#COP21 moves past danger point

There is a lot of hope for an historic agreement, but so far the accumulated pledges from 150 countries at Paris climate talks are almost twice what is required to avoid catastrophic greenhouse gas levels


It reminded me of days gone by when my ex-partner and his dad in Derby returned from a day at the village cricket match and I’d ask “Who won?”

“Oh,” said father-in-law in thick midlands accent. “It’s not over yet.”

The opening day of the Paris climate talks was a departure from the usual UN process. Rather than have world leaders come at the end of the negotiations to sign a deal, 150 presidents and prime ministers spoke one after the other at the beginning of this two-week session in bold terms of the need for climate action. Obama, Putin, Xi Jiping, Merkel, Trudeau all joined in the clarion call to make climate history in Paris.

The idea that having world leaders kicking us off with some high-minded rhetoric would actually change negotiating positions… well, no cigar.

We started on Tuesday with a 54 page draft treaty – itself the product of four years of negotiation ever since the Durban meeting, COP17. It’s known as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) and it’s the guts of the treaty.

By Friday morning, after three days of mind-numbing line by line review, we had a new draft of 34 pages. However, not one word of it is agreed. Square brackets – indicating no agreement – litter the entire document, while hundreds more are found around individual paragraphs, sentences and sub-clauses. Even a single letter was bracketed — the “S” at the end of “indigenous peoples.”

Well-meaning folks from all over send me ideas – “make sure you point out that we should not eat meat” “make sure nuclear energy is not in the text,” etc. 

But this is not that kind of conference. The agreement has no context about how we reduce emissions. It is an agreement to set up a global, shared approach to advance details about the pace at which we reduce emissions and the relative role of every nation. ‎ If we achieve a good result, the text will create a system within which the level of commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) will be ramped up over time. Ideally, it will be a treaty that sets the right long-term goal by 2050 with 5 year reviews. 

Question is: what is the appropriate long-term goal? Is it to be essentially off fossil fuels by 2050 – expressed as “decarbonization of our energy systems?” Is it a goal expressed as temperature – staying below 2 degrees C global average temperature increase? Or is it a safer level, staying at or below 1.5 degrees?

The context for this is found in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change‎ (UNFCCC) – the over-arching treaty within which these talks are organized. Under the UNFCCC, Canada (and all countries on earth) committed to avoid allowing the levels of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere from becoming “dangerous.”

Arguably we have crossed that line already – dangerous droughts, dangerous extreme storms, dangerous sea level rise and so on. Scientists have warned politicians for years that emissions need to come down. But is there a red line? A threshold that must not be crossed? A point of no return before we trigger massive, catastrophic levels of climate crisis?

For years, the danger point has been pegged at 1.5 to 2 degrees global average temperature increase. Since 2009 in Copenhagen, the goal has been to avoid the 2 degrees, and maybe 1.5 degree, danger line.

As of this moment, the accumulated pledges from 150 countries, even if all promises are met, are twice what is required – about 3.7 degrees. That is not in dispute. It is accepted by all.

So what can the Paris conference achieve?  If we were to assume that the treaty puts in concrete the weak pledges the UN has received to date, it would be a disaster.  It would be an agreement to commit the world to levels of climate change that would put the survival of human civilization in doubt.

What the negotiations are trying to accomplish is the opposite.  Recognizing that the approach of large promises that must be achieved after decades is a recipe for disaster, the agreement is an attempt to set up a system for frequent reviews to press each time for deeper emission reductions, more help with adaptation, more financing for the developing world and greater sharing of new technologies to move the whole world off fossil fuels.  This is referred to as the “architecture” of the agreement.

And it matters most that we choose the right long-term goal – holding levels of warming to below or to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. On Sunday night, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna stated that Canada supports the 1.5 degree target and that the treaty should be legally binding. This bodes well.

Week one has wrapped up – amazingly – on schedule.  The new draft text, even with all its square brackets, forms the basis for negotiations at the political level between ministers of governments. There is a lot of hope, but the developing world rightly insists that industrialized countries, the wealthy, not transfer this problem to the poor. The dividing line now is equity. The solution is climate justice.  We must arrive at an agreement that fully recognizes human rights and indigenous peoples.

This treaty must be about more than climate. It must set all nations on a path to a fairer world.

Elizabeth May is leader of the Green Party of Canada. 

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