IT'S JUST over 12 months until an international climate agreement will be thrashed out in Paris. The preambles in New York last month offered nothing new other than hope.
Much like the other 100 or so heads of state gathered in New York in September for the UN climate summit, the Seychelles president, James Michel, had four minutes to address the plenary. “It is four minutes too many,” he said. “For now is not the time for speeches, but for action. We have heard it all before: the well-crafted speeches, the promises and the exhortations ... We have also heard the scientific facts, the complaints, the pleas for help from those on the front line.”
Indeed we have. But this didn’t prevent the majority of presidents and premiers going over their allotted 240 seconds. Nor did it stymie the rhetoric. These were recycled statements with few new policies of note. But does this mean there’s no hope of reining in emissions under a new global deal to be agreed in Paris next December?
China, for one, is beginning to budge. Given that it now produces 30% of the world’s greenhouse gases, it has to. Its vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, in what many believe was China’s most committed speech on climate change to date, said he hopes to see the country’s emissions peak as early as possible. He didn’t offer a timeframe, however.
Alas, ambiguity is commonplace in the run-up to major talks. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why the Copenhagen summit in 2009 was such a disaster: everyone turned up with a different agenda to thrash out an umbrella agreement within a fortnight. Naturally, there wasn’t one given the “you show me yours first” culture.
The US president, Barack Obama, provided the perfect example: announcing nothing new, he used his time to flag up the “special responsibility” that his country and China had to lead (they hold the top two rankings in terms of total emissions). The EU also attracted criticism for its rehashed “new” renewable energy funding and soon-to- be agreed but thought-to-be-too-low target to cut emissions by 40% by 2030 (campaigners want 55%).
Copenhagen was the nadir of international climate change talks, but lessons have been learned. The 100 or so statements might well have been, as WWF put it, a “laundry list of modest country actions”, but the dozens of private-public sector commitments announced on everything from palm oil and deforestation to carbon pricing were “sector- busting”.
Experts are still examining these for a sense of what’s new and deliverable. However, for Jason Anderson, the head of EU climate and energy at WWF, the five-page list of commitments heralds a very different approach to five years ago. “It’s not the all- or-nothing we had in Copenhagen,” he said.
Voluntary targets among business leaders cannot overshadow the main aim. In Paris next December a new protocol, legal instrument or “an agreed outcome with legal force” must be signed if there is any hope of keeping global warming below two degrees. New York was never intended as a formal negotiating platform, but it has generated some momentum and, according to the UN general secretary, Ban Ki-moon, “delivered”.
In March, countries are expected to submit their intended nationally determined contributions towards reducing greenhouse gases. This will offer a much clearer insight in to who is committed to what. “Only then can we judge whether [this summit] was a success or not,” said Jan Kowalzig, a senior policy adviser for climate change with Oxfam Germany.