties to the UN climate convention – will not, therefore, provide the solution to the problem of worldwide climate change at a stroke. But if all goes well, it may provide a significant step on the road to solving it, and COP21 will be judged as a success or failure by just how big that step turns out to be.

Its principal aim, of course, is to cut the emissions of carbon dioxide from industry, transport and energy generation. It’s the remorseless build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere that is causing the warming; when accurate measurement of atmospheric CO2 began in 1958, its level was 315 parts per million, and this year the figure passed 400 ppm.

That calls for a halt to the burning of the fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – which produce it. But to switch to alternative forms of energy, to swap your coal-fired power stations for nuclear ones or for renewables such as wind and solar power, is a very expensive business, and the countries of the world have not yet shown themselves willing to do it fast enough.

21 effects of Climate Change

This became clear earlier this month, after an audit of all the voluntary pledges to cut CO2 that countries have been asked to make in advance of the conference. These pledges, or national climate plans, are officially known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs – boy, does the UN love its jargon. By this week, 149 of them had been submitted, involving 176 countries (the discrepancy in the figures reflects the fact that all the EU member states, including Britain, are covered by one INDC).

The plans cover more than 93 per cent of global CO2 emissions, including those of the three biggest emitters: China, the US and India. But when UN scientists analysed the total effect of these projected cuts earlier this month, they found that they would only hold the projected warming down to 2.7C, far in excess of the two-degree danger threshold. Some analyses suggested they might even allow warming of 3.5C, which would be catastrophic for the planet (although not as catastrophic as doing nothing, officially known as Business As Usual, which would put us on the road to a four to five degree rise).

COP21’s most important task, therefore, is to improve these pledges – remember, they are all entirely voluntary – and put the world on the “two-degree pathway”.

This cannot be done at once. So what is being proposed is a ratcheting-up mechanism, under which all countries will come back to the table, probably every five years, with new and most importantly, improved INDCs, until the two-degree pathway is reached.

This is the crucial focus: if Paris achieves this, or something like it, it will be a success, in that it will be major step towards the solution; if it doesn’t, it will in essence be a failure. (Some other elements are also crucial, most notably a transparency mechanism under which all countries submit reports on their carbon-cutting efforts, which will then be subject to international scrutiny.)

It should be said, though, that the very shape of the Paris conference already represents a big step forward, in that the whole international community is now involved in the effort to cut greenhouse gases.

The past 20 years of climate negotiations have been bedevilled by a damaging split between the rich developed countries and the poorer developing countries. The latter long took the view that the rich nations had caused most of the problem, so they should be the ones taking action to solve it. Thus the first emissions cutting treaty, the Kyoto protocol of 1997, only required the developed countries to take action.

But in those 20 years, circumstances have changed. Some of the developing countries are now themselves at the forefront of the carbon-emitters, led by China, which produces more than 25 per cent of the world’s CO2 (the US is now only the second-biggest emitter; India is the third). So it is vital that all nations join in, and with their INDCs submitted in advance of COP21, all nations have done so, for the first time.

Two announcements in recent days have only reinforced the urgency of the task. The first, from the UK Met Office, revealed that world temperatures have already risen by one of the two degrees towards the danger threshold; the second, from the World Meteorological Organisation, disclosed that 2015 will be the hottest year ever recorded, by some margin.

Yet it should also be said that the outlook for COP21 is quite good. “We’ve seen a rising political will amongst many of the major players, especially the US and China,” said one of the acutest observers of the climate-change negotiating process, Elliot Diringer of the Washington-based Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions. “There is still an enormous amount of work to be done in translating that goodwill into treaty text. There’s still a lot that can go wrong in the kitchen. But hopefully in Paris, we will have some master chefs.”

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