What will come from the 2015 Paris climate talks?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 2 December 2015 in Inside Politics

Despite pessimism surrounding the sort of deal likely to emerge from Paris, there is still hope in the fight against climate change

In 1988 NASA scientist professor Jim Hansen gave evidence to the US Congress, warning that the world was warming because of human activity and that rising emissions could be dangerous.

Speaking to US policymakers, he warned: “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”

The planet is warming, and it is warming because of humans. By and large, that statement is no longer controversial, and the actors repeating it are becoming increasingly influential.

Nearly thirty years on from Hansen, a consensus has emerged that it is time to stop waffling. It is not just environmental groups worrying about climate change any more.


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When Pope Francis arrived at the UN General Assembly in September he did not hold back, reminding the world’s most powerful states of how climate change will hit the world’s most vulnerable people the hardest.

He said: “The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled, or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action.

“Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment.

“The dramatic reality this whole situation of exclusion and inequality, with its evident effects, has led me, in union with the entire Christian people and many others, to take stock of my grave responsibility in this regard and to speak out, together with all those who are seeking urgently needed and effective solutions. The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the World Summit, which opens today, is an important sign of hope. I am similarly confident that the Paris Conference on Climatic Change will secure fundamental and effective agreements.”

From businesses to governments, and from presidents to popes, the question is not whether climate change is happening, but what to do about it. The last report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided further evidence of the various effects of rising global temperatures.

Sea ice and Arctic permafrost are melting, coral reefs are being destroyed through ocean acidification and there will be more heat waves, flooding, famines and droughts across the world over the coming decades.

Climate change, it said, would hit the world’s most vulnerable people the hardest. The old, the young and the poorest will be least able to cope as food and clean water become harder to find, supply chains become insecure, populations migrate and violent conflicts over resources become more common.

And while the Pope sees climate change as a matter of social justice, the World Health Organization (WHO) has described it as “the defining issue for the 21st century”.

Calling for a strong deal on limiting emissions, the WHO warns: “The profound consequences for health are still not given sufficient attention in debates about climate change.

“In preparation for COP-21, countries have made important commitments to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and scale up adaptation to climate change, but more needs to be done. If countries take strong actions to address climate change, while protecting and promoting health, they will collectively bring about a planet that is not only more environmentally intact, but also has cleaner air, more abundant and safer freshwater and food, more effective and fairer health and social protection systems – and as a result, healthier people.”

So the Pope says climate change is about social justice, and WHO considers it to be a grave health threat. The US Department of Defence, meanwhile, is treating it as a security issue, with a report, released in July, warning: “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries.”

The DoD said: “The National Security Strategy, issued in February 2015, is clear that climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”

The report warns that persistently recurring conditions such as flooding, drought, and higher temperatures will cause mass migrations and increased numbers of refugees.

It says: “The report finds that climate change is a security risk because it degrades living conditions, human security and the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations. Communities and states that already are fragile and have limited resources are significantly more vulnerable to disruption and far less likely to respond effectively and be resilient to new challenges.”

But if a consensus appears to be emerging, it will soon be tested, with the upcoming Paris climate talks billed as the most important negotiations of their kind in history.

Tom Ballantine, chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, a coalition campaigning for action on climate change, described the conference as “a crucial moment for all of humanity”.

He said: “World leaders and diplomats are coming together with the aim of creating a legally binding and universal agreement to keep global warming below 2°C.

“We need the Scottish Government and the UK Government to use their influence to push for the strongest and most ambitious deal possible at Paris. Scotland and the UK as a whole benefited massively from the era of fossil fuels – now we need to take our fair share of responsibility for the world’s growing climate crisis.”

Much of its significance stems from the fact that the Paris talks will be the first set of negotiations since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 in which there will be a new, legally binding international agreement, and the first time since the United Framework on Climate Change, signed in 1992, that an agreement will be universal.

Peter Newell, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, told Holyrood: “This time it is more universal to reflect that since 1997 we have seen huge increase in the greenhouse gas emissions of China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, those sorts of middle income countries, and reflecting on what happened following Kyoto, when the US walked away because of precisely those concerns – that some of its major economic competitors were not included in the agreement.”

The United States was the world’s highest emitter, and this time round there was a determined effort to find a more effective model for reaching agreement. So while the Kyoto Protocol was based around agreeing specific, legally binding emission reductions for countries to apply, the Paris talks have seen states develop Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These are not commitments, but contributions which are meant to reflect each country’s ambition for reducing emissions, depending on its domestic circumstances and capabilities.

Newell says: “Basically, each country has decided, at a national level, how far they can go. It is meant to be more sector-wide economic targets – how fast can they decarbonise food, energy, agriculture, transport, and in what sort of timeframe. So the hope is that you get the buy-in beforehand, in other words, countries have really thought through whether they can really achieve these targets before they come to Paris.

“Whereas in the past there would be political negotiations at the international level and then countries would have to work out if they can really meet those targets and how. So that is the positive side of a bottom-up process. The downside is that it might encourage countries to be under ambitious and play it safe until they know what other countries are doing. Estimates have been made on the INDCs that are in and they are falling short of what the international community thinks will be a safe living space, a safe threshold.”

Put the INDCs together and you get an idea of what sort of deal we may see from Paris.

The idea of keeping warming under a two degree limit first emerged in the 1970s, according to a study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

1990 research from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) found that if humans are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, a limit should be set at two degrees.

Meanwhile, small island states continue to argue for a 1.5 degree limit to avoid a sea-level rise that would see their homes becoming uninhabitable. In fact even the SEI’s 1990 report warned that: “Temperature increases beyond 1.0°C may elicit rapid, unpredictable, and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

But the two degree mark was included in various agreements in the decades since, and one way or another, it became seen as the limit for rising temperatures, if humanity is to avoid the most dangerous effects of a changing climate.

The Paris deal is unlikely to achieve anything close to two degrees, with analysis of the INDCs already submitted suggesting states will reach a deal to keep emissions at somewhere between 2.7 and three degrees.

But while the estimate is clearly someway off the sort of deal campaigners have been pushing for, a tougher deal could still emerge during negotiations.

As Newell puts it: “In a way, these INDCs are the first offer that countries put on the table.”

He says: “The hope is that, after the offers are assessed by the UN and various research institutes and found that they would still take us up to 2.7 or three degrees, the pressure is to ratchet up those commitments. So these countries have revealed their hand, if you like, you can see what other countries are planning to deliver and so the pressure in Paris will be to get countries to be more ambitious – in other words, to go back and revise those offers. That will be one of the key battlegrounds at Paris, how to set up a review mechanism which takes what countries are doing and what they are pledging and committed to and how it can be ratcheted up over time to get to the two degree threshold.

“Countries often play down what they are able to achieve to make it more likely that they can deliver what they promise. In other words, it is quite a conservative assessment of what they could do and if pushed during the negotiations, most could be bolder and more ambitious, because what they don’t want to do is set ambitious targets they then don’t meet and then face international criticism for it. So there may be an element of countries playing safe for now and the challenge in Paris is to put pressure on, and work to get [a] clear timeframe upon which they will be assessed. So every five, ten years, rather than having long-range targets saying ‘decarbonisation by 2015’, you want to have points along the way to show where we are and where we are falling short.”

So there is hope: states could still reach a deal to keep warming under two degrees, depending on the sort of mechanism to emerge from COP21. The difficulty, though, is that the longer they wait, the harder it will be to mitigate climate change. And the longer states fail to deal with mitigation, the higher the cost of adaptation.

The same point is made in a new report from Oxfam, examining the cost of adaptation. Analysing different scenarios, the agency projects that a three-degree temperature rise would mean developing countries facing an additional £177bn more per year in adaptation costs by 2050, taking the total to £518bn. A deal keeping temperature rise under two degrees would mean states spending 50 per cent less.

The report also forecasts that developing countries would face losing £1.1trn annually to their economies by the middle of the century if global average temperatures rise by three degrees. This is £394bn more than if warming was contained to two degrees, and four times more than developed countries gave in development aid last year.

Releasing the report, Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB’s chief executive, said: “We are seeing encouraging progress towards a climate deal but settling for what we have so far would spell disaster for the world’s poorest people. One degree’s difference might seem negligible on paper, but it’s a multi-billion-dollar nightmare for the world’s poorest countries already suffering the consequences of climate change.

“World leaders have the opportunity to change this in Paris. They need to put aside their self-interest and do what is best for the world. That means greater cuts to emissions and more climate funding so vulnerable communities already facing hunger, floods and droughts can survive. World leaders need to be clear that a strong deal is needed as a springboard for further global climate action.”

And while the costs of adaptation will rise, there is a growing realisation of the opportunities available to those pursuing a low-carbon economy.

Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in Manila last month, Barack Obama said: “If we can get an agreement done it could drive new jobs and new opportunities, and investment in a global economy that, frankly, needs a boost right now. If we send a signal that this is something every nation around the world is serious about, it could be an enormous generator of opportunity.

“An ambitious agreement in Paris will prompt investors to invest in clean technologies because they will understand that the world is committed to a low-carbon future.

“That’s a signal to the private sector to go all in on renewable energy technologies.”

He added: “My message to you today is that your businesses can do right by your bottom lines and by our planet and future generations. We can transition to clean energy without squeezing businesses and consumers.”

It is hard to imagine George W Bush having made a similar statement during his own presidency, and although the INDCs submitted by states have led to a certain amount of pessimism amongst campaigners – most would like to see a deal limiting the rise to 1.5 degrees – there is also a sense that the factors required for tougher action could be starting to fall into place.

Canada has recently elected a new, more environmentally-friendly administration. The mood in Australia too appears to have shifted to a more favourable one.

Meanwhile a recent deal between the US and China suggests two of the world’s most powerful countries may be ready to properly engage.

The statement is written in typically diplomatic language, but in amongst the talk of strengthening “bilateral coordination and cooperation” and reaffirming their joint commitment towards moving to “green, low-carbon, and climate-resilient economies”, there are sure signs that they are taking the issue more seriously. As Newell puts it: “There is an openness and a willingness to engage that wasn’t there in Copenhagen.”

He said: “I think the expectation is that this needs to be a substantive, universal, legally binding agreement. I think it would be hard for most countries to go back on that now. So I think there is a lot going in favour of it. A lot of the big issues will surround finance and we need to keep climate change high on the agenda.”

And while the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations saw the European Union excluded from the final round of negotiations, Newell insists that, this time round, the EU has a role to play in strengthening the deal.

“I think the EU will play a more important brokering role this time. But unless an agreement emerged that has the backing of China and the US, and then more broadly the powerhouse economies of India, South Africa, Brazil, etc – and the EU will be in that mix as well – then nothing will happen. But I think most of them are on board now with the need for an agreement, they have all committed their INDCs, it is just a question of how far and how fast they move. That will be one of the key dynamics, in terms of the mechanisms, and the final legal form it will take.”

The odd part is that, while the US seems to have moved towards a more climate-friendly stance – Obama recently introduced tough new regulations on coal-fired power generation – the UK will arrive in Paris having apparently loosened its commitment to renewables.

In fact within weeks of forming his majority government, David Cameron was sending worrying signals to renewable developers.

Fears were confirmed with the news that support for onshore wind would be removed a year early.

More recently, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, gave a speech outlining her commitment to gas and nuclear as key parts of the UK’s energy mix.

She said: “Gas is central to our energy secure future. So is nuclear. Opponents of nuclear misread the science. It is safe and reliable. The challenge, as with other low carbon technologies, is to deliver nuclear power which is low cost as well. Green energy must be cheap energy.”

This is not the sort of message that will go down well at climate talks. But while Cameron’s government will arrive in Paris amid accusations of having backtracked on its commitment to be ‘the greenest government ever’, the Scottish Government’s officials will arrive to a different mood.

On the one hand, the country has world-leading targets of cutting emissions by at least 42 per cent by 2020. On the other, the Scottish Government has never actually hit any of its annual targets.

In fact it is this danger – of states making commitments that they later fail to honour – that led to the INDCs being adopted as the model for Paris in the first place. At least if these negotiations do not deliver the sort of deal campaigners wanted, they can ratchet up the pressure later.

For Ballantine, keeping public pressure on politicians will be key. He said: “People power has played a massive role in forcing our representatives to take this issue seriously. We’re proud that Stop Climate Chaos Scotland is the biggest civil society coalition in Scotland, with a diverse range of organisations campaigning together on climate change. Our members include environment, faith and international development organisations, trade and student unions and community groups. We have official observer status at the Paris talks, and we will be trying to make sure that the voice of people in Scotland is heard.”

And there is a feeling that pressure is building; that the voices Ballantine refers to are getting louder.

Part of the problem, at least in the past, may have stemmed from communication. Climate change is the ultimate slow-burn issue and, despite mounting evidence of the threat man-made emissions pose to the planet, it has not been much of a vote winner.

It is a global issue, requiring a global solution, from states generally better equipped to compete with each other than cooperate.

Meanwhile the science deals in probabilities. While a temperature rise of a fraction of a degree will not make headlines there is a tendency in the media to forget about the issue outside of international negotiations.

So for campaigners, the key will be to find a way to maintain pressure in the weeks and months that follow the talks.

Ed Miliband – part of the UK’s delegation in Copenhagen – makes a similar point.

Writing in the Guardian, he described his disappointment at the deal hammered out between states six years ago.

He said: “In truth, it is what has happened in the years after Copenhagen that made it not quite the disaster it appeared at the time. Slowly, steadily, the unwieldy, spatchcock UN process has rumbled on. Lessons have been learned from that chaotic episode. The idea that we should build an agreement bottom-up with countries making individual pledges, first conceived at Copenhagen, has become more serious, and every big emitter has put one forward.”

So while the INDCs, in their current shape, may appear too weak to bring the action required, hope remains that public pressure could bring something better.

As Miliband puts it: “Just like at Copenhagen, what matters as much as Paris is what happens afterwards, that is why countries are rightly seeking to build an upwards ratchet mechanism into the agreement. If these pledges are the start, not the final word – a prelude to greater ambition – then we can still avoid the most dangerous effects of global warming.”

And so a future emissions deal may depend on how pressure can be brought to bear on governments, and convince policymakers that now is the time for action. Or as Hansen would tell those gathered in Paris: stop waffling. 

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