Monday, 7 December 2015

CoP21: Might Paris begin the long road to a low-carbon society?

Peadar Kirby: The fact that the world’s leaders turned up at the beginning rather than at the end, as happened in Copenhagen in 2009, seems to have galvanised action during the first week of the Paris CoP. Leaders such as Presidents Obama and Holland made plain the gravity of the crisis facing humanity and the urgent need for action, both pledging their countries would be at the forefront. The contrast with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny’s attempt at special pleading for poor Ireland couldn’t have been sharper. It was a moment for Irish heads to hang in shame.

Actions came thick and fast. Among the first was a significant call from a coalition of close to 40 governments, hundreds of businesses and influential international organisations to phase out fossil fuel subsidies worth over €500 billion a year and which keep prices of oil, gas and coal artificially low. They estimate that removing such subsidies would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent by 2050 and free up resources for investment in renewables. Countries making this call include Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the UK, the US, Uganda and Uruguay.

They are backed by the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders’ Group (23 European business leaders representing combined revenues of €170 billion and employing 2 million people across 170 countries), and international organisations such as the International Energy Agency, the OECD and the World Bank.

As if to emphasise that the message is being heard, it was announced at the CoP that more than 500 institutions with combined assets of over €3.4 trillion have now made divestment commitments, among them the London School of Economics, 20 French local authorities and Allianz. This is an increase from 400 commitments with assets worth €2.6 trillion just ten weeks ago, indicating the growing momentum of the move away from investment in fossil fuels.

India, for long seen as a laggard on climate change, also stepped up to the mark this week with the launch at the CoP of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Solar Alliance. This brings together 110 countries, situated between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and therefore rich in solar resources, in an effort to gain cheap access to solar technology from developed countries. This is an attempt to achieve what the Indians call ‘carbon space’, namely the recognition that they still need to be allowed grow and develop their economies, but putting pressure on the developed world to facilitate them to do it in a low-carbon way. India has now promised to produce 40 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2030 though it is still planning to double coal production in order to bring electricity to the 300 million Indians who currently lack it.

Leaders from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Congo, Ethiopia, France, Gabon, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Liberia, Norway, Peru, the UK and the US also endorsed a plan to reverse deforestation and promote ‘low-carbon rural development’, including the restoration of degraded forest, peat and agricultural lands. They pledge to ‘reverse deforestation in our lifetimes’.

And, as if in response to the deep concerns of the 43 island states facing inundation by rising ocean levels, both Germany and France came out this week pledging support for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, below the widely accepted level of 2 degrees that some scientists believe too high but which since 2009 has been the basis for global climate politics. Emmanuel de Guzman, head of the Philippines delegation, a country that has suffered severely from storms over recent years, called the decision ‘historic’: ‘The call of the vulnerable has been answered,’ he said.

All of these are hopeful signs that the transition to a low-carbon society is finally beginning to gather momentum. But of course, the focus of attention remains on the detailed negotiations of the draft agreement being hammered out by negotiators this week before the arrival of Ministers next week. The level of ambition presented by state and government leaders on Monday left little doubt as to the scale of the task if this ambition is to be even partially realised. As the week wore on, parts of the 54-page text with some 1,600 bracketed clauses (representing different positions on which agreement has to be reached) was presented on monitors around the venue.

The French hosts introduced a novel strand with the ‘informal informals’, small meetings at which negotiators huddle over particular bracketed texts hammering out agreement that can then be fed back into the larger formal talks. This is an attempt to circumvent the difficulties of seeking agreement among a group of 194 countries in big plenaries. Alongside these, other groups are working on other key issues such as finance, commitments on reducing emissions and mechanisms for transparent accountability on meeting targets. Failure to find agreement on any of these could scupper a robust outcome up to the last minute.

A disagreement between developed and developing countries on Wednesday showed just how precarious things remain. Poorer countries took issue with the US climate envoy Todd Stern’s claim that donor countries were well on their way to beating a pledge to contribute €100 billion in finance to developing countries by 2020. An OECD report estimating that ‘around €62bn’ has already been pledged was dismissed as a ‘mirage’ by Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, the South African chair of the Group of 77 and China, speaking for the poorest 134 countries at the summit. This is because what is counted as climate finance includes a broad range of loans, grants and relabeled aid, as well as private capital mobilised by public pledges. This is deeply problematic for developing countries as some of it is not new money at all and some potentially adds to their debt levels.

So, the past week has shown that, perhaps for the first time ever, a real political will exists to reach an ambitious deal, and that this is shared by the developing as well as the developed world. Of course, such will is never sufficient and major issues still await decision. But, as the first week ends and a draft text is being refined to hand over to the French hosts to work on over the weekend, one can be cautiously optimistic that CoP21 Paris may go down as the turning point when the world at long last begins the difficult transition to a low-carbon society.

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

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