The Paris Climate Conference: A Springboard for Success?By Paul Tobin on 3 November 2015
It has united the Pope, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Governor of the Bank of England. Climate change is nearing the top of the political agenda once again, arguably for the first time since the disastrous conference in Copenhagen in 2009. Back then, China and the USA dominated the negotiations, leaving states only willing to ‘take note’ of the proposed Accord. While China and the USA will be just as important, this year’s conference – taking place in Paris, at the start of December – should be more bottom-up. It may prove to be a springboard for years of improved climate ambition.
In light of the significance of the conference, the PSA will be hosting a forum on the politics, policies and principles underpinning Paris. Co-organised by PSA Environment and PSA French Politics, the event has been funded by the PSA’s new ‘Pushing the Boundaries’ scheme. Taking place in Edinburgh on the 20th November, tickets are free but there are not many left. The event has been selected to be part of the ESRC’s prestigious Festival of Social Science, and will also feature a networking wine reception hosted by Taylor and Francis. So if you can’t make our event in Edinburgh – or, even if you can – what do you need to know about ‘COP-21’ to get away with talking about it at the water cooler?
Paris is known as ‘COP-21’ because it is the 21st ‘Conference of the Parties’ to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. COPs are veritable ‘mega-conferences’, bringing together 194 states into packed venues, while tens of thousands of activists march in the cold outside to place pressure on negotiators. While the placards and banners undoubtedly increase the global media presence, the real pressure on negotiators comes from the domestic sphere. Every state needs to be able to tell their citizens that they didn’t ‘lose’ at the negotiations. And finding a deal in just a fortnight that makes every state happy is a monumental task.
This time around, a change to the format of the conferences means that we can be pretty confident of a reasonable level of success. Since March, states have been publishing their new targets – known as ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’, or INDCs – with a view to reducing uncertainty and gaining a level of momentum for when the talks begin. Rather than mandating the format of these goals, states have been free to formulate their goal in whatever way works for them. As a result, attention has been re-located to the nation-state level, rather than seeking a more top-down agreement.
States appear to have got on board with this new model. As of the end of October, 155 countries had submitted their targets, covering 87% of emissions and 88% of the world’s population. However, many of the targets are inadequate for keeping temperature increases below the 2°C threshold that has been identified as a maximum before catastrophic consequences result.
According to Climate Action Tracker, only Bhutan’s goal deserves ‘Role Model’ status, while just Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Morocco are ‘sufficient’. Even the traditional climate pioneers, the European Union, have drawn raised eyebrows over a perceived lack of transparency in their target. China – crucial to negotiations as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter – has produced a reasonable target for the conference, by promising to peak emissions by 2030. The USA should also be more ambitious this time, having been allocated the role of Co-Chair alongside Algeria, and with the conference likely to be part of President Obama’s swansong. The biggest objective, though, is not necessarily a specific emissions target, but the creation of a new institutional platform for ensuring continued ambition in the future.
The creation of five-year cycles that bind states into regularly updating their emissions targets would be a big success for the conference. By establishing a specific timetable for targets that every state follows, there may even no longer be a need for the annual COPs to take place. Moreover, these cycles wouldn’t just address mitigation efforts, such as overall emissions reductions goals, but could also support adaptation measures to help states that are already facing flooding, drought and famine as a result of climate change.
In sum, therefore, the Paris conference may prove to be a springboard for greater ambition in coming years. However, it is important not to fetishize the UNFCCC model. The mega-conference approach may have been improved in time for Paris, but a lot of the most pioneering efforts continue to be made at the local and national level, and will continue to be so. Moreover, it is hard to know exactly what will happen until the final day of the conference, ensuring that a fascinating fortnight of politics is around the corner. If you’d like to learn more about Paris, make sure you come along to our event in Edinburgh, and follow our hashtag, #psaparis2015.
Paul Tobin is Co-Convenor of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics and a Leverhulme Trust-funded postdoctoral researcher at the University of York. Follow him on Twitter: @_paul_tobin_
Image: Author's own