The Paris Climate Change Summit

Posted on Monday, January 4, 2016

Blog Post

It is certainly premature to declare the end of the fossil-fuel era but what was agreed at the Paris Climate Change Summit may well lead to such a result. The Paris meetings strongly suggest that there is now a broad acceptance by governments, the private sector and civil society that climate change is a real threat; that the time has come to address the issue and that we are all in this together.

It may not be perfect, it may not be the end but it certainly is an encouraging beginning.

 Why was this such a success whereas the previous attempt in 2009 in Copenhagen was such a failure? Undoubtedly, it was in part due to the skilled organization and chairmanship of the French, in particularly the Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius. Recognizing the shortcomings of the Copenhagen meeting Fabius worked assiduously to ensure that all delegations were involved and their views heard; that the process was as transparent as could be. The engagement of Ministers was crucial.

Following intensive and all-night consultations during the final days, sufficient consensus had been achieved that when Laurent Fabius asked the floor if there were any objections he barely lifted his head to survey the room before bring down his gavel. The transparent and inclusive process ensured the result was owned by all.

This was the culmination of the brilliant idea of the French Presidency to bring together World leaders - some 150 Presidents and Prime Ministers, possibly the largest ever gathering of World leaders - at the beginning of the Summit rather than at the end of the meeting for a photo-opportunity and signing off ceremony as in Copenhagen.

Once the leaders had publically declared their commitment to an ambitious outcome the very idea of failure was no longer an option.    

There were two interlinked documents negotiated in this meeting: One was what is referred to as the Paris Agreement, the second was a supporting set of decisions of the Conference of the Parties under the UN/FCCC (which almost all countries have ratified). Together the documents consist of 31 pages of dense legal text.

At the centre of the Paris Agreement are five-year cycles involving all countries: for each cycle contributions to addressing climate change are to be more ambitious than the last. A global stocktaking held every 5 years will inform future collective efforts and occur midway through the cycle.

To track progress, governments are bound by a transparency framework. The communication of nationally determined contributions is legally-binding although their contents and targets are not - which means they do not require governmental ratification (i.e. by the US Senate). The global nature of the bottom-up “pledge and review” approach will hopefully be morally, if not strictly legally, binding on all countries.

 Perhaps the most surprising result was the agreement not just to reaffirm a previous decision to hold the increase of global temperatures to well below 2 oC above pre-industrial levels, but to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 oC. This sets an incredibly high level of ambition that was not widely expected at the beginning of the Paris meetings. The drive was provided by the charismatic foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, who pulled together a “coalition of high ambition” of rich and poor countries spanning almost 100 countries.

Achieving a 1.5 oC target effectively means reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, that is to say to reach net-zero carbon emissions where the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere matches that being taken up by the biology in the oceans and the land. This target can be compared to others suggested in the past by the science (for example in IPCC Assessment Reports): that to reach the 2 oC target global emissions have to peak and start declining this decade and we will have to keep as much as 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Unfortunately, we are already 1 oC above pre-industrial levels (a fact that most in Paris must have known).

If the Paris Summit is to achieve its goals it will require not only the actions of governments but also non-state players. The Paris Agreement indeed sends strong signals for climate action by all. Judging by the recent actions of key industry actors the end of the fossil fuel era may come sooner than we may think. But before that happens governments have a lot of work to do to translate their promises into effective plans. This is something Canada has attempted before but with insufficient political leadership. Maybe this time will be different.

John Stone, Adjunct Professor, Geography And Environmental Studies, Carleton University  

Graduated with a BSc in Chemistry (Special Honours) in 1966 and a PhD in Molecular Spectroscopy in 1969 both from the University of Reading in the UK. He came to Canada as a Post-doctoral researcher in 1969 working at the National Research Council in the spectroscopy section under G. Herzberg. He then spent a year at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in Prague before returning to Canada to continue his research interests at the University of Sherbrooke.

In 1972 he joined the Public Service of Canada assuming increasing responsibilities first in the Ministry of State for Science and Technology, and later in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the National Research Council’s Bureau of International Affairs and finally Environment Canada. He retired in 2005. During the last 15 years of his career he directed research programs on climate and atmospheric sciences as well as developed policy on a range of environmental issues.

He has had considerable experience in international science and has served Canada through his affiliation with the NATO Science Committee, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the UN/ECE Senior Advisors on Science and Technology, UN the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Scientific Steering Committee for the START program and as co-Chair for the Canada-Germany S&T Agreement. In 1997 he was appointed to the Bureau of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), specifically as Vice-Chair of Working Group I, and has since been re-appointed, now as a Vice-Chair of Working Group II.

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