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Our Insights 18 Nov 2015

Paris. We’re Halfway There.

By Geoff Lye
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon adds his name to those of the participants of the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, taking place on the margins of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21). Image © CC United Nations Photo via Flickr

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon adds his name to those of the participants of the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, taking place on the margins of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21). Image © CC United Nations Photo via Flickr

This is the first in a series of blogs I will produce in the fortnight running up to COP 21 and through the conference itself. As a regular attendee and reporter from most COPs since the Bali conference in 2007, I must admit to a feeling of déjà vu. The world’s leaders will be coming together in yet another of the UN’s last chance climate saloons to try to deliver a global agreement to avoid breaching the 2°C threshold.

After COP 17 in Durban I decided, in frustration at the lack of progress, not to attend future events. Yet here I am – travel and hotels booked – excited once again in anticipation of joining the biggest ever assembly1 of climate professionals, activists, politicians, technologists, scientists and economists. For the first time, however, I have failed to get accreditation to the UN’s Blue Zone – and I know that my blogs will be weaker for that. But at this COP, most of the most interesting events and networking venues are outside the formal conference. This will create a far more open environment for most attendees and I can guarantee that there will be no shortage of surprising, inspiring and, in equal measure, depressing stories over the coming weeks.

Last week, the UK’s Met Office and the Climate Research Unit reported 2015’s global mean temperature breaching 1°C above pre-industrial levels for the first time2. In the short term, this will be attributable in part to the El Nino effect, but the significance of this milestone cannot be overstated. We are now effectively half way to the 2°C threshold which scientists and world governments have set as the point beyond which we are likely to tip into dangerous climate change. Or, as it has been succinctly put, only by staying below 2°C can we ‘avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable’ consequences of climate change.

In a separate report, the World Meteorological Office highlighted the passing of another key, irreversible climate milestone: carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere breached the 400 ppm threshold briefly in the Northern hemisphere during 2014 and globally early in 2015. We will, according to the WMO’s Secretary General, “soon be living with globally averaged CO2 levels above 400 parts per million as a permanent reality.”

Many scientists and NGOs are increasingly pushing for lower thresholds for CO2 concentrations (with 350.org building a global movement around a 350 ppm limit3) and for average warming (the current COP 21 draft text still includes the – admittedly unlikely – option of setting the limit at 1.5°C). We also know that the voluntary country emissions reduction targets would, if delivered, result in temperature increases of about 2.7°C by 21004 – well into ‘dangerous’ territory.

In this first blog, I will focus on scene-setting and offer my assessment of where the draft text of the COP 21 agreement stands and the main sticking points. The latest draft text can be found here. A quick skim will show how little of the text is agreed (square brackets indicate that it is still under negotiation). Worryingly, even the key reference point in terms of the maximum global temperature increase that countries will sign up to still includes all of the following possibilities:

Hold the increase in the global average temperature below 2 °C; or below 1.5 °C; or well below 2 °C; or as far below 2 °C as possible.

Furthermore, the current 50+ pages of draft text include a range of qualifications which will almost certainly come back to haunt the process as individual countries look, in future years, for ways to dilute or defer their commitments. Just one example:

“A developing country Party may adjust its [emissions reduction target] when severely affected by an extreme natural event, force majeure, or when adequate finance, technology development and transfer, and capacity building support is not available;”

Even the most junior lawyer could find many defenses from that list to justify not meeting the commitments.

I am happy to leave it to the negotiating teams to eliminate the square brackets, but given the need for unanimous agreement, the most likely outcome, I judge, will be to take the pragmatic route on all but the most critical points of the text and, as negotiating time runs out, simply cut text rather than seek agreement. Ignoring the textual challenges, the key, substantive sticking points seem to be the following:

  • What will the legal status of the agreement be? The UN has set a clear goal that the outcome of COP 21 would be legally binding. My understanding, however, is that any legally binding measures will be limited to technical aspects such as reporting and measurement procedures (while country commitments will, in effect, be voluntary). It is also likely that the current political situation in the US will severely limit what their delegation can sign up to. According to a recent article in the FT, John Kerry, US secretary of state, insisted in an interview that any agreement in Paris ‘was definitively not going to be a treaty’ and that there were ‘not going to be legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto’.
  • Probably the most difficult and most contentious issue is the question of finance. Developing economies want developed countries to provide financial help to transition to low carbon economies including access to new technologies and skills as well as to help them adapt their infrastructures to cope with the likely damage from climate change. Developed countries are wary of committing forward funding whilst they are still in recovery mode from the financial crash. Furthermore, there remains a deep suspicion in the developing countries’ camp that funding will not really be additional; nor that whatever is promised will actually be delivered. Their experience to date would tend to support their suspicion. Turning the proposed $100 billion of annual funding from a promise to reality does not currently look likely; and without it, delivering on commitments to cut emissions looks equally unlikely.
  • Linked to the issue of finance is the challenge of how to allocate the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR). Whilst it is not unreasonable that the developed nations who have emitted the vast majority of historic greenhouse gases should take primary responsibility for addressing the problems they have caused, it is equally true that the trajectory of developing economies’ emissions is what will most probably take us over the 2 degree threshold. This issue has been a major block to progress over many years and will, no doubt, lead to brinkmanship and crude bartering in the final days of COP21. Bartering will probably focus on how the burden of financing the transition will be allocated.

A very useful insight into others’ expectations of COP 21 is theGlobeScan/SustainAbility survey of a wide variety of stakeholders involved in the sustainability field. The vast majority of respondents (92%) expect that COP21 will result in a new global agreement to limit emissions. However, 60% of these expert respondents believe that the agreement will not have binding powers; while only 4% think that the international community will reach an agreement that would contain global warming under 2°C. Of those polled, close to 90% believe that the future contribution of national governments and business will be key to its implementation. However, gaps between recent performance and future expectations mean that both institutions will have to significantly step up their efforts. In summary, based on historic experience and past failures of the key actors to deliver, COP 21’s likely outcome will be a welcome but inadequate response to what is now widely seen as the greatest security risk facing future generations.

With 1°C of warming behind us, this writer’s glass is distinctly half-empty when it comes to believing that Paris will deliver the commitments necessary to avoid the 2°C threshold.

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