Warm words,
cold reality

Whether or not world leaders pull off a deal on climate change in Paris, it won’t be enough to avert catastrophic global warning unless the public keeps up the pressure

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As world leaders gear up for the latest climate change summit in Paris this week, there are raised hopes of an agreement finally being produced that would help avert climate disaster. But that won’t happen without continued pressure from civil society, say climate change experts – and it will be far from the final solution.

Dozens of leaders including David Cameron, Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, and Narendra Modi have confirmed their attendance at this latest round of UN talks, and hopes are mounting. They’ll be discussing a possible new global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid disastrous levels of global warming.

“Unpicking eloquent sentences reveals elaborate ruses to do the least possible.”

Current commitments on greenhouse gas emissions run out in 2020, so in Paris governments are expected, at the very least, to produce an agreement to cover the decade after that.

The signing of such a pact would be the successful outcome that previous talks have failed to reach. In 2009, the last such summit aimed at sealing a global climate agreement, in Copenhagen, was described by many as a failure, with top political leaders left frustrated and embarrassed when negotiations collapsed. So why should things be better this time?

“You can already see the stark difference between the Copenhagen process and this process. This is looking so much better,” says Professor Tim Flannery, an author and global warming activist who was heavily involved in the Copenhagen summit and chaired the Copenhagen climate council for three years.

“There’s been so much more work done in advance, and I’m feeling optimistic that something quite good can come out of Paris,” he tells Big Issue North. “One major difference now is the bottom-up approach to policy making, rather than the top-down approach.”

As the talks get underway in a city still coming to terms with terrorist attacks, another important difference is that there’s been a big shift in the public’s perception of climate issues since Copenhagen, according to Asad Rehman, who leads Friends of the Earth’s campaigning on climate change,.

“A positive sign for Paris is that more people now understand the importance of tackling climate change,” he says. “It’s no longer something that people have heard about and think is important but don’t really understand.”

Following disastrous flooding around the UK in the past few years, and high-profile campaigns like that against fracking in Lancashire, he says people are “fully aware” that climate change is already having an impact on people’s lives, and that dirty energy issues are now “in their own back yard”.

“There’s now a greater level of engagement and awareness from ordinary people, which is fundamentally different from Copenhagen.”

Still, Rehman doubts that this will translate into governments being bolder in their efforts to tackle global warming for now.

“That’s not likely to happen,” he says. “I’m not overly optimistic in terms of what we can achieve in Paris.”

Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at Manchester University, also has reservations about whether the talks can produce a binding agreement to cap global warming at a 2°C rise in temperature since the pre-Industrial era. This, many scientists say, is the absolute limit before we get into “dangerous and extremely unpredictable” climate territory.

“As it is today, we’re heading for a weak agreement based on each nation’s ad hoc and voluntary proposals to cut emissions,” says Anderson. “Few nations, if any, are yet prepared to lead by example.

“There are lots of fine, eloquent sentences being uttered, but unpicking them reveals elaborate ruses to do the least possible – donkeys masquerading as lions.”

Like many NGOs and other groups, Friends of the Earth says the global warming threshold is even lower, at 1.5°C. But the emissions reductions pledged by some 150 countries so far ahead of the Paris climate talks would mean Earth is headed for warming of around 3.7°C, Rehman says.

The figures may sound small, but they can make a huge difference. The temperature difference between now and the last ice age, scientists say, was around 5°C.

“The good news is that the meeting is going to get us off the worst-case scenario trajectory we’re on at the moment, which is going to take us to four degrees of warming or more,” says Flannery.

He expects an agreement will be reached in Paris that will take us to closer to three degrees of warming. In that respect, he says, the talks are “already a success, but not enough to get us out of danger”.

Any climate agreement made in Paris should not be seen as an end goal but a starting point, says Rehman.

“Realistically the most important thing coming out of Paris would be signals that we’re investing in renewable energy access around the world, that we’re being much more ambitious between now and 2020, and not putting off those actions.

“Those are the key outcomes. If we get those, then we’ve got a chance. Then we’ve bent the curve. If not, we’ve got a very big challenge ahead of us.”

Despite the focus on Paris and high-level government talks, Flannery stresses that the politics is just “one element” in the fight against climate change and says individual action, however small, is still “massively important”.

He points to a report earlier this year from the International Energy Agency, which showed at the global level we’ve now decoupled economic growth from growth in emissions.

“A huge part of the reason that’s happened so early is the cumulative impact of billions of actions. Changing lightbulbs, buying a more efficient car, taking public transport – all those little things are also having an impact and that’s going on independently of the political negotiations,” he says.

“For decades I’ve been doing that sort of stuff, sometimes half-heartedly, because I didn’t know if it would really add up to anything. And now it has. Those drops in the ocean have filled a very significant bucket.”

Beyond Paris, Rehman says, the key to getting governments to aspire to anything more ambitious in the future lies with ordinary people.

“There were many mistakes made in Copenhagen, but one was this belief that if you can get all the leaders there together they’ll do the right thing, and it’ll all be all right. But actually they didn’t do the right thing. What we really need is people to be politically engaged, to make sure governments are making the right decisions and acting in our interests.

“Every action makes a difference, but it’s our collective action which will force the kind of big-picture changes that are needed.”

Anderson adds: “The Paris negotiations are about to start – and all is still to play for. It is the role of those within civil society who are genuinely concerned about climate change to put pressure on our policy makers to act with integrity and keep their high-level commitments and promises.”

Atmosphere of Hope by Tim Flannery is published by Penguin (£8.99).

Photo: The Colle des Mees solar farm, the biggest in France. (Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier)

There’s more on climate change here http://www.bigissuenorth.com/2015/10/ebbs-and-flows/15053 and here http://www.bigissuenorth.com/2014/10/hope-not-fate/10996

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