Expectations are rising faster than temperatures ahead of the crucial United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this December. The talks aim to win approval from more than 190 countries to reach a global pact in the fight against climate change.
The big headline grabber ahead of the talks is the pledge by global heads of state to keep the Earth’s average temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. Yet in the absence of a set plan on emissions mitigation, governments are unlikely to fulfil this promise.
“As it stands, national climate plans submitted to the UN are likely to result in global warming of more than two degrees Celsius,” says Karsten Löffler of Allianz Climate Solutions. “What we should expect out of Paris instead is agreement on an institutional framework – covering a large share of global emissions – aiming to put the world on track to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions beyond.”
Löffler is convinced there will be an agreement in Paris. “Negotiations will focus on the shape of the institutional agreement and international cooperation. Reaching an agreement among more than 190 nations won’t be easy, though.”
Yet time is not on the side of negotiating nations; if global emissions don’t decrease by at the latest, the costs of a two-degree warming limit would dramatically increase. Currently, the national pledges add up to a much later peak. This is why the more ambitious countries support a five-year review process of national climate targets to allow a ratcheting up over time.
Additionally, the agreement will need to get the US on board. To avoid going through Congress, the agreement could be formulated to include aspects that are already part of US law or proposals to which it does not have to commit legally. “Yet the attempt to avoid US congress should not come at the expense of an effective effort to combat climate change,” Löffler says.
So, after Kyoto and Copenhagen, what’s new about Paris? This time round, all countries are expected to do their part, including poorer nations. “This is drastically different from the Kyoto Protocol, where all the burden was on the industrialised countries,” says Löffler. “The fastest emissions growth is now occurring in emerging economies and poorer nations will receive financial support to help them participate in reduction efforts. This empowers them to not imitate our carbon intensive development path, as there are viable alternatives available now.”
WHAT IS REALLY GOOD ENOUGH?
Ultimately, Paris promises to introduce a global agreement combining a strong institutional framework that allows for more ambitious targets in the future and each nation’s commitment to share their action plans, so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) ahead of the talks. Some countries have already presented their INDCs: China has agreed that its emissions will peak by, or earlier if possible; the US has said it will cut emissions by 26%-28% below levels by, and the EU has committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from levels by.
But is that really good enough? Critics slate the new approach for being too lenient, worrying that it might encourage countries to do as little as possible. This is why the top down framework is so important: it can counter leniency by putting in place strong incentives and demands. “It’s clear that ambitions have to increase over time, but this will require an institutional framework that reinforces this gradual upscaling in a transparent way, allowing for peer pressure to work its way,” says Löffler.
Meanwhile, temperatures are increasing, glaciers are melting and speculation over a hiatus in global warming unfounded. “This alleged pause is often created by using, an exceptionally warm year, as a basis for comparing temperature increases. If you compare temperature differences to overall temperature averages in the, then it’s a different picture altogether, Löffler explains.
Consequently, the world is well advised to move faster. “But given the number of countries at the table and the broad range of emissions, we enter unchartered territory. This will be the first agreement of its kind, which in itself is pretty ambitious.”