Prospects for an international climate agreement at the COP21 in Paris in December look reasonable, but the deal will not fix the global warming problem

Could a faint light have appeared at the end of the climate change tunnel? The trend in the past few decades has been an almost relentless increase in the volume of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere. Emissions in 2013 from the burning of fossil fuels and heavy industry stood at 35.3bn tonnes, 226% of the 1970 level. Global emissions grew particularly after 2002 as China’s economic emergence got into full swing. There was an emissions dip in 2009 compared with 2008 because of the recession, but that was soon cancelled out by the rising trend.

But then, in 2012, the rate of annual increase halved compared with the previous decade. This slower increase continued in 2013. Now, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said that in 2014, global emissions from energy use flatlined at the 2013 level. It was, the IEA said in March, “the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt [to the increase] or reduction in emissions of greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn”.

Could we be reaching a peak in fossil-fuel emissions, after which the trend will start to go into reverse, hopefully fast enough to save humanity from the
worst effects of global warming? The IEA figures have to be treated with some caution – Chinese figures on coal consumption might be revised, for example. The IEA figures are also not comprehensive, covering the energy sector only.

Shale gas has lowered US emissions

But if some sort of plateau has been reached, or at least if it is in sight, it could indicate that some policies and market measures to limit emissions have
started to work. In particular, there has been significant uptake of renewable energy in countries such as China, Germany and the United States – especially of solar generation, with the consequence that solar panel prices have tumbled. The US switch from coal to shale gas has also been significant. Europe has introduced various policies to limit emissions, including renewables targets and emissions trading, and in 2013 its CO2 output was about 19% below 1990 levels.

If borne out, the idea that emissions-reduction policies are actually working could be a boost to global negotiations on a climate deal, which will culminate in Paris in December 2015 at the COP21 – the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The intention is that a global agreement should be concluded at the COP21 that will be implemented from 2020 to 2030. The UN published the draft negotiating text for Paris on 19 March.

Oliver Geden, a climate and energy specialist who is head of the EU/Europe Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says the tangible possibility that global emissions will peak could help secure a better outcome from Paris, because “people will start to have a better feeling about the potential” for a deal.

Politicians, being herd animals, prefer to act when they see that others are already doing so and are succeeding. What is really needed out of Paris, says Geden, is hope – “a sense of trust that others are committing themselves to do something”. He adds: “If it works really well, it will create a momentum of spiralling up.”

Crucial conferences

The Paris conference will be crucial because, according to scientific advice, time is running out for humanity to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. Ahead of Paris, the world will meet in New York in September to set its sustainable development and poverty eradication goals for post-2015.

Paris talks require a sense of trust that countries are committing

The sustainable development goal discussions will in part set the stage for Paris, but will also rely on Paris – because if the global warning threat is inadequately dealt with, the chance of sustainable development success will be greatly diminished. According to the UN’s climate science arm, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if business as usual continues, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2100 will be up to four times higher than pre-industrial levels, and the temperature rise could be up to 4.8 degrees Celsius – way above the politically agreed limit of a 2°C rise considered to be an acceptable level of global warming.

To have more than a 50% chance of staying within the 2°C limit, “aggressive” reductions in emissions are needed, according to the IPCC. Emissions
must peak in the early 2020s and reach net zero by about 2070 – in other words, what is pumped out should not exceed what is locked up in carbon
sinks, such as forests.

Business has differing views on what needs to come out of Paris and the likelihood of staying the right side of a 2 degree global temperature rise. For
example, in February, energy giant BP published its Energy Outlook 2035, which estimated a 37% rise in global energy demand by that year, compared with 2013.

According to BP, the increased demand will largely be met by fossil fuels, especially gas, though there will also be rapid expansion of renewable energy – BP says it will boom by 6.5% per year for two decades and will provide 8% of global energy by 2035. Emissions will be 25% higher than today by 2035, according to BP. The group’s chief economist Spencer Dale says the likely path will be above “what is currently perceived within the scientific community to be consistent with temperatures not rising more than 2 degrees”.

BP believes that decarbonisation should take place over the long haul. Its official view is that climate change is an “important long-term issue that justifies global action” but the company does not take a position on when net zero emissions should be achieved. Dale says the key short-term issue is a “meaningful price on carbon,” which would provide the “incentive for everybody to play their appropriate role”.

Sustainable development goals will both influence and rely upon Paris

Environmental campaign groups have attacked BP over its conclusions. WWF says the company is “out of touch on climate and clean energy technology” and that BP is “assuming no further significant political progress on climate” including in Paris. Unsurprisingly, NGOs call for much more rapid emissions cuts. Greenpeace, for example, wants 2015 to be the peak year for emissions, with a fast decline thereafter.

But a large number of companies are diverging from the BP view and calling for quick decarbonisation. The Climate Group, for example, a non-profit
umbrella group that was started in 2004 with backing from former UK prime minister Tony Blair and includes Bloomberg, IKEA, Nike and Philips, wants an emissions peak in 2020, net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and zero greenhouse gas emissions overall by 2100 – much closer to Greenpeace than to the BP position.

National contributions

However, the outcome from Paris is likely to be closer to the BP scenario than what the Climate Group and many others want. Paris is likely to result in a cautious agreement that will sacrifice the level of carbon cuts that scientists recommend on the altar of political pragmatism. 

The last COP, in Lima, Peru, in December 2014, resulted in an agreement that countries would pledge the emissions reductions they could realistically
achieve, and that the UN would then compile them into a global picture for discussion in Paris. The UNFCCC jargon for these pledges is “Intended
Nationally Determined Contributions” – INDCs.

The first country to file its INDC was Switzerland, which on 27 February pledged to cut its emissions by 50% by 2030 compared with 1990. Then, the European Union promised a 40% cut by 2030 compared with 1990. Norway has promised the same cut as the EU, and Mexico has said its emissions will peak in 2026, and will by 2030 be a quarter lower than business-as-usual would suggest.

The crucial question is of course what China and the US will do. China previewed its pledge in bilateral talks with the US in November 2014, saying its emissions would peak by 2030, and that renewables would supply a fifth of its energy needs by that time. At the same time, the US said it would reduce
its emissions by 26%-28% by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. On 31 March, the US filed its INDC, confirming this pledge.

At least avoid failure

The bottom-up INDC-based approach is intended to avoid the failure of previous climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, at which an attempt was made to extend the Kyoto Protocol and require all countries to bind themselves to a global treaty. This top-down approach was strongly pushed by the
EU, but foundered essentially on the issue of sovereignty – many countries, including China, India and the US, would not accept what was seen as a brake on their right to determine their own economic futures.

BP, led by chief executive Bob Dudley, predicts a significant emissions rise

By adopting a looser format, Paris is likely to avoid a repeat of the Copenhagen debacle. But already with the first few INDCs, the limitations of the Lima approach are becoming evident. First, no one expects the emissions pledges to be enough. Ulriikka Aarnio, international climate policy coordinator for campaigngroup the Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, says the pledges “will be hugely inadequate” for achieving the emissions cuts recommended by science.

Ian Duncan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament for Scotland, agrees about the inadequacy of the INDCs. “I don’t think they are going
to equate to the 2 degrees target [even if] taken at face value,” he says. His comment points to the second weakness of the INDC approach – what countries pledge has to be implemented and monitored in a sufficiently transparent way.

This, says Duncan, will be one of the key parts of the Paris negotiations, and will be a challenge. It raises issues of trust between countries – the question of whether they will do what they say. China is the biggest polluter, and “we are more or less reliant on China being nice”, Duncan says.

Hardly comparable

A third weakness of the INDC approach is the lack of compatability of pledges. This is already evident from the handful of promises received so far – from Switzerland and the EU, and the outline pledges from China and the US. Switzerland’s 50% cut by 2030 will be achieved with the assistance of international credits – in other words not solely from domestic greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but by reductions in other countries that Switzerland will pay for. The Swiss will also award themselves credits for locking up carbon in sinks such as forests.

The US has pledged to reduce emissions by 26%-28% by 2025

The EU will include carbon sinks in its 40% cut, but will exclude international credits. The US promise, meanwhile, operates to different baselines – a cut by 2025 compared with 2005, rather than 2030 compared to 1990 – while China is not promising a cut at all, only to cap emissions by 2030.

CAN Europe’s Aarnio says INDCs are “unfortunately going to be very different from many countries”. The UN will put the pledges together by 1 November to evaluate how much of an emissions reduction they really represent. The assessment will attempt to show how much of the world’s remaining carbon budget each country will claim, Aarnio says.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, director of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, which includes companies such as BT, GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever, and which wants net-zero emissions by the end of the century, says the varying pledges from countries means that “we no longer can really understand the real value of these INDCs”.

She adds that climate negotiations have moved on from the situation in Copenhagen, and there are “many more willing governments” prepared to act
to reduce emissions. In particular, China and the US “want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem”. However, she adds: “The fact that we
do not have the structure of the Kyoto Protocol could make it all quite messy.” This is especially true from the point of view of companies, which “want a clear signal”.

Paris prospects

Ultimately, the best hope for avoiding disastrous global warming might lie outside the UNFCCC process, which, Aarnio says, is “hugely important
but not the whole story”. Although the outcome of Paris could provide an underpinning for decarbonisation, rapid change is more likely to be stimulated
by business or by societal demand.

The most striking example of this in recent years has been the rapid expansion in renewable energy. In 2013 in the US, about 13% of power was generated by renewables, on the back of fast increasing installation of new capacity. Solar installation is booming, and Chinese installation of wind power capacity was four times the US level in 2014, according to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Unilever wants net-zero emissions by 2100

The renewables switch could be accelerated by the Paris agreement because, even though the deal is likely to be timid, it will send a message that “fossil-fuel industries are out of business in two to three decades”, Aarnio says. A move to renewables will, for storage and capacity reasons, stimulate emissions-reducing developments in other areas, such as electric vehicles and more energy-efficient products.

And of course one outcome of the Paris negotiations will be more negotiations. Oliver Geden says that because “the overall commitment will not deliver
the pathway” to sufficient decarbonisation, a “ratcheting-up mechanism” will be needed. The EU, for example, is calling for five-yearly reviews of targets in an attempt to boost them over time. Such an outcome – a pragmatic but insufficient agreement and an agreement to revisit the agreement – “would have to be counted as progress”, Geden says.

climate action  climate change  shale gas  Paris Agreement 

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