Five Issues To Watch on Climate Change Ahead of the Paris Summit

By: Remi Moncel

These past weeks have been rich in announcements on climate change, and the next round of United Nations climate talks begins in Lima, Peru on December 1. That conference paves the way to a major climate summit in December 2015 in Paris, France. The coming year will be critical in the fight against climate change, an issue with wide-ranging impacts. Its effects on water availability and crop yields make climate change a livelihood and national security issue. The threat that sea-level rise poses to low-lying States makes it a human rights issue. The world’s necessary transition from fossil to renewable fuels makes it an energy and economic issue. Here are the highlights of recent developments and five issues to watch on the road to Paris.

The Science

 According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2014 is currently on track to be the warmest year ever recorded. The world’s leading scientists agree: humans cause climate change, our climate is already changing, and at the current pace the effects on people and the environment will be dire. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarizes every four years the state of peer-reviewed climate change science. The IPCC’s latest report came out in 2014 and describes more clearly than any previous report “the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” It also highlights the greater risks posed “to disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.” The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and other countries’ science academies have come to similar conclusions.

Worse, our efforts to fix the problem are woefully inadequate. All countries’ current commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions, when added together, fall short of what we need to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. And it’s not even close. World leaders vowed in 2009 to limit an average rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. But every passing year without more serious cuts in emissions makes it more likely that we will miss that goal, with severe consequences for people and the environment. A new report by the United Nations Environment Program shows just how much ground we need to make up.

National and Local Action

Despite this bad news, it is not too late to correct course, but doing so will require aggressive policies. National emissions in some countries have started declining and some governments have made significant commitments. Grassroots movements, like the 400,000-person march in New York City this fall, may also signal a shift in public attitudes on the issue. Some businesses are also demonstrating climate leadership by going beyond what regulations require. And some mega cities around the world are taking proactive steps to reduce emissions and increase their resilience to climate change.

Five years ago, the United States, the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, pledged to reduce its emissions by seventeen percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and just this month, President Obama announced a reduction goal of twenty-six to twenty-eight percent by 2025. Reaching these targets will depend on U.S. regulations and possibly new legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency has been rolling out a series of regulations tightening automobile fuel economy standards and allowable emissions from new and existing power plants.

The European Union is more ambitious than the United States, with planned reductions of twenty percent by 2020 below 1990 levels, at least forty percent by 2030, and eighty percent by 2050.

The developing world too is acting. China just pledged to peak its emissions of greenhouse gases around 2030 and possibly earlier, to cap its coal consumption in 2020, and to source twenty percent of its primary energy consumption from “non-fossil fuels” by 2030. India pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its gross domestic product by twenty to twenty five percent by 2020 compared to 2005, and the country is expanding its renewable energy capacity. And Brazil enacted national laws to reduce deforestation.

Other countries are laggards. For example, Canada, a developed country that should be reducing its emissions, is actually projecting an emissions increase of thirty-eight percent by 2030. And Australia’s Prime Minister oversaw the repeal of a national carbon tax and has taken the defense of the coal industry.

Climate Diplomacy

The next major international milestone is the twenty-first Conference of the Parties to the United Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015. Countries are supposed to adopt “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” That carefully negotiated language means that the agreement will include commitments by all major economies, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which required only some developed countries to make quantified reductions in greenhouse gases.

Over the next year, countries will put on the table their proposed climate commitments. Some have already started. President Obama and President Xi, in a historic move, jointly announced this month their countries’ respective opening offers. The two countries’ commitments are not bold enough, but they could be strengthened over time, and they represent a major breakthrough in an international process long crippled by an acrimonious divide between developed and developing countries. Now, the world’s two largest polluters and economies are starting to face their respective responsibilities and call on everyone to step up in time for the summit in Paris.

 Technology

Clean energy technology is critical to the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy. It determines how quickly and cheaply we can wean developed countries off fossil fuels. It also determines how easily we can decouple economic growth from a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, a particular concern for developing countries with legitimate economic and development aspirations.

For a long time, renewable energy was costly and only competitive with coal and natural gas thanks to expensive government subsidies. That is no longer true. The production costs of solar panels and wind turbines have plummeted in recent years. In several markets, the cost of electricity from renewable sources already rivals coal and natural gas.

Still, it will take time to retire existing coal power plants and source most of our power from clean sources. There are also political and institutional barriers to faster diffusion of clean energy technology. The fossil fuel industry retains greater access to political capitals than the nascent clean technology sector. For example, a recent report estimates that the fossil fuel industry, despite its healthy annual profits, receives $88 billion per year in subsidies from developed country governments. Banks and utilities around the world are also more hesitant to invest in clean technologies because they are less established and tested. That makes them more expensive to finance.

Finance

 The climate deal in Paris next year will include a financial component. Developing countries are looking for support to meet their growing energy needs through renewable rather than conventional fuels. They also need finance to build their resilience to the inevitable and growing impacts of climate change. The regions most affected by climate change are also the poorest and the least responsible for the problem. Developed countries can help finance so-called adaptation programs to respond to a wide array of impacts, including rising sea levels, droughts, floods, and decreasing crop yields.

In Copenhagen in 2009 and again in Cancún the following year, parties to the UNFCCC agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year starting in 2020 from a range of public and private sources. As part of this commitment, countries established the Green Climate Fund, based in South Korea. Countries have already pledged nearly $10 billion to the Fund, which is still being set up. For example, the United States pledged $3 billion, Japan $1.5 billion and Norway $1.3 billion. Several developing countries have also joined the effort, including South Korea, Mexico, Panama, and Indonesia. This first string of contributions is not enough, but it is a good start and perhaps indicates a collective desire to get serious about climate change.

On finance and on other issues, the climate conference in Lima provides the next big opportunity for countries to show real leadership. These past weeks’ announcements have provided some valuable momentum, but the gap remains large between where we are and where we need to be. The road to Paris over the next year will tell us just how serious world leaders are about bridging it.

Remi Moncel is a J.D. Candidate at Berkeley Law. He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Journal of International Law and a student contributor for Travaux.

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