A View from the Think Tank – What to hope for from the Paris Conference, and what to expect

This is the first of the series of posts we will publish in the run up to the COP21 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, scheduled to commence in one week’s time.

Three weeks ago, the Annual EDF Lecture took place at Imperial College London, delivered by the CEO of EDF Energy, Vincent de Rivaz. The company is the UK’s largest producer of low carbon electricity.

The two takeaways from the lecture were the diplomatic challenge and the nuclear assertion in tackling climate change, both of which are moving in the positive direction, according to Rivaz.

Everyone and virtually every organisation has a stake in climate change so reaching an agreement at the diplomatic level is tricky, not least because large corporations have vested interest in the debate and their lobbying presence will undoubtedly be felt at the Conference. This is one of the reasons why bilateral talks will pave the way for multinational agreement or perhaps a treaty, an unrealised hope from Copenhagen.

Bilateral talks between France and China that took place at the beginning of the week are promising, so is the Anglo-Chinese deal almost a year ago – China is on top as the country responsible for nearly 25% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. These developments evoke optimism for the upcoming conference, however more tangible outcomes are needed. Carbon pricing would be a realistic and decisive measure, which Rivaz expects to be championed by Europe. Yet, neither carbon pricing nor taxing are on the horizon and such prospects have been almost entirely ruled out for the upcoming conference.

On the production side, nuclear energy was affirmed as the way forward for achieving low carbon electricity. With the development of myriad advancements in the fields of science and technology in mind, there is a case to be made about the future of nuclear energy. After all hydropower, previously a matter of great debate and import is today a nonissue. Yet, two of the plentiful nuclear challenges identified by Rivaz are: meeting the technical challenge of plant longevity and making cutting edge technologies affordable for customers.

Climate change is not a myth; neither is its irreversibility. Yet, with only a few weeks to go to Paris, hovering political and financial obstacles paint a picture that is far from rosy. In the past, it was the American stance that seemed to retard agreement, but in the upcoming conference, the main contender for pessimism is the difficulty in engaging developing countries with global climate policy. Yet, we have reached a point where world leaders do not have the luxury of stalling any longer. If an agreement is reached, joint efforts will target an unsatisfactory 2.7-Celsius limit in global warming, short of the 2C to prevent catastrophic consequences, while the current emission trajectories point towards a 5C rise in global temperature.

The exclusion of developing countries from the Kyoto Protocol was what pushed the US from the treaty. The protocol of 1997 set the target of 5% in emission cuts by 2012, which would reverse carbon emissions back to the 1990 levels. The pact assigned each developed country a target reduction, while excluding emerging economies such as China and other developing countries such as Brazil and Mexico. Such a move to stay out of the pact is inextricably bound up with economic concerns, as all three countries are growing economies with dynamic industries to uphold and efforts to go green would be a temporary yet detrimental blow on growth.

On the other hand, the decision by the United States to not ratify the treaty can be understood if one takes a quick glance at the country’s stance on the Geneva Convention, another unratified international agreement. The Convention, with its regulations on torture and prisoners of war, goes against some of the vital national security policies of the US and thus, against its core interests. One way to understand the American reluctance on Kyoto is by considering the global market and the mutually reinforcing economic relationship between a developed economic giant, a developing economic giant and neighbouring markets. Another view is the deep-seated American fears of rising super powers and challenge China might pose to its global aspirations.

Yet, the US has indeed committed to deep emission cuts in a secret deal made with China in early November. The country has pledged to reduce carbon output by 26-28% by 2025 and China has agreed to peak its emissions by 2030 at the latest. The decisive participation of the US in the global climate regime not only has tangible value in terms of capping the second largest carbon emitter but also intangible value, as super power engagement reinforces the moral standing of agreement and thus, acts as leverage vis-a-vis other nations.

One of the biggest hurdles that has come up pre-Paris is the engagement of developing countries in the new climate change regime – what will their commitments be and more importantly, how will those be financed? At Copenhagen a financial deal was made at the eleventh hour, with rich countries agreeing to provide $100bn a year by 2020 to poorer countries to finance cleaner energy without impoverishing their citizens and hampering their economy. To ensure developing countries such as India are on board with global climate policies, funds need to be flowing after 2020. Indeed, India’s consent hinges upon this condition being met in Paris.

Still, disagreement over financial assistance remains in place. Should the money be reserved from national public budgets or NGOs such as the World Bank or yet, the private sector? In a period where austerity has tightened its grip on Europe, is it morally acceptable to hold the EU or individual European countries accountable for such global financing? After all, the best-case scenario, i.e. an international treaty, can only be legally enforceable by the UN, which exercises limited power on sovereign states. Moreover, the allocation of resources will be inevitably contentious – how will the pie be distributed; what will the time span be; what governmental bodies will be responsible for receiving the assistance in-country; what national structures are in place to monitor the fair allocation of the funds?

Copenhagen resulted in an agreement but not a legally binding treaty to limit greenhouse emissions. Although still short of the advised scientific level, consensus reached on united action was not only a gesture but perhaps demonstration of a willingness to make compromises and more importantly, a shared realization that next time round, it needs to work, which is the brightest hope to be had for Paris.

Begum Icelliler, Energy & Environment Editor

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