Monday, 30 November 2015

CoP21: Holding the fate of humanity

Peadar Kirby: Just three days before the historic climate change summit opens in Paris today, November 30th, Malaysia and Jamaica became the 179th and 180th countries respectively to register their pledges to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn.

The previous day, in Nairobi Kenya, Pope Francis had highlighted the stark choice facing the Paris summit, which he said was ‘either to improve or to destroy the environment’. He called for ‘a global and transformational agreement based on the principles of solidarity, justice, equality and participation’.

These actions, on the eve of what is arguably the most crucial summit conference ever held in human history, set the scene for what distinguishes from its predecessors this 21st Conference of the Parties as it is called in UN parlance. On the one hand, it has introduced the innovation of asking member states to pledge their INDCs or ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, namely their targets for GHG reductions by 2030.

On the other, as evidenced by the words of Pope Francis and his broad-ranging encyclical letter of last June, it takes place as the issue of climate change is being taken beyond the narrow realm of scientific and technological innovations, to being seen as a challenge to our model of development. As the Pope added in the garden of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi: ‘We are faced with a great political and economic obligation to rethink and correct the dysfunctions and distortions of the current model of development’.

Paris, therefore, opens with very high expectations. Unlike previous such conferences, such as the disastrous Copenhagen CoP of 2009, much more is known beforehand of what the likely outcome will be. So, for example, we know that the pledges made by the 180 of the 196 member states will, if achieved, be inadequate to keep global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

This target has become the scientific measure for what is regarded as the highest level of warming that can be permitted before catastrophic climate impacts occur, though some influential scientists urge a lower target fearful that 2 degree warming will trigger dangerous tipping points. A number of reports have examined the likely impact of the pledged reductions: the most optimistic says they would keep global warming to 2.7 degrees while the most pessimistic puts it at closer to 3.4 degrees.

Paris is therefore likely to mark an advance but not a sufficient one. But this relatively optimistic outcome fails to take one vital dimension of the INDCs into account. For, reading through them, what is striking is the number of countries that make their reduction pledges ‘conditional on international funding’. This therefore links the achievement of GHG reductions with what has been the vexed issue of global finance, and this may prove a far more difficult issue at Paris.

The pledge of a fund of $100 billion a year by 2020 was agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 but many developing countries are frustrated at the slow pace of developed countries to make their contributions. Ireland was badly embarrassed at the last CoP in Lima when it was named and shamed as one of the last developed countries to announce its contribution. Don’t underestimate the determination of developing countries to dig in their heels on this issue at Paris.

A report published last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that in 2014, climate finance flows from the North to the South reached around $62 billion, with about 25% of that coming from the private sector. Yet, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has estimated that some $90 trillion will be needed over the coming 15 years to invest in infrastructure in developing countries to avoid them locking in a dependence of fossil fuels and therefore high GHG emissions.

Up until this year, the CoP process has tended to push all the difficult decisions towards the very end of the two-week conference when the government ministers arrive to make final decisions. This has meant that they mostly run over their allotted period and that final decisions are made after marathon night-long final sessions among exhausted politicians and their officials. By and large, it has been a shambolic process.

The French hosts have this year asked the heads of state and government to attend the opening session today (Monday 30th November). Taoiseach Enda Kenny will therefore make his first visit to a CoP in the company of over 100 other such leaders. What impact this is going to have on the pace of negotiations is impossible to say but if it helps to get delegations to begin resolving the 1,200 bracketed issues that require decision, it may mean fewer issues being pushed to the final few days when the Ministers arrive, among them the Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly.

Meanwhile more and more authoritative reports are providing evidence that climate change is no longer a future risk but is a present reality. A report from the United Nations on the eve of Paris found that weather-related disasters over the past 10 years have occurred almost daily, nearly twice as often as they did two decades ago. It found that 90 per cent of these were tied to ‘floods, storms, heatwaves and other weather-related events’ and only 10% to geophysical disasters such as earthquakes.

This sort of evidence focuses attention on what is at stake at Paris. While Paris can’t resolve the problems of global warming and the climate change it is causing, it may just put in place the elements of a trajectory that begins to see a steady decline in GHG emissions over the coming decades. If it fails to do this in a decisive way, it is highly unlikely we will get another chance. What is at stake for the future of humanity could not be greater.

Prof Peadar Kirby is Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Public Policy, University of Limerick.

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