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COP21 Diaries: History in the making

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
Laurent Fabius and Ban Ki-moon Laurent Fabius and Ban Ki-moon Arnaud Bouissou/MEDDE/SG COP21
11 Dec
Marco Magrini reports for Geographical on daily events at the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris

It’s ready-set-go at the starting blocks. Mankind’s race towards the goal of decarbonisation, to fossil fuel-free economic growth, is almost ready to start. After 20 years of tough negotiations and endless blabbing, 195 nations are about to sign the first true universal agreement on a farewell to coal, oil and gas which, as a consequence of originating millions of years ago from carbon-based organic material, have the unfortunate side effect of producing planet-warming carbon dioxide.

The deal, which will be likely reached tomorrow in overtime, is still under negotiation. The final text of the Paris Agreement – let’s dare a temporary name, for the real one is still unknown – will be revealed on Saturday morning. Before that, not only there remains a few dozen options to choose from, but there are still a few major controversies, namely transparency (having to report own’s emissions is seen by some as an intrusion of sovereignty) and finance (who pays for developing countries’ adaptation and mitigation costs and how much). But it is now obvious that the deal is practically done.

The race that begins on Saturday 12 December, 2015, or maybe one day later, is neither a 100m sprint, nor a marathon. It is a long march in the name of future generations, looking up at the end of the century. By 2100, the draft text reads, we must ‘hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, recognising that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change.’ Science said that long time ago. Now international politics concurs.

‘Assuming there are no last-minute surprises,’ Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, comments, ‘the goal to get well below 2°C is in line with science. I have attended several UN climate change conferences, where a commitment of this magnitude was not imaginable.’

‘The commitments in reducing emissions so far taken by individual states,’ bluntly remarks Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for climate change research, ‘take us on a trajectory of at least 2.7°C, so they are absolutely insufficient. In order to meet the 1.5°C goal, emission cuts must get much more stringent well before 2030. After that, we have to aim to have zero emissions: by 2050 if we want to comply with the 1.5°C goal, or by 2070 if the target is that of 2ºC. This is the scientific benchmark.’ Schellnhuber, maybe just a bit more optimistic, nods.

But you can be more optimistic? The answer is yes. Finally sanctioned by an international treaty, the race towards decarbonisation actually started sometime ago. Just in the past six years – since the infamous Copenhagen fiasco – investments in renewable energy, in energy efficiency, in new solutions to old crafts, have multiplied many times over. Even without an official UN starting gunshot, small businesses and multinational companies, cities and regions, inventors and investors, citizens and consumers have begun to actively move toward a decarbonised future. In other words, a large number of economic entities – from Apple powering its servers with solar energy, to a family choosing to light up the house with LEDs – already took a running start.

During yet another night of overtime consultations, diplomacy’s strange game may still change the final text, slightly for the best, or for the worse. But the die is cast. ‘The atmosphere between the parties has been the best that I have seen in the last ten years of COPs,’ admits the economist Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the eponymous report for the British government. ‘That’s founded on the recognition of the magnitude of the risks, and recognition of how we combine poverty reduction, development and climate responsibility: that has been a key element in the spirit we have seen here.’

Ultimately, the message to the world coming from Paris is clear: those who keep investing in the future of fossil fuels are pouring their money down the drain. The United Nations may have arrived late in kicking off the long-term race towards decarbonisation’s safe shores, but it is absolutely necessary to proceed at high speed, then rapidly accelerate. What is very positive though is – depending more on civil society than multilateral politics – this is very likely to happen.

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