COP21 Marks the Beginning of a Process Not the End

December 16, 2015 | 00:00
COP21 Marks the Beginning of a Process Not the End
COP21 Marks the Beginning of a Process Not the End
The scenes of jubilation at the COP21 climate talks in Paris on Saturday evening – as 196 countries unanimously adopted an unprecedented international agreement to limit global warming – were as much as anything an outpouring of relief that a deal had finally been reached.

Almost a quarter of a century on from Rio in 1992, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty was established, the Paris Agreement enshrines the will of the world’s political leaders to ensure that the worst effects of climate change are avoided.

After months of intense preparation, two weeks of day-and-night negotiations – skilfully led by the president of COP21, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius – finally culminated in adoption.

But there were moments when it seemed that agreement would elude the sleep-deprived negotiators, as it did at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009.

Right at the end there was a surprise two-hour hiatus, never fully explained, during which those leading the negotiations left the stage, before they returned and the gavel finally came down.

Lessons learned

There was never any real doubt in the months leading up to the talks that some kind of agreement would emerge in Paris. Certainly the indefatigable Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican executive secretary of UNFCCC, always exuded a certainty that inspired confidence. The question on the mind of everyone involved was where agreement would fall on a spectrum from weak to strong.

There was fierce determination to avoid the political shambles that was Copenhagen, from which important lessons had been learned.

Encouraging countries to submit their climate action pledges – the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs – well in advance of the event made a huge difference.

So did inviting world leaders to attend the event to express their political will for a successful outcome at the very start of the two weeks of talks. On the first day of the conference 150 heads of state and government were at COP21 – held at an airfield in the northern suburb of Le Bourget, about half-way between central Paris and Charles de Gaulle airport. It was the largest such gathering in history and it happened just two weeks after the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris in mid-November.

And, besides, the world has changed in the intervening six years. Climate science – following the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change’s fifth assessment report in November 2014 – is much less uncertain than it was. Indeed, the effects of climate change have become all too apparent, with the world now on average 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times.

Moreover, the big players had made moves on the road to Paris to show the world their determination that agreement should be reached. Undoubtedly the most significant was the joint announcement by the United States and China, a year ahead of COP21, of their climate action intentions. It was quite something to see presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping making such pledges together.

Promises and compromises

During COP21 itself there was an intensity that I have never experienced before in more than three decades of writing about energy.

Everywhere you went – on the shuttle buses from the station to the venue, throughout the conference, in the restaurants, in the media centre – the 50,000 or so people attending the event were discussing the key issues and hoping they would be resolved. In every corner people were interviewing and being interviewed. The negotiators themselves were, day after day, working long into the night until the early hours. The ambition was palpable.

One of the biggest surprises of the outcome is that, alongside the scientifically agreed limit of “well-below 2°C” of warming above pre-industrial levels, there is the aspiration to strive to keep warming below 1.5°C. It is one of several fundamental compromises that were necessary for agreement to be reached at all.

Another is that the Paris Agreement goes beyond the binary view of the world order upon which the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was founded: the concept that the world’s countries could be neatly divided into “developed” and “developing”, with only the developed countries having to take action to mitigate global warming.

With countries such as China and India now among the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, any agreement that required action from only “developed” countries would have been a non-starter.

On the other hand, the agreement recognises that richer countries will have to mobilise much more financial support to assist poorer countries in both their efforts to mitigate and to adapt to the effects of climate change. However, significantly, “richer” and “poorer” are no longer synonymous with “developed” and “developing”.

The issue of “loss and damage” – in other words, whether and how countries should be compensated if they suffer from climate effects they are unable to adapt to successfully – was kicked into touch. Those seeking compensation will have to resort to international law rather than the Paris Agreement itself.

Implications for energy

As the celebrations die down and the dust settles, the world now needs to consider what the implications of the Paris Agreement are for the global economy in general and the energy economy in particular.

The claim made by some over-zealous NGOs that the Paris Agreement marks “the end of the fossil-fuel era” is clearly hyperbole; though it now looks likely that this century will be the last in which unabated fossil fuel use will provide most of the world’s energy.

That said, the deal is seen by a number of influential observers as paving the way for a new global economic order, in which energy investment is increasingly channelled into low- and zero-carbon energy sources – essentially turbo-charging a transition that is clearly already under way.

Leading climate economist Nicholas Stern said the agreement “creates enormous opportunities as countries begin to accelerate along the path towards low-carbon economic development and growth”. This sentiment was echoed by other commentators and analysts.

Stern added: “This agreement, together with the [UN’s] Sustainable Development Goals, should allow countries to overcome both climate change and poverty, the two defining challenges of our generation.” Note the inclusion of “poverty” alongside “climate change” – because it would not be possible to address one without addressing the other.

“A whole new economy”

The INDCs submitted to the UNFCCC – 189 of them by the close of the COP21 talks – are not sufficiently ambitious to limit global warming to within 2°C, but they have been judged to add up to 2.7°C, a big improvement on the 4.8°C that business-as-usual would lead to. But, if implemented even in their present form, they would have huge impacts on the direction of energy investment.

As Edward Cameron, managing director of Business for Social Responsibility commented at one of the many press conferences in Paris: “The INDCs are really important to bear in mind . . . A whole new climate economy is created in the space between 4.8°C and 2.7°C. That accelerates the transition because it means more investments in support of renewable energy, energy efficiency, land use practices changing, etcetera.

“So I believe that we have, as a package within the long-term goal, all that we need to go out and communicate this transition. That is the most important part.”

Impact on fossil fuels

The immediate impact of the Paris Agreement on fossil fuels will be limited, because the deal does not specifically address fossil fuels and policies to reduce their use. And, besides, the Paris Agreement will not come into effect until 2020.

The impacts in the medium to long term will be very different for each fuel. Crucial to all of this will be the INDC climate pledges, which in the Paris Agreement have been re-named Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

At COP21, the spotlight was always on the text of the agreement being negotiated rather than the detail of the NDCs – except for the recognition that the NDCs, as they stand, are not enough to reach the goal of keeping global warming below 2°C.

There was, therefore, intense negotiation over how the pledges would be ramped-up on a five-year cycle to step up climate mitigation ambitions. It was also agreed that there would be a five-yearly “global stocktake” to assess progress in meeting climate goals, thus providing a basis for the ratcheting up of ambition in future NDCs. The first is due in 2023.

How the various fossil fuels will fare in the wake of the Paris Agreement will vary from country to country and region to region as countries begin work on implementing, and eventually ramping up the ambition of, their NDCs.

To put it another way: the NDCs are more relevant to the future for fossil fuels than the Paris Agreement text per se. But without the Paris Agreement – in particular to keep emissions within the 2°C warming limit, and aspiring to reach 1.5°C – there would be no NDCs, or at least no impetus to implement them in practice.

It will take some time – certainly months but probably years – for the full implications of the Paris deal to become apparent. The agreement was not the end of a process but a beginning.

Image: Sunrise in Ko Samui, Thailand. By: Lisa Tancsics. CC-BY license.
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