Yvo de Boer: Paris was a small step for mankind, a giant leap for man

Climate summit’s achievements were modest, but political writing is now on the wall writes former UN climate chief

(Pic: Martin Fisch)

(Pic: Martin Fisch)

By Yvo de Boer

The COP21 Paris summit was a triumph and milestone in that it put the international climate process back on track.

The Paris agreement was the strongest ever reached by both rich and poor countries as 187 countries submitted their national plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There are no countries left that will only take climate action if they are paid to do so. A significant number of developing countries, including Rwanda, Fiji and India are committed to taking initiatives to combat the issue of climate change and move towards a green and sustainable future.

From environmental and development perspectives, 2015 was a momentous and positive year for three reasons.

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First, the Paris Climate Change Conference needed a shot of adrenaline after all the struggles and disappointments, including in Copenhagen. A clear agenda is in place now to increase the level of ambition overtime and this in itself was a breakthrough in the international climate process.

Second, Paris wasn’t the only successful event last year. Fruitful outcomes were achieved at the International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa.

The conference has put the debate on finance in a realistic context by recognising that financing for development is not only about aid, but also about mobilising domestic capital, which means better taxation and governance and catalysing resources from the private sector.

Thus, it is critical to develop a conducive environment for investors and a favourable investment climate that the private sector would be interested in investing in.

Last, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have a broader sustainability agenda and a diverse set of objectives, helping to mobilise greater investment and resources.

The Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), a member-based international organisation I serve as Director-General, is working in Rwanda, Colombia, Senegal, Ethiopia and the Philippines to establish and strengthen national finance vehicles through providing management support, linking the funds with Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and SDGs and attracting private financing through de-risking of projects.

Looking ahead, despite all the achievements at COP21, there needs to be a stronger sense of honesty, objectivity and reality. The Paris outcomes remind me of Neil Armstrong when he stepped onto the surface of the Moon.

The outcomes of Paris are almost the reverse of his famous line, “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” COP21 ended with an agreement and achieved a political breakthrough, but it was a small step for mankind because the commitments agreed in Paris are modest from the perspective of environmental challenges.

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The outcomes were certainly not good enough to get us down to the 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees that were referred to in Paris.

The overriding challenge is to ask the question of how, in the coming years, we could increase the level of ambition to translate the political outcomes of Paris into action on the ground to address climate change.

Given that the commitments made in Paris were not very ambitious, it is understandable that the agreement will send out a relatively weak signal to markets. A message that needs to be addressed to investors is that fossil fuels have no future and renewables are the way to go.

A good example is a battery storage technology, which has made significant strides and advancement. According to a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the falling price of technology plus greater efficiency means that solar panels and wind often remain cheaper than gas.

To conclude, although the Paris commitments were not as strong as we hoped, the political writing is very clearly on the wall and we are seeing technological development advances by the private sector.

Yet, there is no reason to despair. More horses were sold after the internal combustion engine was invented than before. Market signals are important, but technological transitions also take time.

Those who are the fast movers of technological advancement will position themselves for the successes of tomorrow while those who choose to ignore them will have no future in the long term.

Yvo de Boer is the director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute and was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2006 to 2010

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