Reflecting on COP 21

Pilita Clark writes a good article in the Financial Times, reflecting on many of the developments throughout the two weeks of the Paris climate conference.


Climate deal: Carbon dated?

If there was one sound that captured the frantic nature of the talks that led to the Paris climate change deal last weekend, it was the ping of an incoming WhatsApp message.

The instant messaging smartphone app was used by dozens of delegations from the 195 countries involved in the two-week negotiations. Among them were the representatives from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and one of the countries with most to lose from a robust accord. As haggling over the agreement spilled into a series of private meetings, delegates from more than 20 Arab nations received a stream of WhatsApp messages advising them on what to say in each session.

“A lot of it was intended to marshall the troops to make sure the Saudi position was backed up by at least one other country in the room at all times,” says one delegate who saw the messages. “Otherwise their arguments could have been viewed as those of an isolated country.”

The Saudis were deeply opposed to something that many other countries insisted should be in the pact: a goal to stop global temperatures rising more than 1.5C above pre-industrial revolution levels.

Riyadh’s unease was understandable. Temperatures have already risen by nearly 1C and meeting the 1.5C target would require heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, a lifeblood of the Saudi economy, to come down much faster than if governments stuck to a 2C warming target agreed at UN climate talks in 2010.

Reaching the 2C goal means energy-related emissions would need to be cut to zero by around 2060 or 2070, according to Niklas Höhne, an author of the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “For 1.5C, you have to be at zero at around 2050,” he says.

In the end, the Paris agreement said countries should aim to keep temperatures “well below 2C” and “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5C. It was one of a series of compromises made in the final fevered hours of the COP21 talks that eventually produced a grand bargain among nations with vastly different economies on the fairest way to tackle global climate change.

The question now is, can this pact — born out of such compromises and riddled with non-binding conditions — actually deliver a big enough cut in emissions to curb temperatures that are on track to warm the world by around 3C or more by the end of this century. An increase of that size, say scientists, would intensify the risk of fierce storms, intolerable heatwaves, higher sea levels and melting ice caps.

The UN has been trying to orchestrate a global agreement to limit emissions for more than 20 years, starting with a 1992 accord struck in Rio de Janeiro. This was followed by the 1997 Kyoto protocol, a treaty that required only rich countries to cut their carbon pollution, and a failed attempt to produce a new pact at Copenhagen in 2009.


Fuel for activists

The Paris agreement differs from earlier efforts in several ways. Its new 1.5C target is only aspirational and meeting it would require substantial cuts in emissions and unprecedented growth in existing renewable energy technologies. But its implications will be seized on by advocates who have already translated the 2C goal into a string of campaigns highlighting the amount of coal, gas and oil that needs to stay unburned if such a target is to be met.


The same goes for another goal in the agreement to achieve a balance in the second half of the century between man-made greenhouse gases and carbon-absorbing “sinks”, such as forests. Another big difference between the Paris pact and its predecessors is that it requires virtually every country in the world, not just wealthy ones, to publish a climate plan every five years, probably from 2020.

Any targets in those climate plans, such as the US goal to cut emissions by at least a quarter from what they were in 2005 by 2025, or China’s aim to get its emissions to peak by 2030, are not legally binding for signatories to the agreement. But the plans themselves are mandatory, as is a stronger UN system for monitoring countries’ emissions and assessing how they are being curbed.

We have already seen what happens when countries are merely invited to publish voluntary plans, as they were in the run-up to the Paris meeting. More than 180 nations did this, including Saudi Arabia. But it only plans to reduce emissions if its economy continues to grow and there is a “robust contribution from oil export revenues”.

Still, Riyadh did submit a plan and under the new accord, it will have to table a new one every five years that cannot be any weaker, using a more stringent set of reporting rules. The same applies to the largest emitter, China, which accounts for 27 per cent of global carbon pollution.

Like Saudi Arabia, it was reluctant to support the 1.5C target and other measures backed by a group of countries led by small island states — those most at risk as sea levels rise — that labelled itself the “high ambition coalition” at COP21.

Only a day before the agreement was adopted, Liu Zhenmin, deputy head of China’s delegation, dismissed this coalition as “a kind of performance” or stunt.

But the group included the US, the second-largest emitter. Its diplomacy under John Kerry, secretary of state and a life-long climate action advocate, led to Washington and Beijing jointly announcing climate plans late last year — a move that at the time raised hopes that a Paris agreement could be sealed.


Breakthrough of the Big Two

In the end the US-China relationship proved crucial to Saturday’s accord. In the tense moments before the deal was signed it almost came unstuck, but China showed that, despite its officials’ public rhetoric, it wanted the agreement to go ahead.


As France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was preparing to bang the gavel on the agreement’s adoption on Saturday, panic set in after the US delegation saw the final text, drawn up in the early hours of the morning by exhausted officials.

Unlike previous versions, which said developed countries “should” take the lead in fighting climate change, it said they “shall” undertake emission reduction targets. This was a legally problematic change for the Obama administration, which wants to sign up to the new deal by executive agreement rather than submitting it to a hostile Senate for consent.

Mr Kerry took one look and said: “We cannot do this and we will not do this, and either it changes or President [Barack] Obama and the United States will not be able to support this agreement.”

A group of developing country delegates, still nervous about the accord, seized the chance to declare they would not accept any changes.

But as envoys huddled on the conference floor to try to iron out the problem, Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate negotiator, stepped in.

“He said, ‘Stop it now, we want this agreement, don’t play games with this, it isn’t fair’,” says Laurence Tubiana, France’s COP21 ambassador. The text was duly changed — “should” replaced “shall”. “Without Xie, we would not have had an agreement,” Ms Tubiana told the Financial Times.

The relief in the convention hall was profound. The most important immediate outcome of the Paris agreement is that it was not another flop like Copenhagen. In the aftermath of that failure governments continued to launch climate policies, but opponents were bolstered by the absence of a global agreement committing all countries to take similar action.

The paradox of UN climate negotiations, where all countries have an equal vote, is that they are destined to produce deeply compromised agreements with a limited chance of having a positive impact on lowering emissions. But they can easily have a negative effect on such efforts if they fail in the way the Copenhagen conference did in 2009.

Paul Marty, a senior credit officer at Moody’s, the rating agency, says that if Paris had been another Copenhagen, it might have affected even climate policy pioneers such as the EU, home of the world’s largest carbon market and some of the earliest solar power subsidies.

“It’s likely it would have undermined the EU’s long-term decarbonisation policies and targets on the grounds that if the rest of the world isn’t doing much, why would EU economies need to make the effort,” he says.


Declarations of intent

The immediate impact of the agreement was mixed. France’s President François Hollande was the first leader to say his government would revise its existing climate targets before 2020 in the wake of the Paris agreement, but few other nations have shown any sign of being willing to join him.

Shares in a number of European and North American solar and wind companies ticked up on Monday; Elon Musk’s SolarCity, the biggest residential installer in the US, jumped 12 per cent.

Many market specialists said the rise was likely to be temporary. But Barclays analysts predict that the deal would “speed up the deployment of renewable and other zero and low-carbon energy sources”.

The initial response from oil and gas companies was a broad shrug, but some coal industry groups were more perturbed about its implications, and especially its 1.5C goal.

Brian Ricketts, secretary-general of Euracoal, a trade body representing the EU coal industry, says: “That 1.5C might be a target, but it means NGOs will be striving for the complete phase-out of fossil fuels very quickly, which means we will be hated and vilified in the same way slave traders were.”

It was “bizarre” to think coal companies could change their business models to adapt to such goals, he says, adding that he feared climate activists’ “mob rule” was already replacing the rule of law in some countries and the Paris agreement would exacerbate the trend.

Other coal industry executives say the accord ought to bolster their argument that tougher climate targets should translate into more support for technologies such as carbon capture and storage systems that allow fossil fuels to be burnt without harming the climate.

But it may not be long before such systems are competing against newer technologies that eliminate the need for coal, oil and gas altogether.

That is the hope of Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, who announced at COP21 that he had teamed up with other billionaires to get nascent clean energy innovations out of the lab and into the market. This group will work with 20 countries, including the US and China, pledging to double their $10bn combined spending on clean energy research and development over the next five years. It is initiatives like this that could end up doing more to meet the Paris agreement’s goals than the accord itself.

Ultimately, it is impossible to know if the pact will make this century the last to be powered by fossil fuels. Even Mr Obama, one of the agreement’s strongest proponents, conceded on Saturday that global warming “is not solved because of this accord”. But it does create “the architecture for us to continually tackle this problem in an effective way”, he argued.

Perhaps that is all that can be expected from UN talks that have taken more than 20 years to get to this stage, and may take another 20 to start fixing a problem that has so far proved insoluble.



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