EMEA Sustainability Coordinator, at CBRE
“No conference has ever gathered so many leaders from so many countries ... but never before have the international stakes been so high” – French President Francois Hollande speaking at COP21.
Since leaders first met in Rio in 1992, a series of annual summits have been held in multiple attempts to take international action against climate change. Organised under the banner of the United Nations these are known as Conferences of the Parties, or COPs. Yesterday marked the start of the fortnight-long COP21 climate talks in Paris, and has brought together more world leaders in the same place, at the same time, than ever before. In the months approaching the most anticipated climate summit in history, many have urged for strong action.
Statements by public figures, open letters from business leaders, and record-breaking displays of global activism have each aimed to catch the attention of negotiators. If successful, a long-term global deal will be agreed to tackle human-induced climate change, whilst allowing for continued economic growth and development – arguably the most ambitious international agreement ever proposed.
What’s happened so far?
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first attempt to establish legally binding carbon emissions targets, however these applied only to wealthy countries accounting for a mere 11% of global emissions, and didn't require China – the heaviest polluter – to reduce its emissions at all. The next big push came in 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen, but sadly no agreement was made. Then in 2011 at COP17, with the unmet 2012 Kyoto deadline fast approaching, leaders pledged to reach a global deal on climate change by close of 2015.
COP21 is already looking more promising than COP15. Prior to the Paris talks, 180 national plans representing approximately 93% of global emissions were submitted. If implemented, these are predicted to limit temperature rise to approximately 3.6°C, reduced from the previously predicted 5°C. Although this is progress, it's not enough to keep within the agreed critical limit of 2°C and further agreements will likely be needed. Countries have therefore provisionally agreed to review any actions that result from COP21 every 5 years, to be confirmed.
Likely topics for debate
What is the limit? The UN-endorsed temperature rise target of 2°C has come under fire by more than 100 vulnerable countries, who are calling for a tougher 1.5°C target.
Who is responsible? Developing nations argue that industrialised countries should be doing more, having polluted for longer. Richer countries argue that emerging economies should be held more accountable.
Who will pay? Who will help poorer countries do their bit? One of the few outcomes of COP15 was a pledge to provide $100bn in annual support to poor countries from 2020; how this is to be funded and distributed is yet to be debated. Some nations argue that more needs to be delivered and (unsurprisingly) wealthier governments are reluctant to commit resources so far in advance.
Will there be success?
Fingers crossed. Critics would argue that more than two decades of negotiation deadlock offer little or no hope, but let's drill down on the positives:
Look to past successes. The 1989 Montreal Protocol. The small matter of a hole in the ozone layer and international governments worked together (pretty quickly) to rectify it. Collectively, we stopped using the destructive gases that had caused the hole and today, the hole is healing. The challenge of climate change may be a far greater but its proof that governments are capable of addressing global climate issues through international action.
We live and we learn. At COP15 countries shared national commitments very late in the game and in some cases not at all. Countries felt pressured to agree to policies they were not able to deliver. In a bid to learn from past mistakes, countries have been urged to communicate their intentions well ahead of the conference. This alternative ‘bottom-up’ approach has been designed to establish collective ambition, where countries are encouraged to stay within safe bounds.
Global displays of humanity. If recent events show us anything, it’s that nations can stand together in support of humanity. On the opening morning of the conference, both Presidents Obama and Hollande made reference to the relationship between combating climate change and fighting terrorism. Each identified the common goal in creating a safe, secure world for future generations.
COP21 will not be the one-stop-solution to climate change. Subsequent action will be required at all levels of government and, as technologies and knowledge develops, there will be a need to review and adapt the appropriate global response. Over time it is anticipated that commitments will be strengthened, but in reality the immediate outcome may be a messy compromise. Whatever is decided, let us hope that it is the most ambitious, fair, and appropriately apportioned messy compromise possible. Watch this space.