Nearly 150 world leaders, a concentration second only to the UN General Assembly, gathered in Paris today to open the COP21. Delegates have 12 days to deliver a new and enduring international climate regime that will put the world on track to a ‘2 degrees’ target. Stakes are high, expectations and media attention as well. But does it all matter?
Climate change – origins and consequences
The first industrial revolution has defined pretty much everything of our current lifestyle. The invention of assembly lines and steam power propelled the world into the capitalistic age. The economic production model moved away from agriculture to industry, from countryside to urban centres. Estimates indicate that between 1800 and 1850, the golden age of the industrial revolution, the part of the UK population living in cities rose from 10 percent to 50 percent, from 900.000 to nine millions.
One central element in this evolution is the use of coal and petrol. These two natural resources drove the economy to unprecedented level of production and still are the foundation of our modern economy. However, there is a major downside: the economic model used to rely exclusively on the consumption of finite resources at an unsustainable rate and the release of huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Three centuries later, the concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere has never been so high and the effects can already be felt on our environment: according the European Environment Agency, ‘the last decade was the warmest since global temperature records became available’.
The main goal of a Paris agreement is to keep the world below the ‘two degrees’ threshold. The greenhouse gases have already accumulated in the atmosphere so much that a temperature increase is unavoidable. At current policies, global warming will reach 3.6 degrees above pre-industrial level by 2100. 2015 is a tipping point: it is the very first year that global average temperatures are one degree over pre-industrial times. It means the climate is already changing. What is left is damage control.
Scientists have for long tried to model the effects of climate change on our daily lives. It turns out to be a difficult task due to the systemic approach it requires and the many potential impacts it might have (food shortage, supply chain disruption, increased risk of conflicts due to scare access to raw material). Our prosperity and security are however at risk. A 1.5 degree increase has significantly less uncertainties regarding future threats but does not eliminate them. Two degrees is not a panacea, it is just a threshold we think we can still adapt to.
The long walk of climate negotiations
At Rio in 1992, UN member states signed the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) with the aim of ‘stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere’. International multilateral negotiations to reduce greenhouse have since taken place within this framework.
The Kyoto Protocol, agreed thanks to the ‚Climate chancellor’ Angela Merkel and adopted at COP3 in 1997, is an international agreement which sets binding targets for 2012, with a heavier burden on industrialised countries considering their past contributions to global warming. It was the first agreement between nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The protocol was an important step, but not the end of the road. The US never ratified the protocol and its late entry into force (1997 with a goal in 2012) made the pledges unachievable within such a short timeframe but also useless considering the dramatic increase of emissions during this very period (+40%).
Leaders met in Copenhagen in 2009 to address the shortcomings of the Kyoto protocol and its upcoming expiration date. The talks were mishandled (other things went wrong) with the Danes proposing a compromise text, agreed only between the major industrial countries in the last hours of the summit. It failed.
COP21 in Paris
The twenty-first meeting of the conference of the UNFCCC parties (COP) is currently happening in Paris with the hope of launching a new regime. This COP has been cautiously prepared though previous COP by agreeing some language: the 2 degrees’ threshold was agreed at Cancun in 2010 while the need for a binding document to be agreed at COP21 was signed off in 2011 at Durban. 2015 was chosen as the best date as it should not be polluted with electoral cycles in US, China, India and Brazil.
Beyond economic or environmental concerns, the world needs an agreement. France has mobilised its entire diplomatic machine to deliver a deal. The French diplomatic savoir-faire will be under high pressure trying to conciliate diverging national interest of 195 parties but the country needs an agreement to prove the world that France still counts among the big players. The international community also needs an agreement to prove itself diplomacy is still working: multilateral trade discussions have stopped and the international agenda is dominated by security concerns and bilateral diplomacy.
The negotiators will work on a text that is largely still open (see here) but the main point of attention will be the following.
A regime: learning from the Kyoto mistakes, the Paris agreement will set up a new universal climate regime. The text should include a series of requirements with different time scale, from short term to long term (complete decarbonisation), an ambition mechanism through which parties will review their ambition regularly and safeguards to guarantee transparency and accountability;
Capturing the INCDs’ ambition: for the first time in climate talks parties submitted to the UNFCCC their greenhouse gas reduction pledges ahead of the negotiation talks. These pledges are known in the UN jargon as INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution). It was a huge success by showing the countries’ commitment to the talk (183 pledges have been filed, covering more than 95% of emissions). According to the UN, the ambition is however lacking: current pledges put the world only half way to stay within two degrees increase;
Legal nature of the agreement: Europeans are pushing for a legally-binding text. The US is however more than sceptical about this proposition as a treaty would have to be approved by the US Senate which has already swore to kill any Presidential attempt to ratify the Treaty. It seems a no-go. However, it is likely that some parts of the agreement will have legally-binding elements while others, most of it, do not;
Long term collective goal: in Copenhagen, parties agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees. But it remains to be seen how this goal will be translated in the text and in policy objectives: complete decarbonisation by 2100? 80 to 95% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 by developed countries as advised by the UN?
Finance, adaptation and loss and damages: Even if officially the separation between developed and developing countries does not stand anymore in these talks (party due to the exceptional development of China and its constant refusal to be considered as a developed nation), the most vulnerable countries to climate change turn out to be the poorest of the Planet. For them to sign any agreement, there is a need to recognise a differentiated responsibility in the talks. Developed countries agreed to commit $100bn per annum by 2020 to support climate actions in developing countries in Copenhagen but there is still no evidence on how these finance flows will be mobilised. This is definitely an element to watch for an agreement to be acceptable to all parties;
Real economy: the cost of renewable energy is at its lowest, a level that even the most ambitious proponents of the technology could not imagine so early. But the transition needs to capitalize on private money. The Paris agreement should send a strong signal to investors to prove them that fossil fuels are phased out and renewables are the future. Real economy reactions to the agreement will probably be one of the best benchmark to assess the agreement against.
An agreement is likely – but an ambitious one?
Current talks are dominated by the US and China: the announcement earlier this year by both countries to cut their emissions and the sustained dialogue between the two nations is a very positive signal. In Copenhagen, distrust between the partners was at its highest and participated in the failure of the summit. This ‘G2’ domination marginalised the EU. Often considered as the front-runner of climate ambition and policy innovation, the group lost most of its influence due to internal incoherence but can still play a key role in bringing together developed and developing countries and steering them towards an agreement.
Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Russia do not want an agreement, or the weakest possible if one has to be concluded, because of their economic dependence on oil and gas exports. But they will probably be marginalised because of the importance of coalitions and the social pressure: no one wants to be blamed for having derailed the talks.
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Graduate from the Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Liège (MA, 2012) and the Department of European Political and Administrative Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges (MA 2013). Intern at the European Movement Belgium (2010) and the Group of Research and Information on Peace and Security (Brussels, 2013). He is since associated researcher at GRIP and member of the political cabinet of a Belgian Minister, dealing with European and International Affairs.