Climate talks: Is the planet to be saved or doomed?

With just four months until COP 21, negotiations plod on but the public are mobilising

Participants at the opening of the Summit of Conscience for the Climate in Paris. Photograph: Reuters/Etienne Laurent/Pool

Participants at the opening of the Summit of Conscience for the Climate in Paris. Photograph: Reuters/Etienne Laurent/Pool

 

The close of the international climate conference on December 11th could well be a cliffhanger. Newspaper editors may be tempted to prepare alternate front pages announcing “World Saved” or “World Doomed,” as in the 1961 science fiction film The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

The UN Conference of Parties started in 1992, and this will be the 21st session, hence the conference’s name, COP 21. Alarming predictions by experts and world leaders drive home how high the stakes are.

“The ocean is dying, and it produces 80 per cent of the oxygen on our planet,” Paul Watson, the president of the NGO Sea Shepherd told the Summit of Conscience for the Climate, a forerunner to the December conference, on July 21st.

“If action is not taken immediately,” the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan said, his grandchildren will endure “suffocating heat waves, severe droughts, catastrophic forest fires, rising sea levels and drowning cities; New York, Venice and small island states will be submerged.”

Fuelling perdition

James HansenLaudato Si

The US, EU and China have proclaimed their “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs for the December conference; a source of optimism. China’s pledge on June 30th to dramatically reduce its reliance on carbon was made for domestic reasons, because China is the world’s leading victim of pollution, as well as its leading polluter. The first thing most Chinese people do in the morning is to check the level of air pollution on their mobile telephones, prime minister Li Keqiang said last year.

It is hoped that India, which is also a leading polluter, will be spurred by China’s example.

Only 47 of the 195 states in COP 21 have made commitments. France, which will host the conference, is focused on securing more NDCs. Many countries are waiting to see others’ proposals first.

The goal of COP 21 is agreement on an ambitious, legally binding, enforceable plan to limit the rise in the world’s temperature to 2 degrees centigrade by the end of this century. Some observers fear it is already too late, or that even a 2 degree rise will be catastrophic.

If nothing is done, French president François Hollande said on July 21st, temperatures will rise 4 degrees. “Based on negotiations and the commitments made so far, the agreement that appears reachable today would probably put us at 3 degrees.”

“Mitigation” and “adaptation” are the key words in the run-up to the December conference. The former means substantial reductions in carbon emissions. The latter refers to the transition from a fossil fuel-based energy system to renewable energy sources: solar, wind, marine and geothermal.

The governments of developed countries spend huge amounts of money to encourage citizens to buy electric cars, and install insulation and solar panels. The challenge is greater in the developing world.

Green climate fund

It is perhaps the most absurd aspect of climate change that the governments who are too stingy to fund the “green climate fund” spend $5,000 billion to subsidise the fossil fuel industry annually, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The absence of a transparent, reliable means of assessing carbon emissions and holding countries to their commitments is also an obstacle to an agreement.

With just four months to go, negotiators are showing signs of fatigue. The UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon has complained that negotiations are moving at “a snail’s pace”.

“Taking account of the inertia of the negotiations, we must pull the levers of conscience, meaning and spirituality,” said Nicolas Hulot, Mr Hollande’s special envoy for the protection of the planet.

At a preparatory meeting on July 20th, Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, took several minutes to regain her composure at the microphone, a diplomat who attended the meeting recounted.

“Figueres couldn’t speak because she was crying,” the diplomat said. “Things are moving very slowly. The pressure is getting to them all. She seemed exasperated by the lack of urgency and momentum. She said that expressions of solidarity aren’t enough; we need to see action in moving away from fossil fuels.”

Let fossil fuels lie

It is as if there were two distinct processes: the plodding negotiations, for which Ms Figueres has overall responsibility, and a gathering wave of global opinion, encouraged by religious leaders, NGOs and social media.

More than 40,000 delegates will attend COP 21, and the 12-day conference will doubtless resemble Woodstock more than the Congress of Vienna.

Already, many of the events have an all-embracing, warm and fuzzy feel to them. President Hollande’s Summit of Conscience included a speech by a representative of the International Confucian Ecological Alliance, an exercise in meditation by a Buddhist nun and a classical concert by Israeli and Palestinian youths.

“We’re convinced that the challenges presented by climate change cannot be effectively met by states alone, but mainly through individual and collective mobilisation, today and for years to come,” the representatives of the six main religions in France wrote to Mr Hollande on July 1st.

But will it be enough to stop the seemingly inexorable warming of our planet? Mr Hollande says global warming constitutes a “crisis of civilisation” and a “crisis of meaning”. France, he adds, “is a country . . . which sometimes opens new paths. I think that in December 2015, as in 1789 when the French Revolution produced immense hope in the world, the history of the world can be written in Paris.”

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