Article / 10 December 2015 at 12:56 GMT

It's crunch time for the climate as Paris summit closes in on a deal

Consulting editor / TradingFloor
  • Negotiators from 195 nations attempt to achieve Paris climate deal by Friday
  • Accord would bind governments collectively to reach a global temperature goal
  • Disagreements remain over ambition level, who will pay, and how much

Paris climate conference
 The UN climate conference in Paris has entered the final stretch: Image: UNFCCC webcast

By John Acher

While you were glued to the eye-popping action in the financial markets, nearly 200 nations have been gathered at a United Nations climate conference in Paris this month to try to hammer out a new worldwide accord to combat climate change and limit global warming to 2°C from pre-industrial levels.

The talks in Paris have come down to the wire, as the presidency has asked negotiators to produce a new draft agreement by this afternoon and wrap up a deal by Friday. Doubts remain about whether the deal will provide the cuts in greenhouse emissions that scientists say are needed to avoid catastrophic warming of the planet.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday afternoon: "We've made progress but still a lot of work remains to be done."

A draft agreement released on Wednesday was slimmed down to 29 pages from the previous draft's 43, but many hurdles remain, including the overall ambition of how far to go in curbing warming and who is to pay for the costly shift to low-carbon energy and adaptation to climate change.

Negotiators from 195 countries are still working on three options for a global temperature goal: 

  1. To hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, 
  2. ”Well below 2°C” above pre-industrial levels and to scale up global efforts to limit the rise to below 1.5°C, 
  3. To hold the increase below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Under the deal, governments would collectively aim to reach the global temperature goal.

The Paris conference represents the first time in more than 20 years of UN talks that governments aim to reach a legally binding and universal agreement on climate. If a deal is reached, it would be the first treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

Current commitments run out in 2020, so the November 30–December 11 conference is working on a deal that would set the framework for 2020–30, and possibly beyond.

Lower ambition than Copenhagen

The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP21 for short, has a lower ambition but higher hopes for success than did COP15 in Copenhagen six years ago when world leaders' failure to agree binding cuts in greenhouse emissions was judged a dismal setback on a road that began 23 years ago in Rio.

Now, instead of binding emissions cuts, the 196 parties to the UNFCCC have been asked to bring their own national climate action plans to the table in hopes that policies adopted by big emitters, including the US and China, will pull smaller nations along and ensure that rich and poor nations get behind a deal.

Freeway traffic

Particularly rich ones. Photo: iStock

That means the deal will be based on voluntary and widely differing emissions reductions plans from the countries.

The conference, with some 25,000 delegates from governments, businesses and NGOs, takes place amid unabated and often surreal public debate in many nations, especially the US, over whether temperatures are rising, whether human activity is to blame, and whether anything can or should be done about it despite a large consensus among scientists that speaks for action. 

The Paris draft agreement emphasises the need to respond to ”the urgent threat of climate change on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge, in particular, the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

As ever, disagreements at the Paris conference centre on who should pay and how much.

The question is how much rich nations should pay to help poor nations achieve their climate plans from 2020. Wealthy countries have committed to contributing $100 billion annually to help developing nations, but only if the poorer countries do their best to limit emissions and embrace tougher rules on how pollution is calculated and reduced.

Poor countries have asked for the amount to be raised, but rich nations have been unwilling to agree to a binding increase, and instead want mechanisms that would broaden the donor base in the future to China and other countries, which they say can afford it.

On Thursday, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres called for a final push to meet goals for an $80 million adaptation fund to help vulnerable communities in developing countries adapt to climate change.

Hopes for a Paris deal were heightened by a joint announcement in November a year ago by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping – leaders of the two biggest economies and two biggest emitters – committing their countries to reducing emissions in the post-2020 period.

US government officials say that US-China accord changed the tenor of the international discussions from earlier efforts and paved the way for more than 160 countries to come forward with their own emissions reductions plans.

Paris rush hour traffic
 The UN climate conference brought tens of thousands of participants to Paris. Photo: iStock

Here comes everybody

Altogether, including climate activists, celebrities, business leaders, and other interested observers, an estimated 40,000 people descended on Paris for the climate conference, despite the chilling atmosphere in the aftermath of the November 13 terrorist attacks.

With the conference coming on the heels of the deadly shootings in Paris, many leaders who addressed the conference hastened -- more or less elegantly -- to link the efforts to halt climate change to the struggle against terrorism around the globe. 

Microsoft founder Bill Gates put together a band of like-minded investors and launched a multi-billion-dollar clean energy research and development initiative on the sidelines of the conference.

Pope Francis weighed into the discussion in June with an encyclical letter, calling climate change ”a global problem with grave implications" and calling for a new and universal solidarity to ”protect our common home.”

In mid-October, the heads of 10 international oil and gas companies – BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco, Total, Statoil, Repsol, Pemex, India's Reliance Industries, BG Group and Italy's Eni – called in a joint declaration for an effective climate change agreement in Paris and recognised the 2°C temperature ambition, but also urged governments to explore how natural gas and carbon capture could play a bigger role in the energy mix as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The declaration brought into stark focus differences of opinion on climate policy between those 10 IOCs, where governments have control or large stakes, and their American counterparts, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, which chose not to attend the conference. 

Business leaders have for years called for a price to be put on carbon and for a well-functioning cross-border marketplace in emissions credits to be created so that market mechanisms would lead to carbon emissions reductions, rather than governmental regulations.

But no breakthrough on a carbon marketplace should be expected, on the basis of the Paris draft agreement.

 Climate scientists warn that global warming can lead to drought, flooding, rising seas, melting of polar ice and other drastic climate effects. Photo: iStock

John Acher is consulting editor at TradingFloor


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