Climate change talks: five reasons to be cheerful or fearful

John Vidal The Guardian 30 Nov 15;

Reasons to be cheerful

1 The world really wants a strong deal and this time will get it

There is a universal will to limit emissions. Governments understand the science and know that doing nothing is no longer a political or moral option. Evidence of climate change has grown since the Copenhagen meeting in 2009, and 2015 has already been declared the hottest year ever. Climate change is also much better understood by the public to be a grave threat and this gives politicians the legitimacy to be bold in their actions. Non-governmental groups have created a sense of destiny about the Paris meeting, pressing the idea that this is the world’s last chance to act to avoid catastrophic change, and that a deal is certain: “Now is our time,” says Obama’s special climate envoy, Todd Stern, urging all countries to compromise this week.

2 A green economy makes financial sense

A bold new international deal committing all countries to reducing emissions is in everyone’s long-term economic interests. It will signal to business that governments are legally committed to reducing emissions and this in turn will give the private sector and banks the long-term confidence they need to invest in renewable energies and conservation, and should steer financiers, technologists and others away from extracting oil, gas and coal and toward clean energy development. If large carbon markets also emerge, as big business and the UN want, and if rich countries make good on their pledge to mobilise $100bn a year for poor countries to adapt to climate change by 2020, then the long-promised global “green economy” should grow fast, benefiting everyone.

Renewable energy technologies are moving ahead much faster than imagined. The cost of wind power and solar in many countries today is roughly the same as coal or gas, making the switch to green energy and lower emissions much easier for treasuries and ministers to justify to electorates. Within 20 years, it is expected that renewable energy prices will fall further, while fossil fuel energy will grow comparatively more expensive.

3 Nations are ready to commit to real change

Countries have already stated their intentions. Ahead of the Paris talks, more than 180 countries representing 90% of global emissions, have submitted their national plans to cut emissions. This is the first time since climate negotiations started 20 years ago that virtually all the world’s nations have committed to being part of the solution. By comparison, the 1997 Kyoto protocol included pledges for reductions by 37 rich countries which together comprised well under half of global emissions. Kyoto did not include the US, which refused to sign up, or China, the world’s two largest carbon dioxide emitters. With the key players aboard, victory is certain.

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4 What can go wrong?

The chances of diplomatic success are much higher than in Copenhagen in 2009, which was billed as the finale of years of talks, but ended in diplomatic chaos. The text that negotiators and politicians from 195 countries will haggle over in Paris is shorter and more focused, and many difficult decisions have already been made. The positions of the major emitting countries – like the US and China – are closer to each other than in the past, so it should be easier for negotiators and politicians to compromise. France, as the host country, is very experienced at international negotiations and has ensured that many of the potentially tough decisions, such as finance and the final target, can be put back to later meetings. This will allow, at the very least, a weak deal to be signed, with a stated guarantee that it can be improved later.

5 We’re all in it together

The recent terrorist atrocities in Paris will galvanise the 143-plus world leaders due to arrive in the city to make a global statement of solidarity and provide the political impetus to secure a strong deal. No country will want to be identified as the one that stopped a deal. “Paris will soon be known as the place where world leaders stood together on the right side of history,” says the president of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim.

Reasons to be fearful

1 Countries may not make the necessary compromises

Prince Charles and more than 140 presidents, prime ministers and heads of state will make short, bland statements on Monday about the need to act, after which negotiators and politicians have just a few working days to reach diplomatic agreement. Considering that it has taken 20 years of fruitless negotiations to reach this point, there is no chance that the wide gaps between countries can be closed in just a few days. So the only way any deal can be reached in Paris is if the UN and France, as the hosts, bludgeon through a least-worst agreement over the heads of the many. All countries will come under intense pressure to compromise but some will not want to be dictated to.

2 It’s failed already

The cuts that 180 countries have said they are prepared to make up to 2030 will only hold temperatures to a 2.7C rise, whereas the absolute minimum needed to prevent catastrophic warming by the end of the century is thought to be 2C. More than 100 countries have said they want the UN to set the more ambitious global target of 1.5C, and for them anything that does not guarantee this will be seen as a failure of negotiations. Aviation and shipping are also unlikely to be in the deal because it will be too difficult to get agreement. Poor countries want legal certainty that the rich will do as they promise, but rich countries only want voluntary targets. The reality gap between what countries want and what they may get is just too wide.

3 Who will bear the biggest burden?

Countries are still fatally split on key issues like reducing emissions, finance and technology. With so many major differences, it will take a heroic effort by politicians to reach any deal at all. The most important hurdle could be over whether industrialised countries like the US, UK and Japan, which have contributed the most to the historical build-up of emissions, should be obliged to cut more more than developing countries. India, on behalf of many poor countries, will argue that there must be “differentiation” between rich and poor; but the US wants targets that are applicable to all. A collision is inevitable.

4 Where’s the money?

Many of the ambitious plans to cut emissions submitted to the UN depend on up to $1trn being made available to invest in renewable energy, farming and forestry. This money is not available and will depend on flows from new carbon markets and other uncertain financial sources. In addition, only $57bn of the $100bn pledged to be “mobilised” by rich countries to help poor countries adapt their economies to a warming world has been identified. Because developing countries have had long experience of failed promises and pledges they are not going to roll over without financial guarantees. They fear double counting and the diversion of aid flows, and although they will fight hard for money they will meet rock-hard resistance from the rich, who are determined to commit as little as possible.

5 We want a deal but not at any price

There is a genuine will to tackle climate change but not at any cost, and many rich countries delude themselves if they think that climate change and reducing emissions is a high priority for everyone. These talks have been going for many years and there is still a deep distrust of the way that the US and others have avoided having to change their lifestyles but have bullied poor countries to shoulder the burden of cuts. Many countries resent this injustice and want to determine their own development path. They fear that the rich will not have to do much to reduce emissions but they will have to slow down their growth. For them, poverty eradication and economic development are still the most important elements of any deal so they will seek guaranteed financial and techno­logical support if they are to agree to anything. Many oil-producing countries led by Saudi Arabia will also want a weak deal that will not devalue their natural assets. Some Latin American countries like Venezuela and Bolivia will hold out in the name of climate justice for a deal that forces the rich to cut more than the poor. Negotiations are conducted by blocs of countries, consensus is necessary and it is easy to tactically derail the talks or to delay discussions to a point where no strong deal can be negotiated in the limited time available.

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