This weekend saw 600,000 people take to the streets in more than 175 countries to voice their concern about climate change ahead of the UN COP21 summit, which begins today in Paris. It is a notably rare thing that climate change, arguably the overarching issue of our time, receives such significant media attention. Typically, its slow pace of change production, uncertain outcomes and lack of clear narrative keep the topic out of the headlines.
What residents of Paris would give for such anonymity. In 2015, their city dominated the headlines like no other. Parisians will doubtless reflect bitterly on a year bookended by appalling terrorist attacks, yet there remains an opportunity for a postscript in the French capital providing a far lighter prism through which 2015 may be viewed in the years to come.
COP21 is arguably the most significant climate summit in history, and it is also the biggest gathering of world leaders that there has ever been. What does and doesn’t get agreed between now and the 11th of December will set the direction of travel for a wide range of policies throughout the developed and developing world.
In spite of the disappointment many felt after the last major summit in Copenhagen six years ago, hopes for Paris are higher than ever, and with good reason. Preparations for the summit have been far more thorough than in 2009, with countries clearly staking out their commitments ahead of the meeting, and there is a sense of an alignment of interests going into the negotiations this week. Indeed, it is tempting to draw parallels with the circumstances that produced the 2008 Climate Change Act in the UK, still one of the most ambitious pieces of domestic climate legislation anywhere in the world.
Whatever people may think of Ed Miliband’s time as Leader of the Opposition, he was regarded as an effective Energy and Climate Change Secretary, and much of the momentum behind the Bill must be credited to him, although Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Miliband were also influential in laying the groundwork for the Act. On the other side of the House, David Cameron’s famous use of environmentalism as a means to soften the Tory brand quelled opposition within his own party, who were desperate to turn around a string of electoral defeats.
This year, the championing of climate action by key global figures including the Pope, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama (who has made it clear that this is a legacy issue for him), provides similar leadership and direction.
The Role of Business
Another significant factor in the lead up to 2008 was a changing perspective from the business community, who had begun to realise the commercial threat posed by climate change, as well as the opportunities presented by taking action. Influential reports by the Stern Commission and the Confederation of British Industry highlighted the economic impacts of climate inaction and called for a new approach.
Now many large businesses are ahead of states on environmental protection, with corporate giants like Mars, Unilever and Ikea making bold commitments and asking governments to back them up. Financial behemoths like Allianz are starting to cut fossil fuels out of their investments, while international banks are creating specific green funds for the first time and pointing out the risks of carbon bubbles and overvalued assets.
The parliament of 2005-2010 saw a rare moment of competition rather than partisanship between the main political parties in the UK. The parties sought to outdo each other in emphasising their green credentials, rather than questioning the wisdom of taking action.
In Paris, the anthropogenic basis for climate change is no longer under dispute. Consensus on the need to take action and to emerge with a deal is also higher than at any previous conference, yet it is important not to underestimate the challenge. India is expected to argue fiercely for its right to burn her coal reserves, believing (quite rightly) that poverty alleviation in the country must come first. Yet other nations are proving that low-carbon development is achievable, and indeed the investments being made into renewable technology by China should be seen as one of the major contributory factors to the optimism surrounding this conference.
Another dispute will be whether any deal should be legally binding. The EU leads most of the world in desiring this outcome, yet the USA will argue against it, since any deal would be unlikely to pass through the Republican-dominated Senate. Nonetheless, the Kyoto Protocol shows that legally binding deals are not necessarily the panacea they might seem.
A further bone of contention will be the scale of climate finance payments made by developed to developing nations; a form of reparations to help them adapt to the impacts of a changing climate – impacts that they did little to cause but will suffer from most acutely. However, even around this potentially thorny issue there is good reason to believe a deal can be struck, with developed nations already well on the way to providing the $100bn annual fund which they promised back in 2009.
Still not enough?
However, the pledges on the table in Paris will not be sufficient to limit global warming to internationally accepted standards, according to analysis published last month by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change.
They expect current commitments on the table to limit warming to 2.7°C (providing they are met), well above the widely agreed upper limit of 2°C, within which it is hoped the very worst impacts of climate change (including the nightmare scenario of runaway warming) can be avoided.
The deal is therefore likely to include a ratcheting mechanism whereby targets can be reassessed every five years, but nonetheless it is clear that there is much hard work to come. And, as with the Climate Change Act, commitments made are only valuable so long as legislation is in place to support them.
Yet with so much at stake, onlookers will hope that Paris will be seen retrospectively as the beginning of a new era of climate co-operation. In a testing year for the French, the values of liberté, égalité and fraternité could help to produce one of 2015’s most important moments in its most symbolic city.