At the end of this month, the world’s leaders will gather in Paris in an attempt to forge a new global agreement to combat climate change. France, the conference host, has staked its reputation on a successful outcome to the talks, and has mobilised the full force of its diplomatic machinery in an attempt to bring them to a successful conclusion.
How did we get here? The basic science behind the greenhouse effect has been understood since the nineteenth century, but it was only in the late 1980s that the issue emerged on the global political agenda. Over the two and a half decades since, the governments of the world have attempted to forge a collective response to climate change. The record is not encouraging.
The Paris conference will be the most significant such gathering since the ill-fated 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen. Expectations in advance of the talks are high, though many ‑ including the French hosts and head of the United Nations climate change secretariat Christiana Figueres ‑ have attempted to manage expectations.
Why does the Paris conference matter? The aim of the talks is to agree a global accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions for the period beyond 2020. There is a consensus within the scientific community that these emissions are causing global temperatures to rise. While there is still some uncertainty around exactly how sensitive the world climate system is to a given increase in greenhouse gas emissions, there is sufficient certainty to know that global emissions need to be reduced significantly over the coming decades.
Despite thousands of hours of climate negotiations over the past twenty-five years, the world remains dangerously off course. The UN estimates that, by 2020, global emissions are likely to be eighteen to twenty-three percent above a level that would limit global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius ‑ a critical threshold according to many climate scientists.
The overall aim, therefore, is clear. What is less clear is how this can best be achieved. Opinion has been divided between advocates of two approaches to building a global response. On one hand, advocates of a so-called “top down” model argue that each state should be allocated a legally binding emission limitation target based on some agreed distribution of an overall, scientifically determined global target. Progress towards these targets is then subject to external assessment, with measures such as sanctions to deal with non-compliance.
On the other hand, proponents of a “bottom up” approach argue that each state should pledge a particular target based on an assessment of what is domestically feasible and achievable. The sum of these national targets therefore does not necessarily correspond to the requirements of scientific assessments of what action needs to be taken globally. The bottom-up approach also typically lacks a way of punishing states who do not meet their obligations.
Current negotiations due to be concluded at the Paris summit have been characterised by a predominantly bottom-up logic. Countries were asked to submit pledges of national climate action in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) by October 1st, 2015. The clue is in the name: these pledges are determined according to national circumstances – that is in a bottom-up manner ‑ as opposed to being imposed from above.
The collective effort set out in all of these national pledges has been estimated to add up to a projection of 2.7 degrees of warming, well above the two degree limit. Moreover, although the legal status of the Paris agreement remains unclear at this stage there will not be strong penalties for non-compliance. This disappoints some environmentalists, but expecting an agreement that will strongly punish non-complying states misunderstands the nature of global climate politics.
Among various contentious issues that have dogged global climate talks, issues of equity and fairness ‑ who should do what and when, and who should pay ‑ have been among the most intractable. The 1992 United Nations Framework on Climate Change sets out the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR). This principle recognises that, although all countries of the world share responsibility for the earth’s climate, they have varying degrees of responsibility for the causes of climate change ‑ greenhouse gases ‑ as well as varying levels of capability to respond to the challenge.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol obliged developed countries to limit their emissions but did not impose a similar obligation on developing countries. In a significant departure, the Paris negotiations implicitly accept the view that all countries should be required to take action. The negotiations are aimed at coming up with an agreement “applicable to all Parties”, and all large developing countries ‑ including China, India, and Brazil ‑ have come forward with pledges of climate action over recent months.
Against this backdrop, an important aspect of the Paris negotiations focuses on what has been labelled “transparency” ‑ common rules for monitoring, reporting, and verifying countries’ greenhouse gas emissions. One of the key functions provided by many international agreements is to ensure that all countries can know what their negotiating counterparts are doing. This helps to build trust and, in circumstances where countries are concerned about the competitive disadvantages of “going it alone”, such transparency can play a key role in enabling countries to go further than they would otherwise do. Controversies in recent months concerning the reliability of China’s greenhouse gas emissions statistics underscore the importance of this issue, as does the ongoing Volkswagen emissions scandal in Europe.
Because the sum of all national climate pledges announced as part of the Paris negotiations is insufficient, another important aspect of the negotiations involves building a mechanism to review the adequacy of countries’ efforts periodically; this is likely to mean every five years. Such a mechanism is currently under negotiation. This is important, not just because the current level of effort is insufficient, but also because the cost-benefit calculations of countries are likely to change over the coming years.
Also critical, particularly for developing countries, is climate finance ‑ money from developed countries for climate change responses in the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries. Under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, developed countries pledged to mobilise $100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020 from both public and private sector sources. Questions remain over where this funding will come from, as well as arrangements for climate finance beyond 2020.
Developing countries are also concerned overall at the balance in the negotiations between mitigation (tackling the causes of climate change) and adaptation (dealing with the consequences of climate change). Developing countries accuse developed countries of focusing too much on the mitigation side of the equation. Since they are on the front lines of climate impacts and also least equipped to respond, developing countries want more emphasis placed on ‑ and more support from developed countries for ‑ their adaptation efforts.
One of the more promising developments over recent years has been the increasing proliferation of climate policies at the domestic level across a range of key states. One reason for this shift is that the impacts of climate change are becoming more visible. While it is difficult to specify the role of climate change in any single event, high-profile extreme events such as Superstorm Sandy in New York have drawn attention to future risks of climate change.
Furthermore, the cost of alternative energy sources has declined rapidly in recent years. According to recent reports, wind energy is now cost-competitive without supports with fossil fuels in several countries around the world and solar energy too is closing the cost gap. Partly as a result of these developments, global climate politics is a good deal more complicated ‑ but also arguably more positive ‑ than ten or even five years ago.
In the United States, President Obama has belatedly brought the US back to the negotiating table, making climate a key theme of his second term. The US has pledged to reduce emissions by twenty-six to twenty-eight per cent by 2025 relative to 2005 levels. With both houses of Congress currently controlled by the Republican Party and partisan division over climate change as marked as ever, Obama has had to rely on executive action ‑ rather than new legislation ‑ to pursue his domestic climate agenda. The political colours of the next incumbent in the White House will have a large bearing on the future of US climate policies.
The EU, long praised in many quarters as an international leader on climate change, has in recent years had to grapple with the euro zone crisis and the conflict in Ukraine. These have shifted attention towards energy security and competitiveness concerns in the union’s climate policies. Nonetheless, EU leaders agreed in October 2014 on a forty per cent reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 relative to 1990 levels. Here in Ireland, we are in danger of missing our 2020 emissions targets by a wide margin. The 2030 policy framework also includes a commitment to increase renewables to at least twenty-seven per cent of energy consumption, and an energy efficiency target of twenty-seven per cent.
China, long criticised for the environmental damage caused by decades of rapid economic growth, is also taking steps to move decisively towards a lower-carbon economy. China’s 2030 climate plan, announced in June 2015, contains a commitment that its CO2 emissions will reach a peak by 2030, and has pledged to make “best efforts” to peak earlier. This should be interpreted in the light of China’s approach to target-setting. By and large, China under-promises and overdelivers. China is already the world’s largest market for renewable energy, investing $83.3 billion in renewable energy in 2014. It plans to increase renewables and nuclear from 11.4 per cent in 2014 to 20 per cent of primary energy by 2030, equivalent to adding the entire current US generating capacity in new non-fossil energy alone.
India is also starting to take climate change more seriously. In early October 2015, the Modi government announced a commitment to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of economic output by thirty-three to thirty-five per cent by 2030 along with a commitment to increase the share of renewables in installed electricity generating capacity to thirty per cent by 2030. However, India has been among the most vocal critics of developed countries in climate negotiations and strongly defends its right to prioritise economic development as the core objective of its policy-making. When it speaks of the primacy of economic development, it has a point. India’s gross national income per capita in 2014 was just $1,570, compared with $7,370 for China and $44,660 for Ireland.
Beyond these key states many other countries have submitted climate pledges and are increasingly taking action ‑ as of mid-October 2015, 149 countries, representing 86 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 87 per cent of the world’s population. Of course these pledges collectively are not enough to keep the world within the two degree limit, but nonetheless they represent a step in the right direction.
The Paris summit will not be the final word on climate change. Those who hope for a once-and-for-all solution to climate change will undoubtedly be disappointed. Such a perspective misunderstands the nature of world politics and the potential and limitations of international cooperation, as well as the drivers and constraints on climate action at national level in key states. That is not to say that nothing is happening. Climate politics in many of the key players is shifting in important ways.
The French presidency of the Paris conference has invested so much political capital in the process that it is hard to imagine it going the same way as the Copenhagen summit. Nonetheless, critical divisions remain between countries on questions of the adequacy of national efforts, transparency, finance and the importance of adaptation. It will take all the diplomatic skills France can muster ‑ along with flexibility on the part of country representatives ‑ to bring the process to an agreed conclusion.
Regardless of the shape of a final agreement at the Paris conference, the process towards that agreement has generated important political momentum on climate change across the world, not just among national governments but among a whole range of stakeholders. The challenge in the years ahead will be to continue and bed down that momentum in order to drive forward the process of low-carbon transition.
Dr Diarmuid Torney is a lecturer in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and author of European Climate Leadership in Question: Policies toward China and India (MIT Press, 2015).