Climate change negotiations: An end to adolescence?

7 things that have changed since COP15 in 2009

By Anna Nicholas

We can all remember the difference between being 15 and 21 years old. At 15, while many of us may look like semi-adults and try to act like we’re older, we‘re still eminently capable of behaving like moody children and throwing our toys out of the pram, figuratively if not literally.

But many things change within six years. At 21, many of us have finished our education or are close to finishing, and are entering the job market. A much more serious time all round, yet far from the end of the road; many things are not settled, and most of one’s life, with all its beauty, complexities and challenges, still lies ahead.

As in life, so in United Nations climate negotiations.

The 2009 UN ‘Conference of the Parties’ or COP, in Copenhagen saw talks miserably breaking down. By then, the talks were but in their 15th year.

Many things have changed since negotiations in 2009. Image: zizzybaboolah, Creative Commons Licence
Many things have changed since negotiations in 2009. Image: zizzybaboolah, Creative Commons Licence

As we look forward to COP21 in Paris at the end of November and early December, it would be easy to see the adult as a mere copy of the teenager, to let bad memories affect perceptions and hopes. Yet much has happened in just six years to make it more likely the world will ‘put away childish things’ and reach a deal. Here are just a few:

1. In Copenhagen, diplomatic deadlock between China and the US was a big factor in its failure, with relations chilled in the cold Danish air and with each of the ‘super-emitters’ finding a ready excuse for its own inaction in the other’s. These two countries – accounting for over one third of global greenhouse gas emissions – are now in a very different place. The US has now embraced the role of a climate leader on the international stage. This is reflected in the Clean Power Plan, aiming to cut electricity sector emissions 30% by 2030. The US and China have also signed a deal to work together to cut carbon dioxide emissions. China has announced it will reduce the carbon intensity of its economy and peak carbon emissions by 2030 or sooner (and many say it could indeed happen faster).

China and the US have made two bilateral announcements to reduce emissions. Image: US Embassy The Hague, Creative Commons Licence
China and the US have made two bilateral announcements to reduce emissions. Image: US Embassy The Hague, Creative Commons Licence

2. While in 2009 many countries went to Copenhagen unwilling to commit to ambitious pledges, most countries have now submitted their emission reduction plans ahead of Paris. This includes all the largest emitters and emerging economies, making it more likely there will be a deal.

3. At national level, efforts are also quite impressive. The UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act made Britain a pioneer in setting a long-term, legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions. Yet, the country is – and was – far from being isolated. In 2009, according to a study by GLOBE International and the London School of Economics, there were already 426 climate change laws and policies around the world. Despite the Copenhagen debacle, many countries have continued to develop their own climate legislation, and by the end of 2014 there were 804 laws in place, covering over 75% of global emissions.

4. Meanwhile, there are early but positive signs that the world is beginning to decouple GDP from emissions. PwC’s seventh annual Low Carbon Economy Index – issued this week - found that carbon intensity among the Group of 20 major economies declined in 2014 at its steepest rate since 2000. The IEA made a related striking finding this year, stating that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions didn't rise significantly in 2014 despite continued growth in GDP.

5. Falling coal use in China, combined with far higher use of renewable energy is among the reasons. And that’s not just true for China. Renewables have witnessed spectacular growth rates all over the world in just a few years, also thanks to the fact that solar PV module costs have fallen by 75% since the end of 2009. Back then renewables were just establishing themselves as a source of power, but they are now the world's second largest source of electricity – themselves coming of age.

Solar PV module costs have dropped rapidly. Image: Brookhaven National Laboratory, Creative Commons Licence
Solar PV module costs have dropped rapidly. Image: Brookhaven National Laboratory, Creative Commons Licence

6. Meanwhile, the science of climate change is more certain than ever. The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2013/4, was welcomed by world leaders as the most comprehensive assessment ever of climate change science, economics and policy options for decarbonisation. It also increased the certainty of its main conclusion: that climate change driven by human activity poses serious risks to society.

7. Public awareness of climate change is increasing. The Pope has addressed an ‘Encyclical’ on the environment to all human beings, not just the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, reaching out to far wider audiences than ever before. The Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Islamic leaders have also pledged support for strong action and are helping raise awareness of climate change amongst their faithful. The moral case for acting on climate change has been made more strongly than ever, and that case is supported by the global population, with polls indicating 70-80% support for curbing carbon emissions.

Pope Francis at the UN General Assembly. Image: DFID - UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons Licence
Pope Francis at the UN General Assembly. Image: DFID - UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons Licence

Of course, this is not to say that all is perfect ahead of Paris. Countries’ emission reduction commitments are, once summed up, so far insufficient to keep some climate impacts from becoming irreversible and catastrophic. Whereas governments are pledged to keep global warming below 2C since the pre-industrial era, as it stands we are heading for around 2.7C. This is an improvement to an earlier assessment we were heading for 3.1C, but clearly it is still not good enough.

But this is a long process. No international issue, from nuclear arms control to polio eradication, has ever been dealt with in one fell swoop. The Paris summit should be judged not by whether it solves everything but by, for example, whether it starts to put the world on the right track by ‘bending’ the emissions-as-usual curve; whether it leads to stronger emission cuts through a long term goal for eliminating carbon emissions and regular revisions of commitments over time; whether it sends a message to investors in the public and private spheres that a low-carbon global era is coming.