Hot air won't help Earth to chill

Environmental activists parody world leaders at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, an informal meeting to prepare for the UN climate change conference in Paris in November. (Soeren Stache, AFP)

Environmental activists parody world leaders at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, an informal meeting to prepare for the UN climate change conference in Paris in November. (Soeren Stache, AFP)


In just under 200 days, the world will agree to a binding climate change agreement. World economies will ditch fossil fuels and go carbon neutral. Global warming will stay under 2°C. In theory.

In practice, the agreement will be a middle-of-the-road compromise that starts a longer process to lower carbon emissions.

The science is unequivocal. The world is on average 0.8°C warmer than when the Industrial Revolution started, according to United Nations climate research.

Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of physics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said this was creating a very different world.

“In 100 years, we have outdone 5 000 years of cooling.”

‘Different planet’
Climate systems were being shifted out of their natural cycles. By the end of this century, record-breaking heatwaves would be regular, he said. “We are creating a very different planet. One that is way out of the entire experience of human civilisation.”

This is if business as usual continues. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nation’s climate body, says there is still time to take a carbon neutral path. This would cost 0.06% in reduced global gross domestic product (GDP), it said in a report last year.

To achieve the goal of lowering carbon emissions, annual meetings – the Conferenceof the Parties (COP) – have been held for the past 21 years. Their goal is to create a global, binding, agreement on lowering emissions, and to help vulnerable countries survive climate change.

In the 1990s, this seemed feasible. In 1987, an agreement stopped chlorofluorocarbon emissions that were destroying the ozone layer. A decade later, the Kyoto Protocol was signed. This divided the world into developed and developing countries, and put the burden on the former to lower emissions and assist others.

But, in 2000, George Bush was elected president of the United States and he pulled it out of any agreement. At the same time, the Brazilian, Indian and Chinese economies exploded, creating high emitters who still had low per capita wealth. Last year China’s emissions surpassed those of the US.

Collapsed negotiations
In 2009, countries went to the COP in Copenhagen with the world hopeful of an agreement. On the last night, the draft text was 400 pages and contained 6 000 square brackets – wording that had not been agreed on. Negotiations collapsed.

Several people who were involved say this was because too little preparation had been made, and the divide between countries was too great.

It took the 2011 Durban meeting to resuscitate the process. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action saw 196 countries agree that, by 2015, there would be a “protocol, legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force”, which would be “applicable to all parties”. This would come into force in 2020.

A negotiator said that the negotiations boiled down to some basic issues: who was responsible for the majority of carbon emissions and, therefore, who would pay for damage from climate change; and would the large developing economies also pay? “There are some seriously entrenched positions, with countries refusing to budge,” they said.

Another negotiator said two-thirds of all fossil fuel was owned by state companies, and oil-rich countries tried to block any cap on the burning of fossil fuels. These countries work together in large negotiating blocks - in climate negotiations countries work together for speed and more bargaining power.

The least powerful of these blocks are the small island states and poorer developing countries, who will also be the most affected by climate change. They are arguing for more ambitious targets to keep temperature increases below 1.5°C. With few emissions, these countries are focused on adapting to the impacts of climate change - something they say the developed world should pay for.

But this leaves the problem of what a developed country is. The same negotiator said large emitters, such as China and India, were loath to be reclassified as developed in terms of their emissions. “They play hardball and refuse any reconsideration of the firewall [which set out which countries are developed, and which are developing.” This is one of the most contentious issues in the climate negotiations, they said. “The issue of who pays is a real deal breaker.” 

The greatest objectors are countries that do not want any agreement that allows a body to question the actions they are taking.

“China and the United States will refuse any mechanism that challenges their sovereignty,” a negotiator said. Either one would only act if the other acted as well. This led to the two agreeing late last year to unilaterally lower their carbon emissions. “This means you have little space to review what countries say they will do in order to push for the global 2°C target.”

‘Not at all optimistic’
This has left people cautious before the Paris COP meeting at the end of November. Rahmstorf said: “I am not at all optimistic that we will reach a legally binding agreement that keeps us below 2°C.”

This is echoed across the board. Christina Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Con­vention on Climate Change, said on the side of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin this week that the difficulty was in breaking a 150-year-old addiction – to fossil fuels.

“We need to decouple two trajectories that have gone hand in hand: global GDP and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Before the Paris meeting, each country has to submit a carbon plan – an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution – outlining what it will do to lower emissions and adapt to climate change.

Figueres said 37 countries had submitted theirs but the sum total would not be ambitious enough to keep the world below 2°C.

Extreme weather
A global increase of that size will mean 4°C for the interior of Africa – in places such as Johannesburg. That means each day, summer and winter, will be 4°C warmer. South Africa’s climate research shows that this will completely change rainfall patterns, making most of the country drier and just the northeast wetter. But this rain will come in extreme events – heavy rains and floods.

The country has voluntarily pledged to lower its emissions by 42% by 2025, dependent on funding and support from other countries.

Albi Modise, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Affairs, said South Africa supported the Africa Group position that average temperature increases need to be kept below a 1.5°C. “The future agreement must elaborate a durable, legal, multilateral rules-based climate change system which is inclusive, fair, effective and adequate to keep temperature increases below 2°C.”

It should also have a strong emphasis on adaptation for those countries that will be most affected by climate change, he said. “The new legal agreement must build on the existing legal framework, and honour existing legal obligations and empower all parties to act.” This would based on the founding principle of the negotiations, which recognises that countries have “common but differentiated responsibility,” he said. 

Draft text
The draft text, agreed on at the Lima COP last year, has grown to more than 80 pages. But negotiators have only about 100 hours of formal negotiating time to create a binding agreement.

An African negotiator said this meant a very basic agreement, which was more symbolic than ambitious, would be signed in Paris. “This is where politics will trump science. We will have an agreement that starts us in the right direction but will need a lot of work and concessions afterwards, if we are to avert dangerous climate change.”   

This compromise is evident at every level. Negotiators say their job – in practice – is to draft language that is vague enough to allow different interpretations. Even the draft rules for each meeting have not been formalised - each COP still uses the “draft rules of procedure” as countries have not adopted them, primarily because they call for decisions to be taken through majority voting. For now, this means agreements are taken by consensus - parties only have to object, and not signal that they agree. 

The person in charge of making the Paris COP is French foreign minister Laurent Fabius. “We need to be very firm in our commitments, because there is no alternative. There is no alternative planet.” He has been talking to member states in order to find compromises on the draft text, so that fewer sticking points are left until the last hour in Paris. 

“We are probably the first generation to be fully aware [of global warming], and the last to be able to work on it.” The ambition at the heart of a COP agreement should therefore be to create a carbon-neutral world economy in the second-half of this century. This - and other ambitions - will be capture in what will be called the Paris Alliance, he said. “We will have a global, differentiated and legally-binding agreement.” 

Figueres is also positive that a binding agreement will be signed, because things are very different from the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference.

“We have more visible impacts in every country in the world, no doubt the science and technology have come to our aid.”

The cost of solar and wind technology had halved in five years. Climate change action was also being seen as a chance for countries to expand their economies in a new direction, rather than something onerous, she said. “It will work because there is no plan B. There is no planet B.”   

Sipho Kings’s trip to Germany to cover the Petersberg Climate Dialogue was paid for by the German foreign office.

Sipho Kings


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