COP21: Will it make any difference to climate change?

After two decades of failed negotiations, can the UN summit in Paris save the world?

Developing nations could suffer economic losses of $1.7 trillion per year by 2050 unless a new United Nations deal paves way for stronger action according to Oxfam. Video: Reuters


Twenty years ago a little-known woman politician with a mophead haircut from the former East Germany presided over the first UN climate conference, in Berlin.

We – the delegates and the press – came to know her as Angela Merkel, and we thought she was brilliant, someone you could bring anywhere and she’d never put a foot wrong.

Helmut Kohl had made her Germany’s environment minister a year earlier, and he had clearly made the right choice.

Not only was Merkel a physics graduate (from the University of Leipzig), which gave her a clear understanding of climate change, but she was also determined to do the business in Berlin.

It was, after all, the first Conference of the Parties – or COP1 – to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which had been adopted by acclamation at the 1992 Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, which aimed to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic” – or human-induced – “interference with the climate system”.

A lot was at stake, and Merkel knew that all decisions had to be taken by consensus.

So at the final plenary session, when the Saudi delegate rose to register an objection that would have scuppered it, Merkel simply ignored him, saying, “I think that’s all agreed,” and banged her gavel on the desk.

What COP1 had adopted was the “Berlin Mandate” to negotiate a deal by 1997 on mandatory reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by developed nations – those mostly to blame for their build-up in the atmosphere – including the United States; the countries of the European Union; Japan; Canada; and Australia; as well as Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.

Delirious optimism in Rio de Janeiro

The aim was to put firm flesh on the bones of the UN convention and to begin the process of implementing it, thereby realising (at least in part) the delirious optimism of the Rio Earth Summit.

And so we were off to Kyoto, the old imperial capital of Japan, after an intervening session – COP2 – at the former League of Nations headquarters in Geneva.

At an earlier meeting in Geneva in 1990 another powerful woman, Margaret Thatcher, had warned that “the threat to our world comes not only from tyrants and their tanks [but from] global warming as yet unseen but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations”.

Like Merkel, Thatcher was a scientist, so she understood the first tentative assessment in 1988 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Many of the precautionary actions that we need to take would be sensible in any event,” she said, citing improved energy efficiency and the development of alternative energy sources.

It was also in Geneva that Britain’s outspoken environment secretary John Gummer used the podium at COP2 to savage a fellow Commonwealth state.

“The present government of Australia” – led by John Howard – “is more interested in the profits it makes from selling coal to Japan than it is in future generations of Australians,” he said.

What this underlined was the nature of international relations: every country will act in what it perceives to be its national interest.

Plus, at that early stage, climate change was seen as a distant threat, something that would affect only future generations of humanity, so there was resistance to change. It wasn’t urgent then.

That was a long time ago. The journalists had no mobile phones (other than brick-sized “car phones”) and The Irish Times had given me a newfangled “laptop”, with a dial-up connection, to see if it would work over a distance of some 9,000km.

Often it didn’t, which meant reading out my stories over the phone to a copytaker in Dublin from stiflingly hot, plastic telephone kiosks in Rio.

International nit-picking

At COP3, in Kyoto, the US delegation was led by a former trade negotiator, prompting John Gummer to remark that the US was treating the talks like “piddling trade negotiations over the price of beans when what’s at stake is the future of the planet and whether Bangladesh and numerous island states are to go under water”.

When the US vice-president, Al Gore, arrived to take charge of his country’s delegation a deal was done.

The Kyoto Protocol was the first international treaty on climate change.

And it was at the insistence of the US that “market mechanisms” such as carbon trading were included, to make it easier for countries to comply with Kyoto.

But Gore went on to be defeated by a hair’s breadth in the US presidential election of 2000, and George W Bush claimed victory.

As the new president was an oilman to his core, surrounded by other oilmen, one of his first acts, in March 2001, was to pull out of the protocol, saying that it would hurt the US economy.

It appeared that the first serious effort to begin implementing the UN climate-change convention was doomed to fail. But the EU as a whole ratified the protocol, and Russia’s decision to follow suit, in 2005, finally brought it into force.

This seems to have come as a surprise to several countries, including Ireland, which had been carrying on as though the Kyoto Protocol was never going to be ratified.

In the meantime annual UN climate summits got bogged down in international nit-picking, with developing countries demanding that their richer counterparts do more, while the US repeatedly threw spanners in the works, in what seemed to many as a determined effort to derail the already tortuous consensus-building process.

Sometimes it was like watching paint dry. But there were diversions such as the Climate Action Network’s Fossil of the Day awards, presented to countries that were seen to be behaving badly, or the little pots of grass handed out at COP6, in The Hague, to mock Australia’s demand that all of its grassland be classified as a “carbon sink”.

Behind the scenes over all these years lurked fossil fuel lobbyists such as the late Don Pearlman, of Washington law firm Patton, Boggs and Blow. Even at COP1, in Berlin, he was branded “King of the Carbon Club” by Der Spiegel.

Indeed, he was one of the few who had reportedly read every single document generated by the process.

He would turn up at plenary sessions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, persistently questioning its scientific findings with a view to downplaying the risks.

Then, at closed-door meetings at UN climate conferences, he would cite the doubts and uncertainties he himself had promoted, to justify watering down draft negotiating texts that had called for firmer action.

I took a close-up photograph of Pearlman at the Kyoto summit in 1997, having cornered him in the convention’s only smoking area (he smoked Dunhills, as I recall), and then used it as my only slide in a talk to Sustainable Energy Ireland, saying that he was the type of opposition they were up against.

That UN climate conferences had to be held every year kept the issue on the international agenda, even if it was eclipsed by the “war on terror” launched after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

A journalist’s carbon footprint

There was criticism of all the travelling to gatherings in such diverse places as Buenos Aires, Bonn, Marrakesh, Delhi, Milan, Montreal and Nairobi.

But no matter where the annual climate conferences were held, it would inevitably be far away for some of the delegates.

I still felt a need to confess my own carbon footprint after taking 50 flights in 2007, including long-haul trips to Vancouver, Hong Kong and Bali, travelling 93,000km and racking up 22 tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Incredibly, all the aviation fuel used by passenger jets was (and still is) tax free worldwide, representing a huge subsidy to airline companies.

The same is true of fuel for shipping. Yet, despite being covered by Kyoto, not a single meaningful step has been taken by the sectors’ regulatory authorities to agree ways to cut emissions.

What the Kyoto protocol required was that rich countries that belonged to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as those classed as economies in transition – the former Soviet bloc – would cut emissions by specified amounts between 2008 and 2012, relative to 1990 levels.

It required nothing of “emerging economies”, such as the fast-growing China, India and Brazil.

But the choice of 1990 as a benchmark had unintended consequences. Because the command economies had collapsed with the Soviet Union, their emissions were way down, giving them vast quantities of carbon credits – nicknamed “hot air” by environmentalists – that others could buy to meet Kyoto targets. Ireland had to buy some.

The big issue then revolved around what was going to happen after the protocol expired, in 2013.

Greenhouse-gas emissions were still growing, but with the US (not to mention China and others) outside the Kyoto framework the hard-fought protocol covered merely 15 per cent of the global total. An all-embracing deal was needed.

The case for taking action, rather than postponing it for the future, was powerfully endorsed by Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, in a 2006 report for the British government on the economics of climate change.

It rated the cost of doing nothing much higher in the long term than that of acting sooner.

Copenhagen: the big freeze

COP13, in Bali, was a turning point. Amid dramatic scenes at the final plenary session, with the convention’s executive secretary, Yvo de Boer, breaking down, the US delegation reluctantly went along with the consensus that a successor to Kyoto, involving deep cuts in emissions worldwide, should be agreed in two years’ time – at COP15, in Copenhagen.

It had long been argued by environmental NGOs and others that climate change was far too important to be left to environment ministers alone – that finance ministers and heads of state or government should be involved in the negotiations. Little did they anticipate that this would be a recipe for disaster.

As delegates nearly froze to death in Copenhagen more than 120 world leaders flew in to do a deal. Cobbled together in a single day by the US president, Barack Obama, in collaboration with the leaders of Brazil, China, India and South Africa, it represented the lowest common denominator in terms of ambition in dealing with climate change.

The EU was excluded – José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, first heard about it when he got a text message – and many delegations from developing countries were outraged by what had happened.

As a result the so-called Copenhagen Accord was merely noted rather than formally adopted by the conference.

COP15 had been overshadowed by the “Climategate” affair, after climate-change deniers hacked into the database of the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit and found seemingly compromising emails circulated by some scientists. But their claim that data was being forged was thrown out by a number of inquiries.

Durban: the 5am huddle

It took two further climate conferences, in Cancún and Durban, to put the process back on track.

Things have now moved on, helped by the scientific findings in the intergovernmental panel’s Fifth Assessment Report and a growing global realisation that we’re all in this together. The US, China and others have made notable shifts in position.

There were numerous all-night sessions along the way, and it was at one of these, in Cancún, that the conference endorsed the aim of capping global warming at no more than 2 degrees above preindustrial levels, if at all possible.

We’re already halfway to that temperature increase, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere this year reached the record level of 400 parts per million.

In Durban, as the conference dragged on for nearly two extra days, a deal on how to proceed with “a protocol, another legal instrument, or a legal outcome” to replace Kyoto was agreed only after what became known as the 5am huddle, which involved key negotiators, including, as the EU’s climate-action commissioner, Connie Hedegaard.

COP18, in Qatar, was even more chaotic, as the presiding sheikh seemed to be at sea most of the time.

But despite this drawback the conference at Doha’s new convention centre still managed to agree on a package that included devising a successor to Kyoto by 2015, as well as on a reference to “loss and damage” as a result of climate change.

Typhoons in the background

The devastating impact on the Philippines of Typhoon Bopha, which drew an emotional plea from its climate envoy Yeb Sano, was a harbinger of things to come.

As the storm wreaked havoc on his country he appealed to world leaders to “open our eyes to the stark reality we face . . . I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses.”

A year later, as COP19 was opening in Warsaw, the Philippines suffered more havoc in the form of Typhoon Haiyan, and Yeb Sano repeated his plea for urgent action in similarly emotional terms, and even began a hunger strike.

No longer the Philippines envoy, he has been walking to Paris from Rome on a “people’s pilgrimage” for COP21.

Neither Sano nor delegates representing the Alliance of Small Island States believe that aiming for a maximum of 2 degrees of warming will protect vulnerable, low-lying countries from the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.

They want a cap of 1.5 degrees, saying this should be defined as the “safe” outer limit.

I made it to the Maldives with the aid of a grant from Comhar, the Government’s defunct Sustainable Development Council.

Incredibly, the (since deposed) president of this impossibly beautiful string of islands off the south coast of India had held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the urgent need to safeguard vulnerable countries.

The existential threat to island nations in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean cannot be overestimated: they could be wiped off the face of Earth by rising sea levels.

Tiny island states such as Tuvalu, halfway between Hawaii and Australia, are already making contingency plans to find alternative places for their people to go.

That’s one of the reasons why the former president Mary Robinson has become an influential voice in promoting climate justice, speaking out for “the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised across the world” – those least responsible for causing global warming – and emphasising the role of women in galvanising their communities.

But the fossil-fuel lobby lives on, and made its presence felt in Warsaw, where Yvo de Boer’s successor as “UN climate chief” – Christiana Figueres, from one of the leading families of Costa Rica – was strongly criticised for addressing a Polish-sponsored “coal and climate summit”, and hundreds of environmentalists staged a walk-out from the COP.

Poland’s determination to continue exploiting its coal resources, as well as scepticism among other former communist countries, has dented the EU’s “leadership role” on climate.

The appointment of the veteran Spanish conservative politician Miguel Arias Cañete, who had close links with the oil industry, as Hedegaard’s successor hasn’t helped.

Sleepwalking to disaster

At least Angela Merkel has remained true to the cause she first espoused 20 years ago in Berlin.

It was at her insistence that climate change had to be addressed by leaders of the G7 and G20 at their summit meetings, on the basis that global warming “knows no borders” and the bigger countries must lead by example in tackling it.

But the United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that even were all of the countries that have already submitted their pledges – 146 – actually to implement them, there would still be an “emissions gap” of 12 billion tonnes in 2030, and that would be much too large to give us any chance of staying below a warming of 2 degrees.

An accord will be reached in terror-stricken Paris, but it won’t be enough. So it’s vital that world leaders incorporate in the agreement a transparent and effective review process, to ensure that countries accelerate their efforts based on the scientific evidence as it’s updated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Otherwise we’re sleepwalking to disaster.

Global warming is ‘unequivocal’ and human influence is ‘clear’ Warming of Earth’s climate system is “unequivocal”, and the human influence on changing it is now clear, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In its ‘Fifth Assessment Report’, the IPCC found that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are “unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years”.

These greenhouse-gas emissions will need to fall to zero by 2100 if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming below the potentially dangerous threshold of 2 degrees.

The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the past 1,400 years in the northern hemisphere, while last year alone was the hottest worldwide since records began.

Tackling climate change will require “substantial and sustained reductions” in emissions to limit risks of “severe, widespread and irreversible impacts” globally by 2100, the scientists say.

As predicted by the economist Nicholas Stern, in an analysis for the British government in 2006, the IPCC says delaying action will “substantially increase the challenges” to limit global warming below 2 degrees.

Average global surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all emission scenarios, with much of it occurring in the oceans, which are already absorbing much of the extra heat.

Heatwaves are likely to occur more often and last longer, and extreme precipitation events – such as devastating typhoons in Southeast Asia – will become more intense and frequent, the IPCC says.

If the average temperature were to rise by more than 4 degrees, “substantial species extinction” would occur, as well as food insecurity, slower economic growth, endemic poverty and mass migrations.

Emissions can be “substantially reduced” through changes in consumption patterns, switching to renewable-energy sources, such as solar or wind, and adopting simple energy-saving measures.

Ireland - Emissions rising again with recovery

Ireland was always going to have a problem addressing climate change because of the importance of our agri-food sector and plans for its expansion over the next five to 10 years.

Indeed, it’s largely due to agriculture that our per capita greenhouse gas emissions are relatively high.

Agriculture and food production account for more than 29 per cent of Ireland’s emissions, compared to 21 per cent apiece for energy and transport, 15 per cent for industry and commerce, 12 per cent for residential and 2 per cent for waste, according to a 2011 report by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, recently enacted after a long delay, will do nothing to reduce agriculture’s contribution to Ireland’s emissions.

Not only does it set no sectoral targets, but the continued expansion of production under “Food Harvest 2020” means that it cannot be constrained.

Given that industry and electricity generation are covered by the EU Emissions Trading System, the effect of this exemption for agriculture is likely to impose a greater burden on the transport and built environment sectors if we are to have any chance of meeting the EU target of cutting emissions by 40 per cent by 2030.

Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly and his predecessors have repeatedly pledged that Ireland will meet its EU obligations on the climate.

However, at the rate things are going, we will overshoot the EU target for 2020 – less than five years’ time – whatever about the even more ambitious target for 2030.

The Government and the Irish Farmers Association have made great play in Brussels arguing that Irish farming is grass-based and therefore more “environmentally friendly” than elsewhere.

Indeed, this argument for “exceptionalism” in the case of Ireland appears likely to succeed, giving us some welcome wriggle-room.

After a pause in the growth of emissions as a result of the recession, they’re rising again with the recovery.

Car sales are up by 30 per cent, traffic levels are increasing again and we’re still throwing motorways at the problem.

Meanwhile, the sprawl of single houses in the countryside has continued, even during the recession.

People’s Climate Marches take place in Dublin, Belfast and Cork on Sunday, November 29th. More details from

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