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Beyond Paris

The COP21 climate conference is not yet over, but is in its final throes. Technically, a deal should be done by the end of Friday, but it is now known that talks will carry on into the weekend (a fairly normal occurrence). This time around, world leaders made their appearance at the start rather than the end of the jamboree. Since they will not have to suffer the embarrassment of announcing a weak deal – failure is unthinkable, so a deal there will surely be – this takes a little of the pressure off negotiators.

But only a little. This summit, after all, has been promoted as another make or break opportunity to achieve a deal which actually means something in terms of global CO2 emissions. It is the 21st annual conference, is being attended by 40,000 delegates and has had world leaders from Barack Obama downwards stiffening resolve at the beginning. Talks have continued through two nights, and delegates know they have to agree something which can be heralded as a breakthrough.

The stated aim of this long drawn-out process has been to agree a binding global deal that would commit all countries to do one of two things: for the industrialised world, to cut back emissions drastically, and for developing countries to follow a low-emissions pathway to economic growth (assuming such a thing is possible). The other issue which has become more prominent recently is the need to adapt, billed as protecting vulnerable areas from the effects of a changing climate, but actually necessary even if there is no change to weather patterns.

So far, the only binding agreement to emerge from the 21 years of negotiation has been the Kyoto Protocol, whereby a group of more developed economies pledged to make a modest reduction in emissions from a 1990 baseline. The Protocol was agreed in 1997 and finally ratified by sufficient signatories for it to come into force in 2005. The first commitment period covered 2008-12; following the failure to come to a post-Kyoto agreement at the 2009 Copenhagen talks, a second commitment period was negotiated under the so-called Doha Amendment. However, this has not yet formally come into force because only 55 of the 144 states necessary for this have yet signed.

The Kyoto Protocol was only ever an act of faith rather than an instrument to make a real change. It was fatally flawed because political opinion in the country with by far the greatest emissions at the time, the USA, was firmly against the agreement. Although President Clinton signed the Protocol, he never submitted it for ratification by the Senate, knowing that there was an overwhelming majority against it.

The EU, Russia, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a number of smaller states committed to emissions cuts over the 2008-12 period, but Russia, Japan and Canada declined to do so for the current period. Indeed, Canada withdrew from the Protocol, because its emissions had risen in the meantime, in part because of its continued extraction of oil from tar sands in the state of Alberta.

But all this is secondary to the biggest change on the world scene, the enormous expansion of the Chinese economy. In 1990, America was by far the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases. However, by 2006, China had overtaken it, and by 2010 was responsible for 22.7% of the total (for comparison, for the USA and EU, the figures were 15.6% and 10.9%). Last year, the Chinese contribution was 29%.

Whatever the US and EU may do will continue to be swamped by the reality of what happens in China and, increasingly, India. These two countries together account for about a third of the global population and over a third of total emissions. But China’s per capita emissions are only now on a par with the EU’s, while emissions intensity (per unit of GDP) is about three times as high. As per capita income in China moves towards that of the EU, even a lowering of emissions intensity to the current European level will leave China making at least as high a contribution to global emissions as it does now.

Before the end of the next decade, and quite probably within ten years, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country. Currently, it contributes only 7% of global emissions, and per capita emissions are not expected to reach European standards until 2019. But Narendra Modi is determined to see the Indian economy grow, so it is not inconceivable that, by the middle of the century, China and India between them may account for about half of global CO2 output.

In this context, what can a Paris agreement really achieve? The idea is to put all countries, whatever their stage of development, into the same framework, whereby they make commitments to cutting emissions and/or making adaptations. The intention is for these plans to be reviewed and (in principle) revised upwards every five years. Backsliders would be chastised and the hope is that the achievements of one country would spur others on to greater things.

The other key thing to emerge from these talks is that limiting the projected rise in average temperatures to 2°, which not long ago was considered to be infeasible, has now become an upper limit, with a professed ambition to limit it to just 1.5°. This, more than anything else, seems to represent the triumph of hope over reality. In the intervening years, there has been no technological development which made this any more possible, and no real change in the annual increase in the level of carbon dioxide in the air.

So, we are left, post-Paris, with an ambitious statement of intentions but no realistic way to fulfil them. China and other emerging economies will continue to grow and dominate overall emissions. Less developed countries will sign up to the deal on the understanding that they get their share of the purported $100bn in annual funds to be provided by the richer nations (doubtless with little of this going into anything related to climate change in a number of countries), but the important actions (on a global level) will happen elswhere.

The travelling circus of global climate change negotiators will continue to burn the midnight oil and put forward further complex and impenetrable plans and studies. Emissions will continue to rise for a while yet and global temperatures will probably continue to defy the projections of modellers. But the 1.5° temperature rise limit will be there as the headline, which leads to an intriguing conclusion.

Maybe, just maybe, key players are beginning to see that the 4, 5 or 6° rise in temperature foreseen is increasingly unlikely and that Mankind’s contribution to climate change is much closer to that discussed by the much-vilified ‘lukewarmers’. What if there is a realisation that a lower temperature rise limit is safe to commit to because it is likely to be achieved without any change to present policy?

The net result could well be a continuation of the call for drastic decarbonisation combined with both a failure to achieve the goals and just a modest amount of global warming. If so, the IPCC could declare that it had saved the planet and there would be little need to confess to undue alarmism (maybe ‘the temperature rise falls within the projected range and is consistent with our models’?). Time then to adjust the focus to ocean acidification? There will be lots of people in the climate change industry who would be out of a job otherwise.