COP21 – the Paris Climate Summit – has finally arrived, with negotiations kicking off late on Sunday night.
While the big news story of the day took place outside the conference halls – as over 570,000 people took to the streets around the world to call for strong climate action – inside the halls the work also begun.
The latest round of talks follows an intense 12 months for the climate and in a year that saw air temperatures reach record-breaking levels ocean temperatures hit the hottest point in 50 years, and the incidence level for freak floods and heatwaves reach an all-time high, global momentum for climate action has never been higher.
Over the past 12 months the G7 has committed to phase out fossil fuels, the world’s largest pension fund decided to divest from coal, OECD and and countries have rolled back support for fossil fuels to historic levels, and projects and pipeline from Poland, the US and Australia are collapsing.
Meanwhile, faith communities led by the Pope called for urgent climate action on moral ground, medical professionals warned that unabated climate change would undo 50 years of progress on public health and one by one business leaders and economists back a strong climate agreement for its role in helping fuel better future growth.
On top of this 160 countries have launched their national climate action plans, committing to slash emissions and tap into the multiple benefits of joining the clean energy transformation, making the Paris climate summit different to any previous attempts to strike such a deal.
Governments in Paris now need to harness this global momentum and public support for climate action, and deliver the first truly universal climate agreement that gives the world a fighting chance to keep global warming below the internationally agreed 2DegC limit.
In doing so, governments must spend the next two weeks in building a framework that ramps up action over time, every five years, in line with the complete decarbonisation of the global economy.
This deal also need to include provision for the finance and support needed to help maximise countries’ ambition levels and help vulnerable communities tackle the impacts of climate change, and provide an adaptation goal and a loss and damage mechanism to address irreversible and permanent climate change risks.
The impacts of carbon pollution already affecting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities and new research suggesting that without urgent action climate change could plunge 100 million people into poverty.
Against such warnings it have never been more important for countries to unite to put speed up the transition away from dirty energy and towards a clean renewable future, protecting health and helping create a world free from poverty.
What are the elements up for negotiations at the COP21, and what are observers calling for? Above and beyond the countries’ mitigation pledges, there are many elements which experts say must be agreed to ensure countries can implement their actions and build an enduring regime. These include:
– Legal nature – The Paris outcome is likely to include a legally binding section and a range of other legal instruments. Legal nature is one element for measuring the political intent of countries, but the other elements listed below are also important.
– Long-term collective goal – All countries have agreed it’s necessary to keep global warming below 2degC to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. However, many companies and investors find this goal difficult to measure their spending against. Therefore having something more operational that governments, investors and others can benchmark their decisions against will help to make 2DegC meaningful for the real economy, for example the NGO call for a phase out of fossil fuel emissions and a phase in of 100 per cent renewable energy as soon as possible but not later than 2050. Such a goal also keeps open a possibility of limiting climate change to no more than 1.5DegC and increases the probability of the 2DegC limit being respected.
– Ambition mechanism – If the conditional and unconditional INDCs are fully implemented, they are expected to produce around half of the emission reductions needed by 2030 for the world to take the least costly path to hold warming under 2DegC. As a result, negotiations are partly focused on setting up a system to bring countries back to the table soon to discuss deeper emissions cuts. This ‘ambition mechanism’ should enable countries to step forward regularly every five years and increase ambition. For the greatest impact, the first review should take place prior to 2020.
– Transparency and accountability – the rules and assumptions which underpin how countries count their emissions are crucial to ensuring environmental integrity. Verification is critical to ensure that countries understand the international expectations upon them to abide by the rules. These elements are crucial to provide other countries, corporates and investors with the confidence that countries will abide by the rules and implement their actions.
– Financial support – empowering the world’s poor to cope with the impacts of climate change and develop in a less polluting way is perhaps the most important issue to be resolved at the Paris climate summit. Specific elements up for discussion are: reaching the $100 billion of climate finance promised annually by 2020 and scaling it up consistently afterwards, the proportion of funding that goes towards adaptation, the potential for quantifiable targets for richer countries, if new donors should be included in the future agreement.
– Adaptation – The impacts of climate change are already destroying livelihoods and aggravating poverty. A long term adaptation goal would link efforts to adapt to levels of emissions. Moreover, observers are calling for the issue of loss and damage – when the impacts of climate change are too severe to adapt to – to be firmly anchored in the agreement, and for adaptation to receive public financial support.
– Loss and damage – As the impacts of climate change become more severe, adaptation is no longer an option. In this case, countries are beginning to look at some of the implications for this unmanageable situation. One of the first issues this raises is how to attribute climate change to a specific event that causes loss and damage, understand and document those impacted by such events and then identify how to redress their loss. NGOs say loss and damage should receive public financial support.
– Immediate ambition – As part of the agreement from the 2011 Durban climate summit, countries embarked upon a work programme to increase ambition immediately, before a new agreement in Paris kicks in. At present the discussions in the negotiations focus on identifying areas of potential for more ambition. More action sooner has the potential to deliver a host of first-mover advantages, while waiting to switch from dirty to clean energy or failing to leapfrog is expected to come with a big price tag.
A lot is at stake and everything is possible in Paris.
But, whatever happens, the ongoing transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is inevitable and picking up speed, and it looks like it will be the moment where the world collectively comes to terms with this and makes a decision to move ahead, together and faster.