French President François Holland reluctant to get his hopes up ahead of climate summit,
Hope is building that world leaders will strike an international deal on greenhouse gas reductions this December at the Paris climate summit, driven in part by unprecedented leadership from the United States and China.
The cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically and King Coal has lost its century-long throne. Pope Francis has championed climate action as a moral imperative, while investors representing $25 trillion (U.S.) have publicly backed the move to a low-carbon economy. But even as momentum for an agreement builds, concern has emerged that, after years of failed climate talks — particularly the Copenhagen summit in 2009 — the world is once again setting itself up for disappointment.
“Risk of failure is real,” François Hollande, president of host country France, warned journalists last week as he announced the official summit countdown.
David Runnalls, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of the Environment, said the big worry is that Paris will be Copenhagen redux.
“The French are trying to ratchet down expectations,” said Runnalls, who, after 20 years of attending UN climate conferences, remains optimistic that Paris will be different.
“Copenhagen was a failure dressed up to look like a success. I think Paris will be a success dressed up to look like a failure.”
Discussion in Paris will revolve around what’s called the “two-degree pathway” or “two-degree scenario” — a general acknowledgement of how much average global temperatures can rise before climate change becomes a runaway train. It’s a controversial target, as many scientists believe 1.5 degrees is the most than can be tolerated.
Paired with this target is the idea of a “carbon budget,” which caps the amount of coal, oil and natural gas that can be burned over the next 35 years if we have any hope of staying within the two-degree scenario.
Many global institutions, including the International Energy Agency, now accept that two-thirds of fossilfuel reserves must be left in the ground to avoid the worst of climate change. At the current rate of consumption, experts say we’ll blow through our global carbon budget within 20 to 30 years if dramatic action isn’t taken now.
In preparation for this summit, countries were asked to pledge emission reductions — awkwardly called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).
The idea is that all pledges would be aggregated before the summit to get a sense of how close countries are to that two-degree scenario.
Final commitments by the end of the summit would form the basis of an international agreement that would go into effect in 2020.
So far, only 56 of 196 countries — a group representing about two-thirds of global emissions — have submitted their INDCs, and those pledges that have come in fall well short of what’s needed.
The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, along with three other research partners, calculated that contributions so far show “insufficient ambition” and that only two countries — Ethiopia and Morocco — have made the kind of pledges needed.
Seven countries, including Canada, have submitted “inadequate” pledges that don’t represent their fair share of greenhouse gas emissions. Canada is joined by Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Russia.
“These countries would have to increase their ambition levels significantly to be consistent with a fairshare contribution to limiting warming to two degrees,” according to the Potsdam-led group. “It is clear that efforts to encourage greater policy action need to be ramped up as part of the Paris Agreement.”
Such a ramping-up effort is not expected to come from Canada — at least not before the federal election in October. Even if the NDP or Liberals form the next government, chances are slim that Canada’s pledge can be strengthened in time for Paris.
What Canada may be able to do is salvage its international reputation on the climate file, said Runnalls, pointing to leadership roles from Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and even Alberta.
Alberta, which is responsible for 37 per cent of Canada’s GHG emission, is the wild card as Canada approaches Paris. New NDP Premier Rachel Notley has vowed to earn her province credibility on the international stage and is expected to personally attend the December summit.
Last week, Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips, speaking at a climate policy conference in Edmonton, signalled a new chapter in the province’s approach to climate change. “The days of denial are over,” she said.
What’s undeniable is Paris has momentum that Copenhagen never did. Back at the 2009 summit, countries representing only a quarter of global emissions pledged to take action. Already, with Paris just over two months away, nearly 70 per cent of global emissions are covered by pledges. It’s a number that excludes forthcoming commitments from India and Brazil.
Jules Kortenhorst, chief executive officer of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy and environmental think-tank in Boulder, Colo., said he has no doubt that Paris will yield good results.
He says Paris is about finally putting in place an international framework and locking in country commitments that can serve as building blocks over time.
Also important is to establish a “ratcheting mechanism” that can accommodate the periodic strengthening of emission-reduction pledges.
“But maybe even more important,” he added, “Paris will deliver a very clear marker — a sign that tells us where we’re heading, that it’s game over for tarsands, game over for coal and game over for the old way of thinking about the energy system and sustainability.”
This article is part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, December 2015. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.
Observers hope U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping will help broker a global deal on greenhouse gas reductions.