COP 21 or Catch 22?

Next week in Paris, in the shadow of terrible events and constant threat of terrorism, the meeting known as COP 21 will be held, where all world leaders will gather and are supposed to initiate a paradigm shift in the fight against climate change.

What is COP?

In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit adopted The UN Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNCCC) and the yearly meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC  (COP) were established in order to review the implementation of this convention. This started with the COP 1 in 1995 in Berlin.

Other milestones were:

  • COP 3 in 1997: The adoption of Kyoto protocol until 2012.
  • COP 15 in 2009 in Copenhagen: This was designed as a substantial conference but an attempt to achieve a follow-up to the Kyoto Treaty failed and it only resulted in “taking note” of a document stating that climate change is serious and any increase in the earth’s temperature should be limited to +2˚C.
  • Cop 17 in 2011 in Durban: Agreement to go for a second “Kyoto” commitment period 2013-2020 and a legally binding deal by 2015 for post-2020 and the creation of a fund.
  • COP 18 in 2012 in Doha: Agreement on the extension of the Kyoto agreement until 2020. However, ratification appears to be going very slowly. Even the EU, self-style global leader, agreed only in the summer of 2015 to start national ratifications.
  • COP 20 in 2014 in Lima: In this conference adaptation to climate change was elevated to the same level as mitigation. Moreover, Lima paved the way for a new agreement to be struck at the decisive COP21 in Paris by gathering the so-called nationally intended determined contributions (INDC’s). These are the pledges through which the countries communicate their plans for green house gas (GHG) reduction post-2020.

Next week this should culminate in COP 21 in Paris.

COP 21 aims to achieving a legally binding agreement on the basis of these national contributions. However, the INDCs that most countries have issued seem to result in +3˚C global warming. That is beyond the 2˚C targeted since Copenhagen and it is also beyond the limit that can provide for reliable modelling of the impact upon the earth. According to the famous “Stern report” of 2006, the world would become a “very unpleasant planet to live on” when climate change reaches +4˚C and all kind of harmful chain reactions in nature start.

Nevertheless, there is still hope that a greater reduction in climate change can be achieved by the engagement of non-state actors such as big cities and that these will add up to enough of a cut to limit climate change to +2˚C by the end of the century.

To predict the outcome of Paris is not easy, but the situation is extremely serious and in these circumstances it is important not to be misled by rhetoric without much real substance.

A legally binding agreement sounds good and it is rather likely that something with this stamp will be agreed in Paris, but what will it mean?

The 1992 UNFCCC is already binding parties to do their best to protect the planet, but it is drafted in such general terms that it cannot be enforced.

It is quite possible to pass in Paris another legally binding text obliging parties to achieve their pledges but this can easily be watered down by adding words like “as far as appropriate ” or “as far as practically possible”.

And then, even if we have a more concrete text how is it enforced?

The Kyoto agreement was legally binding, but Canada simply pulled out when it could not achieve the agreed emission level. No sanctions followed.

And then, even if we have sanctions in place how is it all to be monitored?

The basic problem of CO2 emissions is that it costs money to reduce them but it costs nothing (in cash terms) to release them and there is often no trace of  whence they come.

Maybe it would be better to agree in Paris on very concrete actions at a lower level than country targets and in sectors that have proven to be effective and/or controllable.

My wish list would be as follows:

  • Worldwide strict efficiency standards on all energy-consuming products that are sold, including means of transport and big machines. The purchasing party can control the application of these standards.
  • Border taxes on products from countries that manufacture these products in a carbon non-efficient way. The WTO should agree on such taxes but this concerns an issue that goes beyond the principle of free trade. This would also stop the discussions on carbon leakage in the EU.
  • Generous financing of the preservation of forests in developing countries and immediate reduction of this funding when global satellites spot land use change.
  • Massive campaigns to reduce the consumption of meat in the world and taxation on imported food products that have an excessive carbon footprint.

I am afraid the above list is a dream that will not yet come true, but it would help more than a sophisticated text drawn up by lawyers and diplomats but one that may simply lead to even greater complacency. There is not much time left and shifting the blame onto others or not looking further than the immediate elections ahead should be no longer be an option!

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