Paris talks: a climate for action?

30 September 2014

COP 21 will need to prove that the international community has not failed on climate change, writes Jonathan Cobb.  

In 2009, world leaders met in Copenhagen - along with 40,000 civil servants, NGOs and journalists - in what was described as a vital conference in progressing beyond the Kyoto Protocol in the fight against climate change. The leaders agreed to make pledges that were far less effective than they needed to be, while most of the NGOs found themselves locked out due to overcrowding. Coupled with the controversy over the Climategate emails, these failings produced the perfect storm to seed growing scepticism over climate change.

Since then, the annual UNFCCC COP/MOP meetings have continued each year with far less fanfare and little obvious progress. And despite the global financial crisis that took people's minds off the long-term threat of climate change and refocused them on the more pressing economic trials, global emissions of greenhouse gases have continued to rise.

When Ban Ki-Moon called for a climate summit in New York earlier this month it was the first time in nearly five years that heads of state had met to discuss climate change in depth. The meeting was intended to kick off a process that will culminate in Paris at the end of next year at COP 21 with a climate change accord for 2020 and beyond.

There are many challenges ahead before any agreement is reached. The world has changed since the UNFCCC first came into effect. China, India and others have emerged to become economic powerhouses, with greenhouse gas emissions to match. Emissions per capita in China are now higher than for Europe. Any new global agreement will need to include China, now the country with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, and the United States, which has the second highest emissions, and never joined the Kyoto Protocol. Speeches in New York by US President Barack Obama or China’s Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli signalled good intentions, but no radical shift in established positions.

So what hope is there for a meaningful new deal in Paris next year? It is hard not to be pessimistic. The early years of the COP meetings were exciting. The public negotiations may have moved at a glacial pace, but behind the scenes governments seemed focussed on reaching agreement. Moreover, there appeared to be real synergy with the presence of business and environmental groups making a meaningful contribution. It was a place of learning and discovery as delegates found out about the issues of climate change science and the key issues of the climate change negotiations themselves.

However, after COP 6 failed to reach a full agreement the meetings became ossified. Political positions became entrenched and each year's long two weeks of negotiations seemed less relevant, as a pattern emerged where nothing would happen until heads of state flew in and reached agreement deep into extra time in the conference schedule. The civil society participation became separated from the negotiations, with exhibition stands and lectures seeming little more than a sideshow. Copenhagen even failed to achieve this.

The New York meeting brought a new agreement to stop deforestation, agreed not by all countries at the UN meeting, but signed by 27 governments, 34 companies and more than 60 groups representing indigenous peoples and environmental groups. That progress was made on this issue at all may be because Ban’s meeting was outside of the COP meeting process, where changes in direction seem to happen with an oil tanker-like slowness.

Where does nuclear energy fit into this? At COP 6 nuclear had a disproportionately large significance. Anti-nuclear groups campaigned to have it excluded from the Kyoto Mechanisms, which offered credit for carbon avoidance to one country for projects carried out in another country. What emerged was a tortuous form of words that didn’t strictly exclude nuclear projects, but rendered the credits raised from them useless. And as the meeting failed to reach agreement there was a sense that, in campaigning about nuclear energy, environmental groups had lost focus on the bigger issue of pushing the politicians to act on climate change.

What is sometimes not realised is that the Kyoto Protocol and the agreements that followed it say little specifically about how governments should reach their emissions targets. The latest reports of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continue to recognise nuclear energy has the potential to be an important mitigation option.

Electricity production accounts for around a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and nuclear generation is responsible for around 11% of its electricity production. That might seem relatively minor, but it still represents one of the single biggest technological contributions to climate change mitigation. Moreover, through a spectrum of contributions from nuclear and renewables, the electricity generation mixes in France, Switzerland and Sweden, have achieved today the low carbon footprints that in other sectors seem to be challenging targets to achieve even over several decades into the future.

Whatever strategies countries may take to reduce emissions in electricity generation, or other sectors, they won't be decided or dictated at COP meetings. And perhaps here is where there is cause for optimism.

Europe continues to set its own lead on greenhouse gas emissions reductions, with its nation states choosing their own strategies. China may move faster away from coal toward nuclear and renewables, not driven by the long term goal of avoiding climate change, but because of the immediate threat to the health of hundreds of millions of people caused by air pollution from fossil fuels.

Next year's meeting in Paris will refocus global attention on climate change. For those who wish to see progress on emissions reductions, the worry may be that Paris, like Copenhagen, will be set up with false expectations. If the main measure of success is a more complex and more ambitious successor to the Kyoto Protocol, it is likely to fail. Paris may then be held up as an example that the international community has failed on climate change.

It may be the right time for a change of purpose for the COP meetings. If global agreements can be reached, then that will help galvanise international action. But more than that they should focus international attention on climate change, showcase the progress being made in the transition to a global low carbon economy. They should be the launch pad for agreements like that reached on forestry in New York, promoting international cooperation amongst the willing, rather than negotiating a half-hearted set of agreements denuded of ambition in order to gain the grudging agreement of those who'd rather not take any action.

Jonathan Cobb

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Dr Jonathan Cobb is Senior Communication Manager at the World Nuclear Association. Prior to that he was WNA's Media Director and Advisor on Climate Change and represented the WNA at meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.