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COP21: The Political Climate

Last year's US-CHina deal on emission targets has helped pave the way for a serious effort at global emission reductions Last year's US-CHina deal on emission targets has helped pave the way for a serious effort at global emission reductions Mark Wilson/Getty Images
30 Nov
World leaders are preparing for COP21 in Paris, two weeks which many hope will conclude with a binding deal on emissions, in order to fight climate change. Geographical presents expert views on four key factors that will be at play

We’ve come a very long way from the ill-fated debacle which brought the curtain down on COP15, when the world gathered in Copenhagen in 2009 with hopes high for rubber-stamping an official, legally-binding deal on global greenhouse emissions.

With a cacophony of interested parties fighting to make themselves heard, destabilising progress on a final agreement, the summit ended in disarray. It was clear that significantly limiting the impacts of climate change could not be agreed upon without the involvement of representatives from beyond the traditional heartlands of the climate movement.

Following many years of consultations on a global scale, COP21 will see thousands descend upon Paris for the latest chance to seal a deal to lead the way on creating a low-carbon future. The stakes are high, and the legacy of Copenhagen lingers. But with plummeting costs for renewable energy generation, self-assigned Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) being submitted by most countries in advance, and a rejuvenated collection of world leaders talking tough on emissions, optimism abounds that this time history really will be made.


GEOPOLITICS: States of play

Simon Dalby, CIGI Chair in the Political Economy of Climate Change at the Balsillie School of International Affairs

What’s been interesting over the last decade is that there have been many different geographical alignments around the climate issue that have shifted and changed, and it’s tricky to say that there are definite negotiating blocs. This has become even more complicated over the last decade.

Inevitably the key actors at COP21 are going to be the Americans, the EU and, of course, the Chinese, with supporting roles from India in particular. What’s changed the geopolitical landscape regarding climate change in the last couple of years is the deal that the Chinese and the Americans came up with last year. That got the Chinese onboard in a way that prior to that they just weren’t. Clearly, if you can’t have the major emitters agreeing to reduce, then much of the rest of the COP isn’t going to work.

This time round, the whole thing’s been turned on its head, with nation states actually being invited to make the submissions of their INDCs. That’s what’s changed in terms of the explicit geopolitics of this, because the big states aren’t telling the little states what to do. Additionally, the French, as hosts of this COP, have made an unprecedented diplomatic effort to ensure success.

There’s a lot of tension with OPEC and the Middle East, and there’s going to go on being a lot of tension there. Clearly, they are the hard case, because most of their revenue is still dependent on oil and gas. So they’re between the proverbial rock and a hard place – their economies are based on exporting the stuff which is causing climate change. And unless they’ve got a clear strategy on what to do about this, their instinct is, of course, to delay and prevaricate because without a strategy of how to get off oil – which is very difficult for the Middle East to do – then they really are seeing climate change as a problem that will directly impact their economic futures.

It needs to be bluntly stated that the losers in this game, if we don’t get serious about emissions reductions quickly, are going to be the small island states, and states with large, long, vulnerable coastlines. Particularly countries like Vietnam, a large rice exporter out of the Mekong Delta. If that gets inundated, then there are rice issues. Bangladesh is immensely vulnerable. Neither of those two states have any geopolitical options; they don’t have big armies, the Bangladeshis can’t go invading India. And the Alliance of Small Island States has a fairly powerful collective voice, but the problem is they’ve only got voice. They don’t have any military options, all they’ve got is moral suasion. They’re good at it, but if the Saudis and the Qataris and the Kuwaitis aren’t really interested, then it’s very difficult to make common cause across what used to be called the global South.


wriWhat role could forest restoration have at COP21? (Image: WRI)


FORESTS: Putting trees on the map

James Anderson, Associate of the Forests Program, World Resources Institute (WRI)

Forests, which cover a third of the land, are an often under-appreciated resource for fighting poverty and securing a sustainable future. Deforestation accounts for at least 12 per cent of human-caused CO2 emissions, the second greatest source after burning fossil fuels. For many developing nations (especially tropical countries such as Peru or the Democratic Republic of the Congo), deforestation is the single greatest source of emissions.

Despite that, forests don’t always figure into climate negotiations as prominently as they should. Many have included forest management in their proposed climate commitments, but several (such as Russia) lack specifics or a track record of good forest carbon management. Other countries, such as Indonesia, have ambitious goals to reduce deforestation, but will struggle to do so without financial support from richer countries to balance the economic demands of poor rural populations.

But hope springs eternal, and there are several reasons to feel good about forests at COP21. First, bold countries have proven that it is possible to turn the corner on deforestation. Brazil has reduced forest loss by a stunning 70 per cent in the Amazon since 2004 through a combination of improved sustainability policies for soy and beef production, better land rights for indigenous communities, and robust law enforcement supported by satellite monitoring. Tools such as Global Forest Watch are now bringing the same satellite-based monitoring technology to all the world’s forests on a free, online, interactive platform.

Second, the money is starting to fall into place. Brazil’s success was helped by a billion-dollar partnership with Norway. Similar partnerships are underway in Guyana, Peru, Liberia, and in many provinces and local projects. Some of these deals are on a country-to-country basis, others are tied into carbon markets through REDD+ (a scheme for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). Far more money is needed though, to start having impact at the scale we need.

Finally, and most miraculously, countries and communities are starting to bring forests back. Forest restoration in Tigray, Ethiopia, has turned a once famine-prone region into a breadbasket, generating significant benefits for agriculture through soil improvement and water retention. WRI analysis shows at least two billion hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land, an area twice the size of China, shows potential for this sort of restoration. Restoring a mere 150 million hectares by 2020 could help feed 200 million people, raise as much as $40billion annually, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Over a dozen Latin American countries pledged a collective 20 million hectares for restoration at the last climate conference, we could see other continents step up with commitments this time round.


FINANCE: Understanding the numbers

Barbara Buchner, Senior Director of Climate Finance at Climate Policy Initiative (CPI)

What is climate finance? We still don’t have an internationally agreed definition. Is it any climate-relevant investment? Does it refer to developed countries’ commitment to mobilise $100billion per year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries? If so, what counts towards this target? That is one issue we hope COP21 will deliver on by enabling more common definitions and reporting, and improving the data on how much climate finance is flowing and where it’s going.

The $100billion goal is an important political benchmark in the context of building confidence between developed and developing countries in the international climate negotiations. Estimates from an OECD–CPI report suggest that we are more than halfway there; the 2014 figures show that developed countries have mobilised $62billion. And it is worth stressing that this is a conservative estimate given data limitations and methodology, so with five years to go till the end of 2020, progress looks promising.

But we must also acknowledge that $100billion is far from being enough to solve the climate challenge. $100billion is not an end point; it’s a starting point. And what is really important at COP21 is to acknowledge the bigger picture. We need to understand how we can put in place systems that can address the needs of the different countries pursuing a low-carbon future. Also, that number doesn’t tell you much if you don’t know the impact in terms of reducing greenhouse gases and increasing resilience.

That’s the other work we’re doing: looking at all financial flows, not only from developed to developing countries, but to understand how much overall money is flowing, where action is happening, who the actors are, and whether money is used effectively. This contributes to understanding, for instance, how we can increase renewable energy access, particularly in very poor countries, in a way that addresses the needs of real people, and in a way that is green and sustainable.

Ultimately, public finance is limited, so we need to bring in the private sector. At the same time, renewable technology costs have fallen, and private investors now say it makes sense to invest.

Recognition of this is something that has changed over the last few years, particularly through some of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s initiatives that encourage business leaders to commit to investments or emissions reductions. The Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance (The Lab) is a good example of this, with public and private leaders working together to create instruments that can use public money in a targeted, effective way to unlock private investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and adaptation in developing countries.


chicagoCities, such as Chicago, have led the way on decarbonisation policies, learning lessons that others can benefit from (Image: John Picken)


CITIES: Showing the way forward

Carl Pope, former head of the Sierra Club and Special Advisor on Climate to Michael Bloomberg

One thing that happened at the end of Copenhagen was a big argument about how national commitments were going to be monitored. It was pretty clear that there was a lot of reluctance on the part of nation states to let their progress be really measured, because they had a national security lens on it. And cities realised that one of the advantages they had was that they are very transparent – people know what is happening to their cities. So the cities decided to create a platform, through the Compact of Mayors, where everybody would use a common measurement methodology that would be available for anybody to look at, and their progress would be monitored.

Cities have actually now established what I would call the gold standard of transparency for climate progress, and nation states are under pressure to catch up. The pledges the cities are making through the Compact of Mayors are considerably more transparent, measurable and comparable than the INDCs the nations are making. Cities have taken over the actual process of decarbonisation, and now they’re dragging countries along with them.

Barack Obama feels it necessary to say he has an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, because he doesn’t want to alienate the oil-producing states in the US. But the mayor of Chicago couldn’t care less. He doesn’t care about coal mines. He cares about the utility bills that his school district pays – he wants it to be cheaper. He cares about the air that his citizens breathe – he wants it to be clean. Cities have different incentives than countries.

The classic example is Canada. In Canada you had a government that was completely responsive to the desires not only of the oil industry, but to the tar sands part of the oil industry, and therefore had a vision of Canada with ever increasing emissions. But at the same time, the provinces and cities – which include 85 per cent of Canada’s population – were moving very rapidly to establish quite ambitious climate policies. So, at the same moment that the Canadian national government was saying ‘Canada can’t be expected to do anything’, Canada was doing quite a lot. That’s really the dynamic that will be at play in Paris; it’s not so much that cities are going to be speaking a lot, it’s that cities have already done a lot, and are now pledging to do even more.

The one continent where cities are still in the minority is Africa. It’s going to be very important that as African cities do urbanise, they do so on a low-carbon infrastructure, and that’s why it’s so important that cities like Johannesburg and Durban are part of the Compact of Mayors. They’ll be able to learn the lessons from the Stockholms, the Denvers, the Los Angeles’, and the Tokyos of the world.

COP21 matters because it’s really important the world understands that progress is being made very effectively. This COP will probably accomplish as much as the previous twenty put together in terms of climate progress.

This article was published in the December 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.

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