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COP21 Diaries: Holding steady

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is under pressure to ensure an agreement is reached at COP21 French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is under pressure to ensure an agreement is reached at COP21 Arnaud Bouissou/MEDDE/SG COP21
07 Dec
Marco Magrini reports for Geographical on daily events at the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris

The Paris climate summit enters the final, decisive week with some spluttering.

The so-called ‘high-level segment’ of the conference brings yet another round of official speeches from the environment ministers of the world, just a week after presidents and prime ministers of the same countries declared their solemn pledges to combat climate change. Of the 48-page draft document that was agreed by delegates on Saturday, many crucial details – including the onerous financial aspects – still have to be ironed out before the supposed Friday afternoon deadline. I say ‘supposed’, because many observers are betting the talks will drag on through the night, well into Saturday morning. 

Whatever the final result, it’s true what many people – from UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to former US vice president Al Gore – have argued: the world has already taken a different road. Investment in renewable energy is picking up. Energy efficiency is already benefiting households and companies who laid money on it. And a few countries are leading the way.

The world’s nations have made voluntary pledges but it’s not yet clear when, and how frequently, these emission reduction goals will be updated and their ambition raised

Here comes the good news. The University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre has revealed that, after last year’s slowdown, current projections for 2015 indicate a small decrease in global greenhouse gases emissions, at around -0.6 per cent. ‘This is an estimate and there will always be a range of uncertainty,’ Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre, warns. ‘Moreover, most likely this is not going to be the peak in global emissions.’ Still, if the projection is to be confirmed in the months to come, this would be the first decline during a period of solid economic growth.

Such a remarkable result mostly came from China’s decreased coal use, ‘coupled with slower growth in petroleum,’ says UEA professor Dabo Guan, ‘and faster growth in renewables.’ Considerable uncertainty is always associated with China’s emissions, but the Tyndall Centre believes the People’s Republic may have reduced them in the current year by a sound four per cent.

The world seems willing to steer out of coal, by far the most polluting fossil fuel. Several coal-fired power stations are going to be shut down, not only in China, but also in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Coal prices have been plummeting in recent times, not to mention the stock price of US coal companies  (Arch Coal was worth $320 a share five years ago, today – split adjusted – it is only $1.20). But don’t expect that to hold for India, ‘which is today at the same level where China was in the 1990s,’ says Le Quéré, ‘and still has a long way to go.’

If this new data is not enough to rejoice, it may signal the beginning of a turning point in the tumultuous adventure of mankind. Much will depend on the agreement to be signed here in Paris. The world’s nations have made voluntary pledges but it’s not yet clear when, and how frequently, these emission reduction goals will be updated and their ambition raised. Tyndall’s professor Le Quéré is clear: ‘Under these circumstances, the goal of keeping the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees is almost impossible and below the famed 2 degrees mark, it is very, very difficult.’

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