The turning point

Climate change requires urgent action, as hardly any government will deny. Business is also beginning to rise to the challenge. Nevertheless, the voluntary commitments being developed for the climate summit in Paris (COP21) are falling short.

A lot will be at stake when heads of government, ministers, mayors, scientists and the global NGO scene meet in Paris for the climate summit. It would be an exaggeration to say that the final decision on the health of our planet will be made at this conference. Nevertheless, it will play a pivotal role for future developments: Paris must deliver encouraging signs that the international community is finally addressing the challenge of climate change.

What is being negotiated in Paris?

COP21 in Paris will be the culmination of a negotiation process that was launched in Durban, South Africa in 2011. Its objective is to put a new international climate agreement in place in 2020 when the Kyoto Protocol expires. The same issues that were already negotiated at the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 will once again be on the agenda: mitigation efforts in all countries, adaptation to the consequences of climate change, forest conservation, financial transfers to developing countries, technology partnerships, the development of scientific and political expertise at national and supranational levels, and agreements on transnational climate protection instruments.

Loss and damage – the compensation of poor countries for the harm they suffer as a result of climate change – is a recent addition.
Progress has been made in many of these areas in negotiations at the technical level, but the major policy issues are still in dispute. These include the long-term goal that everyone is – or should be – working toward: a complete phase-out of fossil fuels, and if so, in what timeframe? And what about the right to development? Toward 100-percent renewable energy? Toward all of these things at once and much more?

What will be different from 2009 in Copenhagen?

A significant difference is that hopes for a top-down agreement with binding targets and fair burden-sharing have since been buried. As a consequence of the failure of the last climate summit, the bar has been lowered and new paths are being explored. The Paris summit will not be about reaching an agreement on specific reduction targets for carbon emissions with differentiated commitments for individual groups of countries. Instead, all countries are called on to make individual pledges (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) that will become part of a package.

The only common guideline to date is the commitment to limit global warming to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. It is already clear, however, that the sum of the commitments that will be on the table in Paris will fall far short of this goal. If we maintain the proposed scope and pace of mitigation, we can expect global warming to reach 3-4°C, a level that would be catastrophic for much of the world’s population.

At best, the Paris climate agreement will lay down rules on transparency, reporting and verification of the commitments each country makes – unfortunately, consensus on even this minimum requirement remains out of reach. Such rules are of great importance to ensure that national commitments do not just remain on paper, however. Transparency and comparability are essential to ensure that a global public and a global discourse on climate protection can develop to ensure that individual states live up to their obligations. The dynamics unfolding in the developing countries on their way toward defining their own INDCs also must not be underestimated. It is not always happening with broad civil society participation or according to democratic rules, but in many cases this process has triggered debates in societies with regard to the future development model.

The contributions toward climate protection discussed to date cover a wide gamut. The objective in the old industrial countries of Europe as well as in the United States is an absolute reduction of carbon emissions throughout the economy in the period from 2020 to 2030 and beyond. While EU climate policy proposals have softened noticeably of late, the US has become more ambitious in the final years of the Obama administration. China and most other newly industrialized countries like India are not yet ready to commit to an absolute reduction in their emissions. Their proposals aim at a more or less rapid reduction of the carbon intensity of their economies, or a reduction of emissions vis-à-vis projections for business as usual. To these ends, they want to promote the development of renewable energies and improve energy efficiency. They would also like to count the increased use of nuclear power as “carbon-free energy”. In particular, China and India are pursuing ambitious nuclear energy programs. It is doubtful, however, whether they will be fully implemented, as the construction of new nuclear power plants is very costly and entails too many risks.

It’s not over until it’s over

The chasm between climate policy requirements and achievable results in Paris is vast. Evidence for the acceleration of climate change has been mounting of late: glaciers are melting and oceans warming faster than predicted. Climate scientists warn that the 2°C threshold for the increase in average global temperature over pre-industrial times is too high to prevent a dramatic rise in sea levels. We fear that a “success” will be celebrated in Paris that will only slow the unfolding climate catastrophe rather than bringing about a real turnaround.

Moreover, a perspective that focuses only on carbon emissions and temperature increases fails to recognize the complexity of the ecological crisis in which political and social systems are interacting with planetary ecosystems. It also narrows the search for structural solutions and ways out of the crisis. The UN climate negotiation process is not only technically and politically complex, it is also tightly intertwined with such a reductionist view of the world. We do not yet foresee it developing the strength and dynamism needed to actually reverse the trend.

There is, nevertheless, a light on the horizon. A lot has changed since the grim struggles of the climate summit in Copenhagen:

  • The United States and China, the two largest energy consumers and carbon emitters, have abandoned their blockade. Both want a positive outcome of the Paris conference. The diplomatic, scientific and technical cooperation between Washington and Beijing in the climate sector is one of the encouraging developments in recent years.
  • President Obama appears determined to make tackling climate change part of his legacy. The limits for carbon emissions from power plants put in place by his administration amount to the de facto elimination of coal from the energy mix of the United States – albeit with the ugly consequence of the shale gas boom. A number of states are pursuing ambitious expansion targets for renewable energies, while American cities are pioneering environmentally friendly urban development.
  • China’s dramatic pollution problem – which is also impacting the country’s middle class – is prompting a noticeable shift away from the country’s rampant overexploitation of the environment in recent decades. The policy of growth at any price, with its carbon intensity and prodigious consumption of resources, has reached its limits. Nowhere else has the expansion of renewable energies been pursued so robustly while outdated coal-fired power plants and factories are being shut down. The government has made increasing energy efficiency its goal and is testing regional emissions trading schemes. Megacities like Beijing are increasingly turning to electric mobility. In 2014, coal consumption and energy-related carbon emissions in China fell for the first time in decades, and the trend is unbroken.
  • We are experiencing a global boom in solar and wind energy. In recent years, the pace of growth of renewable energy in newly industrialized and developing countries has been higher than in established industrialized countries. This is mainly due to the sharp decline in the cost of solar and wind energy. The prices of solar modules, for example, have fallen by as much as 70 percent in recent years. This opens up the opportunity for countries to make the leap to an alternative development path: rather than copying the fossil-fueled industrial model, reliance on renewable energies is becoming an attractive business proposition.
  • Even in the old industrialized countries, a change of direction is impending: Over the past ten years, the economies of OECD countries grew by more than ten percent despite various crises, while energy-related carbon emissions fell by 6.4 percent. In advanced countries such as Germany, even absolute energy consumption has decreased. The combination of renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency is breaking the link between economic growth and carbon emissions. This sends an important signal to developing countries: protecting the climate and raising the standard of living of billions of people who still live in poverty are not mutually exclusive goals.

In light of the above, can’t we simply relax and count on economic and technological dynamics to leave climate diplomacy in the dust? Not at all.  The outlined progress may be encouraging, but it does not represent a turnaround toward a sustainable global economy. Destructive tendencies – the hunt for commodities in highly vulnerable ecosystems such as the Arctic or the rainforests of Brazil and Asia, the dramatic loss of fertile soils, growing water crises in highly populated regions, the destruction of marine ecosystems with dramatic consequences for the food security of billions of people – still dominate.

The grand transformation to sustainable ways of production and lifestyles is still in its infancy at best. Ambitious policy targets will be imperative to ensure its breakthrough: the elimination of ecologically absurd subsidies for fossil fuels, a gradually increasing price on carbon emissions, progressive efficiency standards for buildings, vehicles and technical equipment, an ecological tax reform that increases the cost of resource consumption, and massive investment in research and development for a sustainable future.

It also needs a strong civil society. Not only must it demand that governments implement the measures and goals they set, civil society must also stand behind governments when they deal with those who are most to blame for climate change – the coal, oil and gas industries, and industrial agriculture. The worldwide clampdown on parts of civil society that stand up for environmental protection, human rights and democracy in precisely this context is therefore very worrying. It is to be hoped that the Paris climate summit will send out a clear signal that climate protection and ecological transformation are only feasible in cooperation with civil society. This holds particularly true for developing countries, in which environmental and social issues are tightly intertwined.