UN climate talks and the Paris deal: A bluffer’s guide

It’s a treaty like no other, that will transform the world economy – if 195 nations can agree at COP21, that is

The road to a UN climate change deal leads to Paris in 2015 (Pic: Henry Marlon/Flickr)

The road to a UN climate change deal leads to Paris in 2015 (Pic: Henry Marlon/Flickr)

By Ed King

Representatives of nearly 200 governments will descend on Paris for the first two weeks of December, aiming to thrash out a deal to tackle climate change.

They’re aiming high. A treaty at this scale has never been accomplished before, and the one under construction will affect the way the entire global economy operates.

Modern society has been built on fossil fuels, but according to climate scientists that can’t last forever.

The task of the UN’s 21st Conference of the Parties, known as COP21, will be to tread on virgin territory and get all countries to commit to slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

Since 2011, hundreds of negotiators and officials have traversed the world working on a plan for a treaty or looser pact to be agreed in 2015 and come into effect by 2020.

That’s the year the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only legally binding climate deal covering the EU, Switzerland and Norway (11% of global emissions) finally expires.

The meeting is likely to be one of the largest yet held, drawing a projected 40,000 delegates including world leaders and costing the French government €170 million.

Why the urgency?

Countries are developing faster than ever before and pumping out the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the Earth to warm.

2013 was a record year for carbon pollution; on average it’s now inching up 2% a year, a result of burning fossil fuels for energy, industry and transport.

In April 2015, the monthly global average concentration of carbon dioxide passed the 400 parts per million mark for the first time since measurements began at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958.

And it’s having a knock-on effect on global temperatures, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on global warming.

Despite a widely publicised lull in the rate of temperature rise, 2014 was the hottest year on record and 2015 is on track to beat it. The UK’s Met Office reckons 2015 will see the global average temperature pass 1C above pre industrial levels.

Future temperature rises will affect every country on the planet, according to the IPCC – some worse than others.

Sea levels could rise 1 metre by 2100 as a result of melting glaciers, crops could fail under intense heat or drought, while extreme rainfall will create flash floods and inundate urban areas.

Sounds scary. Will the UN save us?

If UN climate talks had a motto it would be: “Nothing is decided until everything is decided.”

Leading governments are making the positive noises, but it’s worth reflecting on the last time countries tried to secure a deal.

Despite huge expectations the UN Copenhagen summit in 2009 became mired in a bitter debate between rich and poor countries over the responsibility to tackle climate change.

The result was a loose and voluntary ‘Accord’ where countries offered what they thought they could get away with. As emissions soared, climate change dropped off the global agenda.

What’s different this time?

First, the economics.

“The green economy has gone from being a hypothesis to reality, by green energy providing a genuine alternative to fossil fuels and an alternative at a reasonable cost.”

The words there of former UK climate minister Greg Barker, speaking to Climate Home earlier this year, voicing a confidence that is shared by many analysts in the sector.

Take solar PV, where panel costs have fallen 80% in the last decade. In 2009, PV accounted for 23 gigawatts of capacity, now that figure stands at 177 GW, with 40GW added in 2014.

Investment in renewables and biofuels rose 17% in 2014 on 2013 levels to $270 billion. According to the REN21 report, 164 countries now have clean energy targets.

Much of this is being driven by China, where renewables investment leapt 31% in 2014. A drop in China’s coal use is also linked to recent data showing emissions flatlined in 2014.

To paraphrase a recent 196-page International Energy Agency study into nine words: Fossil fuels still dominate, but alternatives are now emerging.

Second, the politics.

The US and China climate deal last November stunned seasoned observers of these negotiations, used to the two countries bickering from afar.

China’s pledge to peak emissions by 2030 and the US goal for 26-28% carbon cuts on 2005 levels by 2025 is at the low end of ambition, but it was a sign old barriers were falling.

At the end of June the EU and China agreed a looser pact, agreeing to jointly target a low carbon future and work closely on carbon markets and green technology.

At the G7 Germany’s Angela Merkel – burnt by the Copenhagen fallout – felt strong enough to squeeze a commitment for a fossil fuel phase-out by the end of the century out of Canada and Japan.

This year’s G20 will hear back from an investigation into the financial risks associated with fossil fuels, with Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia, India, Australia and China taking part.

The IMF is on the case – releasing a ‘working paper’ revealing subsidies for polluting fuels could hit US$5.3 trillion a year, suggesting these account for an extra 20% of emissions.

And then there’s the Pope and his encyclical on the environment. Climate change is a moral issue, he says. Failure to protect the planet will leave children growing up in “filth”.

Third – big oil wants to play ball.

It started at the New York climate summit last September, when the head of Saudi Aramco addressed the UN and said he wanted to be part of a solution.

Earlier this year the CEOs of BP, Shell, Statoil and Total wrote to the UN climate chief asking for a seat at the table in Paris and offering help.

“Climate change is a critical challenge for our world,” they said. “We stand ready to play our part.”

In truth – their much-vaunted solution is just a lot more gas and a carbon price, but big oil is now out to wipe out king coal, source of most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

We’re looking good…

Not really. While some of the economic and political indicators are looking up, that’s just part of the picture.

This is an agreement that will be built from national pledges, known at the UN as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs).

As of Saturday 28 November 183 have been filed, covering more than 95% of emissions. They include the EU, US, China, India, Brazil, Russia and Mexico.

The proposed cuts take the world halfway to avoiding warming above 2C, according to the UN Environment Programme, limiting warming to around 2.7C.

The INDCs won’t be enough on their own, so governments need to craft a deal in Paris that allows them to hit a trajectory away from a 2C temperature rise.

What are the issues?

One stands out above all others. Who makes the biggest greenhouse gas cuts, who pays to help others cut, what’s the best way to ensure overall levels of ambition continue to rise?

At the centre of this lies the UN principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” to address climate change.

It means rich countries that grew from the coal and smoke of the industrial revolution should take the bigger burden of fixing the climate.

But it’s deemed unacceptable by the US and EU given the huge levels of emissions now belched out by emerging economies. China now releases more greenhouse gas per head than the EU.

Talks in Lima last December seemed to resolve this, agreeing that contributions should be judged “in light of different national circumstances,” but the question of historical responsibility is a live issue.

Paris battlegrounds
– How will rich, poor and emerging economies share the load of CO2 cuts?
– Loss and damage: Is compensation from irreversible climate impacts on the cards?
– Finance: How will the OECD group of nations meet its $100bn by 2020 goal?
– Long term goal: When and what’s the target – decarbonisation or net zero emissions?
– Technology transfer: Can major emerging economies get access to hi-tech green?

Industrialised nations say they are already making cuts and doing more too fast could hurt their economies.

Poorer nations say they have a right to develop and use fossil fuels. They also want assurances they will be helped to prepare and cope with future climate-related impacts.

In most developing country INDCs there is a common theme: Send us the money and we can do more, faster.

The dilemma could be resolved if there’s substantial financial and technology support for developing countries in Paris.

Developed countries agreed in 2010 to generate US$100 billion a year by 2020 to support developing nations build cleaner energy systems and prepare for the worst effects of climate change.

Where this money is coming from is still not clear.

So far an estimated $17 billion a year is on offer from rich countries according to the World Resources Institute, while a controversial study by the OECD says the figure is nearer $62 billion.

The rise of green bonds and rebirth of carbon markets could also offer potential revenue streams, but poorer governments say they need predictable flows.

Much is staked on the success of the UN-backed Green Climate Fund, but has just opened for business with 8 projects worth $168m.

How binding will a Paris deal be?

One seasoned UN climate observer told Climate Home he was amazed at the lack of discussion on legal issues at a recent meeting in Bonn. Another said he expected this question to run until Paris.

The EU is adamant it wants a new tough legally binding deal, but the White House is clear it will not contemplate a new treaty that needs Senate approval (which it’s unlikely to get).

China and India also seem reluctant to sign up to a pact that means they could face penalties in the future if they break emission limits.

Many also point to the case of Canada, which pulled out of the ‘legally binding’ Kyoto Protocol with limited repercussions.

More likely is a legal agreement on countries measuring, reporting and verifying their emissions either on an annual basis or over a period of years.

There’s growing momentum for Paris to ensure countries to deliver more ambitious commitments every five years, thus ensuring over time emissions are squeezed.

The options are legion – as the UN climate chief Christiana Figueres alluded to in a recent interview with Carbon Brief.

“I don’t think that the whole agreement is actually going to have the same legal nature, but rather there will be several components, key components, that will have different legal nature,” she said.

What’s the prognosis?

The signs are Paris will deliver an a new emissions slashing pact, but there remain huge questions on how ambitious it will be.

“You just have to wait until the baby is born to see its face,” says Laurence Tubiana, France’s chief climate diplomat.

At 50+ pages, the text of a proposed Paris deal is too long and littered with a swarm of options that will need to be distilled before agreement is reached.

“I would argue it’s probably not very clear to anyone walking down the street… does this put pressure on Paris? Yes. But that is what Paris is for,” says the UN’s top climate official, Christiana Figueres.

Pessimists focus on how few official negotiating days are left, but key decisions are often made outside the talks among world leaders.

It’s the first day of the Paris talks when over 100 world leaders will descend on the summit that will be critical in building momentum.

Still, don’t expect this agreement to be a silver bullet. Success will be hailed as a diplomatic rather than scientific miracle. Warming will continue, as will the talks.

“I think the ambition for Paris it to launch a global effort,” says Dan Reifsnyder, the veteran State Department official co-chairing negotiations.

“That effort will take many years to unfold but I think if we can get everyone moving in the same direction – everyone pulling an oar – some people will have a bigger oar – some will have a smaller oar.

“But we’re all rowing the boat. That’s going to be a critical win in Paris.”

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