How effective were the Paris climate change (COP 21) talks?

Robin Whitlock

rsz_1le_centre_dinformation_sur_leau One of many presentation areas at the Paris COP21 climate change talks in December 2015 [Image Source: Le Centre d'Information sur l'Eau, Flickr]

Three months on down the line, when it comes down to motivating governments to decarbonize their economies, how effective were the Paris COP 21 talks really?

The problem with international climate change negotiations has always been their sheer complexity, usually as a product of reluctance on the part of some nations to move away from established patterns of growth and wealth creation based on fossil fuel consumption, or to put it another way, naked self-interest. However, over the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that climate change is now starting to seriously ramp up, to the point where it is affecting everyone, including the wealthiest nations. That in turn means that even naked self-interest requires urgent climate action, since without a habitable planet, there is no economy.

The evidence is already emerging. Currently, climate change is contributing to the deaths of 400,000 people per year and knocking 1.6 percent annually from global gross domestic product (GDP). A study in 2013 concluded that warming of the Arctic could cost the world $60 trillion.

This is why 200 governments gathered in Paris last year, managing, finally, to reach a deal on global greenhouse gas emissions. Many people seem to believe that the aim of the talks was to keep global temperature below the important 2 degrees C threshold, beyond which things could start getting really nasty. However, that is not really true, since it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. The really question is whether it is really going to work over the long term. In essence, what did Paris COP21 actually give us?

Michael A. Levi, writing in Newsweek on 14th December 2015, shortly after the agreement was reached, said that the various claims that the deal spells the end of fossil fuels and will ensure that the global temperature stays below 2 degrees C, can’t really be justified, adding that the negotiators never actually believed this was going to happen anyway.

Bozcada wind turbines wiki commons Wind turbines at Bozcada, Turkey [Image Source: Wikipedia Commons]

For this reason, some observers have been quick to criticize, but Levi’s view is that this is undeserved. He argues that what Paris actually did was to establish a framework for transparency and preparing the way for a review of each global nation’s attempts to drive down emissions. It was also a process aimed at encouraging nations to make stronger efforts over time. Under the agreement, all nations around the world will have to cut their emissions, not just those in the developed west. This aim is based on the development of national plans by each country, based on individual national circumstances. Rather than setting international law, which hasn’t worked in the past, the emphasis is on mobilizing political pressure by establishing transparency and a process for regular and public review of each country’s progress. Each country will also have to establish stronger national emissions reduction plans every five years. Mind you, the agreement doesn’t actually compel nations to do this, but that’s the aim nevertheless. Levi is therefore arguing that the agreement is more about political pressure than compulsion. It boosts the prospects for success for emissions reductions efforts within each country while also empowering international political pressure and encouraging domestic political pressure from groups favoring stronger and more effective action within their own countries.

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Levi concedes that the process set by the agreement could drag on for decades, due to the procedure of publishing new national plans for emissions reduction, which doesn’t even begin until 2020 anyway. Furthermore, the goal of limiting global temperature to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels is only aspirational. However, it does incorporate a promise to grow financial support for poorer countries beyond $100 billion after 2020.

Levi’s assessment is not shared by well-known climate scientist James Hansen. In fact, he went so far as to call the agreement a ‘fraud’, on the basis that it just rests on promises rather than commitment to action. Hansen’s most important criticism in this respect is that “as long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.” He argues that only making carbon emissions more expensive will produce the desired result, in essence a ‘carbon tax’, or a ‘fee’ as Hansen puts it. The problem is that not many agree with him, not even some of the larger environmental groups.

According to Levi, the first real test of the agreement this year will be the UN climate summit in November 2016 in Morocco. The aim of this event is to encourage nations to flesh out their agreements on transparency, review and updating national emissions reductions efforts. An even bigger test will come in 2020 when nations are supposed to contribute new emissions reductions plans. Will they do that or will they try to wriggle their way out of it? Finally, the ultimate test is, of course, whether or not it actually reduces the risk of dangerous, potentially runaway, climate change. That will take time to assess properly.

rsz_2oregon_dept_of_transportation Solar panels [Image Source: Oregon Department of Transportation, Flickr]

But what is happening right now?

Oliver Rapf argued recently that energy efficiency, particularly in the buildings sector, is key to driving down emissions. For Europe that would have to mean a coming together of various solutions, such as a revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) as well as an effective Buildings Directive. This should incorporate the process of buildings being transformed from energy consumers to energy producers, in effect becoming ‘micro energy hubs’. Energy storage forms an important part of this. Fortunately, figures such as Tesla’s Elon Musk are already in the driving seat on this one.

In other sectors, corporations such as Google and IKEA have already begun to transform their energy consumption behavior by investing in renewable energy at scale. Google and IKEA have themselves invested in 2 GW of renewable power by installing 650,000 solar panels respectively, while Siemens recently agreed to build a wind turbine rotor blade factory in Morocco, a country which revised its national renewable energy target upwards as a direct result of COP 21. Agreements such as this are currently being concluded all around the world as corporations increasingly take advantage of the economic opportunities the Paris agreement have created and encouraged.

In February this year, the US, Canada and Mexico signed a Memorandum of Understanding aimed at expanding cooperation between the three nations with regard to climate change and energy collaboration. The US Energy Information Agency and the National Energy Board of Canada are already cooperating on data and energy information sharing, resource mapping and statistics.

In general, although it is still too early to tell just how effective the talks have been, there is growing recognition among corporations, governments and other organisations that investment opportunities exist in developing renewable energy assets at scale. What has happened therefore is that COP 21 has added momentum to this, and in that at least, yes, the talks have been successful.