By Leigh Phillips
In the months leading up to the United Nations Climate Summit in Lima, Peru, in December 2014, a series of events, many of them unexpected, instilled a sense of cautious yet genuine optimism in the end: the surprise of the climate agreement between the United States and China, a similar agreement with India that involves some elements of clean technology exchange; an energy and climate plan of the European Union (EU) for 2030 which, despite not being very ambitious, at least did enough to stay within the scale of necessary emission reduction and thus be within the warming limit of two degrees centigrade backed internationally.
In 2015, what are the big issues that will make it possible or not to achieve a climate agreement in the crucial discussions that will take place in Paris at the end of the year, where either a global treaty will be signed or diplomats will have to admit defeat later? of more than two decades of effort?
1. Climate finance
Stagnation in relation to financing from developed countries to developing countries remains, without exception, the greatest challenge in climate diplomacy. The historic impasse on which of the two falls the greatest responsibility in the issue of reducing emissions has been transferred to some extent with the China-United States agreement and the new language of the Lima Call for Climate Action. But these talks all but fell apart amid outright accusations of colonialism, news that Japan was spending its advertised climate money on coal plants in Indonesia, and a pooled climate finance pool of barely $ 2.5 billion for the next four years. Even that money is not new money at all, but is now called financial aid. Australia, for example, announced $ 200 million in climate finance in Lima. Every penny of it comes from development assistance that was already committed.
All official estimates have determined the cost of making the shift in developing countries to a low-carbon growth path, at least hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Yet with a tepid global economy failing to recover properly from the 2008 crisis, rich country governments are simply not going to offer more money while austerity is imposed at home. Developing countries are no longer focusing on financing greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, but rather financing the "damage and loss" as a result of global warming, but it is not clear that this is a easiest way to access the resources of rich countries.
Climate finance may just be an unresolved issue, and the poorest countries need to decide how they will respond to such intransigence.
2. The economy
The issue that left climate change off everyone's agenda after Copenhagen was the further collapse of the global economy, particularly in Europe. 2015 shows signs of stabilization, especially in the United States, but risks remain. Any significant deterioration - such as a major slowdown, a materialized financial crisis in China or other emerging economies, or panic on the periphery of the euro zone - could push climate diplomacy even further down the agenda. .
On the other hand, the sudden and sharp drop in oil prices in the second half of 2014 is a gift to consumers and businesses, and could be the initial boost the world economy needs after years of economic weakness; This would make paying for climate change adaptation and mitigation, both at home and abroad, a more affordable proposal for all budgets, and thus give the issue of climate change
3. Oil prices
While cheap oil makes climate change more affordable, such use of fossil fuels is the real cause of the problem we face. Any prolonged drop in oil prices will drive greater use by consumers and businesses. These modest improvements in the global economy were responsible for the generation of the largest amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2013 since 1984, according to what the World Meteorological Organization announced in September 2014; while global renewable energy capacity in 2013 expanded at its fastest rate, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). On the contrary, the economic malaise in Europe makes climate finance less manageable, but also industrial stagnation has been responsible for the EU achieving a significant reduction in emissions.
At the same time, cheap oil makes intensive coal mining like Alberta’s Tar Sands less viable, and some of those projects have already been canceled or postponed. But the phenomenon can also hurt incentives to invest in renewable energy without additional subsidies, and in particular it can kill biofuels. Given the increase in carbon emissions from different forms of biofuels, few outside of that industry would lose sleep over it. The issue, however, also affects the most advanced research on biofuels, such as that of algae-based fuels, which do not lead to the effects of emissions related to land use change.
Consequently, the very development that makes a climate agreement more achievable paradoxically increases the scale of ambition required. It also highlights the importance of public sector intervention for the construction of an infrastructure that can produce energy cheaply enough, ready to compete with the low prices of fossil fuels, including large amounts of clean electricity for the presumed next electrification of transport. However, a greater focus on public spending raises projections for the cost of climate finance.
4. The ambition
For reasons of diplomatic courtesy, the UN will only review the climate commitments that nations are due to present in an informal deadline of March 31, and will not monitor whether individual emission reduction commitments are in line with the necessary scale of ambition of stay within the two degree limit. There is also no agreement whether these commitments will be legally binding.
A study published earlier this year by the World Carbon Project shows that the goal of two degrees is essentially unattainable without a strong reduction in emissions of 5.5% per year over the next 45 years. At a midpoint between the most fair and the most unfair sharing the remainder of the carbon pie, only Europe is managing to make the appropriate cuts. North America should reduce its emissions by 5% per year. Japan, South Korea and Australia, around 5.5%; and China at least 8.5%. And this is only to achieve a 50% chance of avoiding global warming of 2 ° C. Increase the odds to 66%, and the global mitigation rate needed jumps to 7% per year.
Other research on this “emissions gap” by the United Nations Environment Program suggests that, given the commitments already announced, we are on our way to four degrees of warming. At some point this year will a major player appear on the climate change landscape announcing that the two-degree goal is simply unattainable?
However, the emission reductions already announced are considered an opening score. The question is: How much are governments willing to increase their ambition in the course of the next year?
5. The United States Congress
Any decent global climate deal needs significant involvement from the big emitters, such as China and the United States. While the China-US agreement has not signaled a move toward the necessary scale of emission reductions, it has been a very important step for both nations. In 2015 all attention will be focused on whether these two great powers can at least implement in politics what they have achieved in diplomacy.
Since the iconic climate change policy led by US President Barack Obama, called the Clean Energy and Security Act, was rejected in 2009 as a result of opposition in Congress, the US leader has changed strategies and adopts policies that employ executive actions that do not require going through the United States legislature. This largely implies the use of its regulatory power through vehicle efficiency standards and the Clean Air Act to achieve emission reductions in power plants.
This ecological perseverance has made the NGOs very happy, but avoiding the legislative process through an executive order has its risks. Republicans in Congress are already investigating how they can block, delay, or otherwise undermine regulatory measures, for example, passing legislation that allows individual states to choose not to comply with the mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency. until the dispute over the issue is resolved, or funding for its implementation is limited.
But even more worrying is the reality that regulations alone will not be enough to achieve the 28 percent reduction in emissions promised in the agreement with Beijing. And for this, the President will have to navigate an opposition Congress. On the bright side, for all their bravado about climate, Republicans have signaled that their priorities for the next Congress will be immigration and health, issues totally removed from global warming. In addition, polls are constantly showing that public opinion is now in favor of taking more ambitious action for the climate.
6. China's five-year plan
By contrast, China's commitments under the climate accord were largely raised as part of a pre-existing amount of nuclear, solar and wind infrastructure construction. In this sense, the People's Republic is the only great power committed to the scale of infrastructure transformation necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Now all eyes should be on the next Five-Year Plan, which will be developed in the course of 2015. The general guidelines of the Five-Year Plan are currently being considered for further development during the spring and summer, and then have an important debate on the details at the Fifth Plenary Session of the Communist Party Central Committee in the fall. Before the United Nations climate summit to be held in Paris this December, the question will be whether China will up the ante or keep the already announced course. Without any major advance in China's ambition, other powers are unlikely to advance on their own.
7. Climate change diplomacy
Countries must present their own reduction commitments this March, rather than circulate them at the UN level, in order for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to review their compliance. This "bottom-up" approach will likely be adopted in any final deal, with states submitting their own plans for emission reductions, rather than the UN overseeing the targets top-down. Opposing oversight by an independent and unelected body is an understandable defense of national sovereignty, and this approach will make any final agreement easier to get in Congress.
But by definition, this format makes such a document an expression of hope that nations will work to prevent catastrophic climate change, rather than a guarantee that countries will achieve a specific reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by a certain date. ; a situation that has nothing different from the one we currently live in.
However, between the top-down and bottom-up poles, some parts of the final agreement can be made fixed and legally binding, while others more flexible and changing, and other parts of the agreement optional and others mandatory. In October, the Arizona State University Center for Energy and Climate Solutions conducted a brief review outlining the spectrum of structural options for a final deal. In essence, the trade-off would be between a document with greater ambition, but with little chance of ratification, and less ambition but with greater chance of ratification.
But of course, we have to remember that achieving consensus among 196 countries (and a handful of non-country parties) on a plan that compromises radical and extremely expensive changes for their economies is also perhaps the most arduous and grandiose exercise to maintain. Unity never seen before in history. Despite all the mistakes made in the process, even having come this far, it is already a monument to diplomatic persistence.