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Countdown to Paris

As the summer break comes to an end, many minds will be firmly focussed on the next climate change summit – the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – taking place in Paris from November 30. That’s just under three months away. On December 11, the conference will come to an end with the celebration of a binding international deal to slash emissions.

At least, that’s the theory. The fact that this is the 21st year of talks says something of itself. Bringing enough industrialised countries together to put the Kyoto protocol into force took years and was at best a qualified success, with the USA (at that stage the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide) not participating. Taking this a stage further to embrace all nations of the world, including China, India and other emerging economies, is going to be a challenge, to put it mildly.

Not surprisingly, one of the crucial factors is that there are many different points of view among the negotiators, with at least three broad groups. The first is the developed countries keenest to put in place a binding emissions control agreement, with the EU in the van. Australia and Canada would have been included in this group at one time, but have now become more lukewarm about action. The USA, despite its past failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, has made significant cuts to emissions, in large part to its increasing use of domestically-produced gas. President Obama is himself fully signed up to the need for an agreement, but in the mid-term Congress is unlikely to be overly enthusiastic.

China has for some years been the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and action by her government and those of other large emerging economies such as India and Brazil is essential if global emissions are ever to peak and begin to fall. They form a group of countries that are in many cases making positive noises about the need for mitigation action but in practice do not want to compromise economic growth and the well-being of their citizens. China, for example, is talking actively about the timing of peak emissions, but India’s government has refused to adopt a similar position for now.

The third major group (with lots of practical sub-divisions) comprises the less-developed, smaller economies that contribute little to global emissions but whose inhabitants arguably have most to lose in a warmer world with higher sea-levels. Their need is for adaptation measures and, indeed, any financial transfers from the rich world which could benefit their economies.

In the case of the low-lying small island states, the story has been that they risk disappearing as sea-levels rise, with the government of the Maldives even holding an underwater cabinet meeting as a publicity stunt (Maldives cabinet makes a splash). This despite clear evidence that such coral atolls have remained a metre or two above sea level as this has changed, since they are constantly being eroded and added to.

All this will play out in Paris, with every negotiating group, and every individual country, following its particular agenda. The EU, for example, is trying to lead by example, but will not be willing to compromise its global competiveness even further if there are no followers. The large emerging economies will make the right noises but take no action that would seriously compromise future growth, safe in the knowledge that the West will be willing to subsidise some degree of change.

The large number of poorer countries, on the other hand, frankly have more immediate problems to deal with than future climate change, but are more than willing to accept money from the industrialised world to help with adaptation. Many of these countries are indeed vulnerable to flooding, storms or drought and can be made more resilient by appropriate spending on such things as flood defences and hurricane shelters but a significant number suffer from poor governance and are unlikely to benefit nearly as much as well-run ones. But that certainly doesn’t stop their leaders asking.

A key argument which has been used is the responsibility borne by the industrialised world, which until comparatively recently had been the main user of fossil fuels and so historically the greatest contributor to present levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A specific aspect of this is compensation by the rich world for loss and damage due to extreme weather events.

This particularly thorny issue was kicked into the long grass two years ago at the Warsaw conference, at which the negotiators agreed to develop a way forward by the Paris summit. There are reports that this may now be beginning to bearing fruit (UN climate talks: Hints of compromise on key issue). Clearly some level of agreement would be necessary if the December talks are not to fail. If nothing which can be construed as a commitment to reduce global emissions emerges, the UN process may limp on, but it would be holed below the waterline.

This puts the less enthusiastic states and those with low emissions in a very strong negotiating position. Their agreement would be needed for a binding deal, and it is human nature to extract as much as possible in return.

All of which takes attention away from the real issue of how emissions might be reduced as cost-effectively as possible without compromising energy security or future prosperity and puts it instead on horse-trading to get almost any deal, however imperfect. As an illustration of what can happen, see for example Kyoto protocol’s carbon credit scheme ‘increased emissions by 6000m tonnes’.

The danger is that the pressure for a deal means negotiators use ‘facts’ such as the anecdotal increase in extreme weather, the projected consequences of future temperature rise from deeply flawed global climate models and misleading statistics about the rise in insured losses due to weather damage. The global community is likely to regret an agreement which is costly, inefficient and ineffective. It’s time to step back and look at the bigger picture.

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The Scientific Alliance is pleased to publish and analyis of the intermittency of UK wind energy generation for 2013-14 by Derek Partington