Looking for a beacon of hope on climate change in Paris

The Cop21 summit offers a truly historic opportunity for a global energy revolution

As Paris recovers from the shock of the recent horrific attacks, the City of Light also stands as a beacon of hope for the world as it prepares to host a historic meeting of world leaders. This event provides a level of optimism not witnessed before, providing the possibility of a global energy technology revolution over the next 40 years.

The much-anticipated United Nations conference on climate change, which runs from November 30th-December 11th, will see global leaders and thousands of others (up to 30,000 people are expected) to gather in Paris. It is called Cop21 as it is the 21st gathering or "Conference of the Parties" to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. According to the UN, Cop21 is where governments will reach a new and universal climate change agreement.

While uncertainties remain regarding the precise impact – in time and place – of climate change, the growing body of scientific evidence has demonstrated that climate change is happening, and that it is being caused by human activities – notably our addiction to fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas to provide our heating, transport and electricity needs. The energy transition required to limit the damage caused by climate change offers huge potential for innovation, a technology revolution, economic activity and resulting jobs.

We have had agreements before so why is this one so significant? At the first such event in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (subsequently called the Earth Summit), 154 countries signed a contractual agreement to collectively prevent dangerous, human-induced climate change. This has now been signed by 195 countries (Parties to the Convention).


At the (Cop3) meeting in Kyoto in 1997, industrialised countries (including Ireland) agreed specific limits to the growth of harmful greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 (caused when we burn fossil fuels, as well as from belching cattle and other sources). This agreement was called the Kyoto Protocol but some significant countries were not included – the US, China and India.

It was at the Cop16 event in Cancún in 2010 that world leaders committed to a specific limit for global warming, ie limiting climate change so that global warming caused by human activity does not increase by more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

But it is during Cop21 in Paris that the ambition agreed thus far is expected to become real and significant, moving from agreed aspiration to a negotiated plan to deliver.

The hope is that we will achieve a deal on the ‘how’ part, ie a global agreement on who does what in order for the limit in global warming to be achieved. This is the focus of Cop21.

So why is there cause for optimism? We have previously seen expectations build up only to result in disappointment, most notably the Cop15 meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 which failed to deliver. Why is Cop21 different?

Firstly, recent evidence of changes happening on the ground around the world is striking. In 2014 energy-related greenhouse gas emissions did not increase, despite a 3 per cent growth in economic activity.

Also, nearly half of all newly-installed electricity-generating capacity came from renewable energy, in other words more additional power coming from wind, hydro and solar than from coal or natural gas. This was led by growth in China, the US, Japan and Germany.

More significantly, the UN has received this year, in advance of the Cop21 event, pledges (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) from 168 countries around the world for emissions reduction. This is unprecedented, being the first time that so many countries have declared what their own specific ambition is for a low-carbon future and how they plan to deliver on it. It provides a much stronger political basis for the two weeks of negotiations than any previous climate change event.

The anticipated Cop21 climate change agreement will cover many dimensions, including targets for 2030; plans for how to transition to a low-carbon future; the mechanisms for investing in low-carbon technologies; cost-sharing between those who have been polluting for many years and those who wish to ensure the correct balance is struck between countries’ competing goals.

The opportunity is huge. The International Energy Agency estimates an investment of nearly €13 trillion is needed between now and 2030 to facilitate the energy part of the transition to a low-carbon world.

We need innovative solutions to radically change our energy system, to rethink how we heat our homes, how we transport ourselves from A to B, how we power appliances and how we provide food to a growing global population in a sustainable manner.

For Ireland, this is a challenging and exciting development. The time to plan is now. The time is also right to tease out where the specific opportunities lie for us from this global opportunity – to tap into the growing potential for energy efficiency solutions, for renewable energy technologies, for communities to benefit, to move beyond the buzzwords of smart energy systems and big data towards harnessing the potential that the energy transition provides.

Brian Ó Gallachóir is professor of energy policy and modelling at University College Cork. He is also chair of the International Energy Agency's Technology Collaboration Programme on energy systems modelling. He will lead UCC's delegation to Cop21