A global deal that drives good decisions: what success at the Paris summit should look like

Safeguarding rainforests is an area where the United Nations has made great strides - hopefully the Paris summit can deliver more of the same. Sze Ning/Flickr.com/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

This is the final part of a three-part essay on the prospects for a global climate deal at the Paris 2015 talks. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Much like the internet, climate change is here and, as each day passes, it only gets bigger. This is true not only of the science – another year passes, greenhouse gas concentrations rise, and the warming and severe weather events intensify – but also of the human, political and policy response to the problem. There is always another international meeting to prepare for, a new report to digest, a new policy to consider.

It is the relentlessness of the problem that can drive fatigue. People feel they have heard it before. Policies have been tried, their success has been mixed, and the debate – certainly in Australia – is either nasty, or tired, or both.

When the level of risk associated with four, three or two degrees of atmospheric warming is both unpredictable and scary, and the challenges and frustrations of domestic and international climate policy intense, there is an understandable temptation to disengage.

Denial and scepticism of climate science and the risks associated with human-induced climate change still exist and have influence in powerful places. Yet fatigue and disinterest is a less overt but equally serious barrier to the public and political engagement required to drive policy ambition. Unlike ten years ago, when we witnessed severe climate events like Hurricane Katrina, followed by the influence of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report securing a Nobel Prize for its authors, the issue no longer feels novel in 2015.

But like it or not, the climate problem and humanity’s response to it will continue to exercise us through this century. There will be progress (with new low-emission technologies and new strategies to bring emissions down) and setbacks (failed negotiations, bad infrastructure decisions and the protection of vested interests).

In this context the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Paris at the end of the year represents a potentially significant moment when real progress can be made.

Progress in Paris

Paris is different. It truly has the capacity to be novel. Without getting too technical about how exactly they will be achieved, here are three outcomes that I believe the summit can deliver.

First, any agreement needs to be explicit about the relationship between the broad emissions targets that are agreed and their implications in the real world of policy, investment and business decisions on energy, transport, infrastructure and forestry.

International agreement on the need to limit global warming to 2°C is not new. Governments have reaffirmed their commitment to keeping warming below this limit every year since 2009, and yet the world remains on a path to a 4-6°C increase in temperature by the end of the century.

It is rather like knowing the health risks of eating, sitting and drinking too much, and once a year agreeing to swim 100 laps a week and join the gym, before sitting back down, eating pizza and cracking open the beer.

Targets may answer the question of “what do we do” about climate policy, but it is only when an international agreement is clearer on the “how do we do it” question that policy makers, businesses and investors will truly accept that it is serious.

To return to the health analogy, people will only accept that my fitness talk equals real intent once they see the vegetables in my fridge, the wet swimmers dripping on the line and (perhaps) my physique looking at least something closer to buff.

Of course, the science of the problem makes the amount and timing of emissions cuts important: we can’t continue emitting greenhouse gases at the same rate for the next 20 years and then suddenly wake up and decide to reduce them. The problem is one of stock and supply: if the supply doesn’t diminish early enough, the stock becomes unmanageable.

But when it comes to tasks as hard as transforming the world’s energy system, targets and timetables are exciting only to policy insiders. They have very little wider political saliency; much like the amorphous agreement to “act on climate change” or achieve a “low-carbon economy”, people either don’t know what they mean, or simply agree but do little or nothing to achieve them.

Years have been spent discussing whether an agreement should be legally binding or not. My preference is for the first, but it should not be a condition of success. More important is how the domestic policy implications of any agreement are described and accounted for.

Firing coal: any deal in Paris should drive real change in investment decisions. G. Schmitz/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Paris has the potential to shape a new, unequivocal politics of climate change – one in which political leaders take full account of the implications for their own domestic policies. Any agreement can only reduce the risks of climate change if it helps leaders to see investment in new coal-fired electricity generation (for example) as utterly irrational – not at some point in the future, but from the moment the deal is struck in Paris.

There is little or no chance of keeping warming to below 2°C if we don’t deal with the world’s ageing coal-fired power stations. The International Energy Agency estimates that we need to close around a quarter of all the world’s least efficient coal-fired power stations over the coming five years. It is perfectly possible to do this through internationally monitored domestic policy. It is here that the divestment movement is particularly helpful, in building the impetus required to make these policy decisions more palatable.

Seeing the wood for the trees

The second real chance of a breakthrough in Paris hinges on forests. Globally, the pace of forest destruction, both for agriculture and for timber, pulp and paper, is staggering. The World Resources Institute estimates that almost 13 million hectares of forest – an area roughly the size of England – was lost every year between 2000 and 2010.

With trees playing such a vital role in the global carbon cycle, we need to keep all the forests we have. Over the past year the United Nations has done a lot to shed light on the issue. The New York Declaration on Forests saw key countries, together with leading agribusiness and pulp and paper companies, commit to greater transparency and ambitious zero-deforestation policies. That only helps the chances that negotiations on the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) program could, after years of acronym-filled technical negotiations, achieve powerful new economic incentives to halt deforestation.

The political and symbolic force of an agreement can be as potent as any systematic change. In this case, Paris could help make sourcing any paper, packaging or tissue from exploited tropical forests unthinkable for any company.

Show us the money

Third, the degree of commitment to addressing the climate problem will be communicated through climate finance. The Green Climate Fund already has more than US$10 billion to spend on new low-emissions technology and infrastructure in developing economies. These, and any extra funds agreed in Paris, need to be used creatively: helping reduce emissions and achieve human betterment through new infrastructure in the rapidly developing cities of Africa and Southeast Asia.

These specific projects won’t be announced in Paris, but the meeting needs to be clear about the sort of improvements that this money can help to deliver. It is here that emissions reductions, economic development and human progress can be mutually reinforcing.

We face a transformational, not a transactional problem: the headlines and political statements coming out of Paris need to be clear about what is going to change as a result of them.

The world simply cannot afford another perceived fiasco like Copenhagen; more evidence of our collective inability to reduce climate risk is the last thing we need. Success in Paris will be hard to achieve, but the outcome of the meeting must, and I believe can, be a driver to further tangible business, investment and policy decisions that will reduce emissions – and with it, the potentially catastrophic risks of climate change.