Massive opportunity to tackle climate change
The UN-brokered climate change conference in Paris will commence on November 30. Despite the recent terrorist attacks that rocked Paris and the subsequent high alert that remains in place, President Francois Hollande has affirmed that “the international conference will not only go ahead but will bring hope and solidarity”. The UN has been working on a global climate agreement since 2009.
Can Paris deliver this long-awaited universal outcome?
One hundred and twenty world leaders are expected to attend the opening of the conference. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) expects over 10,000 delegates from 195 nations and over 14,000 representatives from civil society.
Parisians have returned to the streets and cafes. They have not allowed fear to paralyse the city. The underlying tension is, nevertheless, palpable. What does it mean to host a global conference on climate change soon after the worst attacks in French history since World War II?
For one, the determination, commitment and lack of deterrence of world leaders are highlighted. Two, clearly, the world community is willing to act collectively to address global threats.
The gathering in Paris is even more significant because of the umbilical link between climate change and dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. The more visionary the climate agreement is towards shifting the world economy to renewable energy sources, the greater the peace dividend.
These finite resources have played a significant role in shaping developments in the Middle East and beyond, including high-conflict states like Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. In several cases, oil is a source of revenue that empowers terrorist groups, including Daesh. New sources of livelihood will need to be created in countries from both the global south and north that are heavily depended on fossil fuels.
The expectations of an ambitious climate agreement are low. All countries need to rise to the occasion and decide on a long-term goal to prevent the worst climate change scenarios predicted by scientists and limit the average global temperature rise to below two degrees Celsius. The current conversation circles around the options on how this goal can limit emissions - whether in terms of partially decarbonising the economy or transitioning to a completely renewable energy system - while also being in line with peace and security objectives.
There is no disputing the urgency. Climate scientist Michael Mann warned: “We can emit only 270 billion more tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere and keep warming below two degrees Celsius. At the current emission rate of more than 10 billion tonnes a year, we will burn through this “carbon budget” in just three decades. According to one recent analysis, staying below two degrees Celsius would require that a third of all proven reserves of oil, half of all natural gas and 80 percent of coal remain in the ground.”
Ahead of the conference, 164 countries - from the highest to the lowest emitters - have submitted their climate plans, and the number keeps growing. This is a universal effort, embraced by all countries. However, these climate plans fall below the required level to limit the global average temperature rise. The agreement, therefore, must include a periodic review, most likely every five years, in order to increase national ambition and eventually fall in line with the expected trajectory. This periodic review represents the backbone of the global agreement.
This “bottom-up” approach, in which every country sets its own climate reduction contribution, has led to greater ownership since it has not been imposed from above. Under this new design, the right incentives need to encourage governments, the private sector, and civil society to “race to the top” and to lead by example, instead of backsliding and free-riding.
Developed countries need to assume, with all seriousness, their historic responsibility on this issue. The Paris conference needs to deliver a strong climate finance package, including a credible path to meeting the $100 billion per year commitment by 2020. Developing countries also need to step up and address climate change in all sectors, particularly energy.
Climate change requires a deeper level of multilateral cooperation. In this case, the real “enemy” cannot be subdued by sending “boots” to the frontline but rather by changing habits of unsustainable consumption and production.
Participants in the talks are also aware that the Paris agreement will not be the only solution to address climate change. Greater engagement by civil society and the private sector as essential components. The Pope’s encyclical has placed this issue in the minds of millions of devotees and concerned citizens. Last year, the global People’s Climate March attracted more than 400,000 individuals.
Security concerns have resulted in the cancellation of climate marches planned during the Paris talks. Nonetheless, many are still calling for populations to mobilise around the world and hold marches and events in multiple cities in solidarity with the conference. The crucial question is: will UN member states, and the international community at large, understand the role of the climate agreement in preventing an unprecedented global disaster? Until then, the focus will be on increasing pressure and building momentum. This is an opportunity that will not be available anytime soon!
(Hardeep Singh Puri is vice president and Jimena Leiva-Roesch is a policy analyst at the International Peace Institute, New York. The views expressed are strictly personal)