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Paris Climate Change Conference 2015: «Aller AU Charbon!» – Go and Get to Work

Following the debacle that was the Copenhagen conference of 2009 and within a month from the terrible events of November 13thParis hosts the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference from November 30th to December 11th. Despite early favourable rhetoric, and as the likelihood for a multilateral agreement grows and is reported more widely, a lot of work is needed between now and the conference to ensure that significant reforms help meet the 2®C target. Hollande and other international leaders still must ‘aller au charbon!’ – roll up their sleeves, to realise a cleaner world with fewer carbon emissions.

It has been a positive few months for climate campaigners. Kick-started by the Obama administration’s bi-lateral climate deal with China, which aims to dramatically cuts emissions in the US and caps China’s carbon pollution by 2030. Skeptical positions on climate change are continually being eroded alongside Oil prices, now so low that previously ‘Tough Oil’ is no longer economical. In addition, the political cycle in the Anglosphere has turned in favour of climate change action. Whilst this has provided a favourable climate to the talks, it may also have led to a false sense of security. Although these developments are positive, they may by no means be enough or certain to have the necessary impact. We need cautious optimism, an examination of what is realistic and strength to do what it necessary: not what is easy.

The groundwork has been laid. The US China climate deal is a significant achievement by its own merit and a closer examination of its core narrative gives us the impression that the two largest global polluters, combined to one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, may finally be ready to change.

These long overdue agreements come on the back of Chinese emissions rising nearly 171% between 2000 and 2011. This massive increase, driven by rapidly growing energy consumption due to strong economic growth, if left unmitigated would only grow further. With an energy mix, primarily focussed on coal consumption, further emissions will have dramatic implications, for everyone.

China has already pledged to reduce Carbon intensity and taken wider steps to change its emissions trajectory. Its State Cabinet released details to cap coal consumption at 4.2 billion tons in 2020 and senior members committed to reduce coal as a share of primary energy below 67% by 2017 through resource taxes and caps. While this is progress this new agreement goes much further. It commits Beijing to ensure 20% of total energy production to non-emitting power sources. As well as embed new policies to divert funding away from fossil fuels and carbon intensive industries.

In the US, the pace of carbon pollution reduction will double. President Obama set an ambitious goal to cut emissions in the range of 17% below 2005 levels, in 2020. They have gone much further in the Clean Power plan than some anticipated, the Department of Energy set a goal of reducing carbon pollution by 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030. This has certainly been an innovative agreement firmly looking forward to address the 21st century issues likely to be encountered. We can only take comfort that In response to the major trend of urbanisation in both China and the US the two countries are establishing a new initiative on Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities under the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group.  Under the initiative, the two countries will share city-level experiences with planning, policies, and use of technologies for sustainable, resilient, low-carbon growth.

The difficulty in this agreement in general is the lack of detail which leads swiftly to a lack of accountability. China has not set out how it will cap emissions by 2030 in any detail and neither has the US explained how it will reduce emissions by 26-28%.  With added pressures in the top-down society local government officials may feel pressure to been seen to do what has been demanded of them.  This lack of accountability creates a breeding ground for skeptics.

It could be argued that this deal has provided the single biggest cause for optimism and momentum in recent decades. We should, however, ensure that milestones are clearly marker and that at Paris the agreement includes strong measures for providing accountability and tracking ability, an irrefutable ratification mechanism is needed.     But, if we leave vast areas of the hard-fought agreements without accountability mechanisms, or at the discretion of polluters, we invite the skeptics in.

Recently those in the minority, who wish to stifle and oppose any policy to reduce carbon emissions, face two choices: shifting to the middle ground (so called Lukewarmers) or shift the rhetoric (“better to talk about global change”). These ‘Lukewarmers’ advocate adaption, not intervention, and in the new real-politik of multi-polarity it could be an attractive offer to some.

Proponents of the Lukewarmer view have a more mainstream view than the flat-out deniers. They subtly agree with the anthropogenic warming of the world, where they diverge is on the level of risk this poses to us. They cite figures showing intervention costing more than the damage through unmitigated climate change alone. Not only are these figures reductionist but they misinterpret the very nature of global warming expansionist unpredictability.

It is commendable that the majority of those that hold this position now accept the fundamental elements of the climate argument. It throws down a gauntlet to say “What would you sacrifice in order to meet our climate need?” However, it risks distorting and scapegoating action for potential reactions; it inevitably plays into the geo-political status quo and does little to ease the worry of nations with a lesser ability to cope with disaster. At Paris we need clear rhetoric and empirically led action to combat the Lukewarmer argument. It will help to have some fresh faces at the table.

Within the last couple of months the internal politics of two, once coherent, conservative and former  commonwealth countries,  have changed dramatically which will have consequences for Britain’s (and her allies) stance at Paris. The changes at the top in Australia and Canada to more sympathetic leaders in regards to combating climate change will have a profound effect on the momentum leading into the debate.

This will change the nexus of climate change diplomacy: Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new Prime Minister, has indicated his whole hearted support for a deal at Paris climate change conference, and to establish a new carbon-pricing scheme in Canada while in Australia, Malcolm Turnbull has yet to announce anything specific but has a long history of demanding action on it.  With both of the previous incumbents gone, who did not hold the climate change agenda in high priority, it can only provide further energy. The prospects for the Paris alliance have received a significant diplomatic boost.

Whilst there is cause for cautious optimism, the threat of premature euphoria still looms large. Climate campaigners have iterative victories to rally behind but now the hard work and short campaign begins. Politicians, Special Advisors and Diplomats on all sides should be preparing to set aside short-term approaches. Obama is clearly looking for a legacy but it is unclear whether the appetite for this deal is wide-spread given the influence of special interests in the run up to the elections.

Yes, we are likely to get a deal in Paris; and it is of fundamental import that we get one. However, we should not compromise on the detail for the sake of consensus. Playing and winning the long game includes victories at key moments, this is one. We all must look to our leaders, show them what they need to see to ensure they understand what we expect of them and hold them accountable.

The opportunity has arrived, the hard work now begins. What is the cost if we fail this time around?

Author Biography

Christos Gatsios is a Greco-British European of Australian heritage: a passionate Europhile, he has worked for three Westminster based think-tanks, and is currently supporting the leader of a leading London borough in private office.

Cover Image: Peter Daems under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Creative Commons license


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