Planet Earth: The time to act is now

Paris climate change summit has the ingredients for a deal

Not since the Paris peace conference convened in 1919 to put an end to the First World War have so many world leaders gathered in the French capital, just two weeks after the jihadist attacks that killed 130 people and maimed many more. Up to 140 heads of state or government are expected to attend the UN climate change summit, which opens today at Le Bourget, site of the city’s first airport.

The last time so many turned up to address the future of this planet was at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 when a much-heralded effort to reach agreement ended in acrimony and confusion. This time, however, there is a widespread expectation that a comprehensive deal will be concluded in Paris, although it may not go far enough to ensure that the world avoids the worst impacts of global warming.

A lot has changed since negotiations started in 1995 on how to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro three years earlier. The threats posed by rising temperatures worldwide are no longer seen as theoretical, but real and already evident in Africa, south east Asia, the Arctic and elsewhere.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its Fifth Assessment Report, has laid it on the line – that global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to zero between now and 2100 if we are to have any chance of capping rising surface temperatures at two degrees Celsius.


This is the internationally agreed limit beyond which life on Earth would become increasingly difficult and dangerous.

The mounting scientific evidence has served to underpin major changes in policy by some of the big players, notably the United States and China, both of which have pledged to cut their emissions by investing heavily in renewable energy sources.

What helped to focus the minds of their leaders were shocks such as the devastation wreaked on New York City and New Jersey by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, in the case of President Barack Obama, and the endemic life-threatening air pollution that pervades Beijing and other Chinese cities, in the case of President Xi Jinping.

Both of these leaders now accept the need for a transition to a low-carbon economy, as indeed does the European Union. The only issue is time, and whether there is sufficient political will to bring about this transformation before it’s too late.

Most of the 195 parties to the UNFCCC, including some of the poorest nations of the world, have submitted pledges to take action on cutting emissions. But it is already clear that, even if all of these pledges were implemented in full, they would still not be enough. Thus, the Paris agreement must include a review mechanism to ratchet up action in the future.