Climate change has become an increasingly hot topic over the past decade. While the importance of the issue has enjoyed consensus across most of Europe for years, with the European Union pioneering the world’s first emissions trading scheme back in 2004, the topic is a divisive one in Australia, Canada and the United States, causing the rise and demise of numerous leaders (think Malcolm Turnbull, Julia Gillard, Stephen Harper) and fuelling heated, high-publicity battles over the development of fossil fuel resources (think Keystone XL pipeline, Abbot Point and the Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin). Approaches are equally varied in developing countries; while small island developing states are pleading for a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions so as to avoid losing their countries, the likes of India are focused on economic development, generally by way of cheap coal, over environmental considerations.
While the political battles rage, global greenhouse gases are continuing to rise: every year seems to break the record set the previous year as the hottest on record and, just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned, natural disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. More subtle changes are now palpable too; strangely warm springs and autumns, scorching summers bringing bushfires and drought, less and less snow on the mountains, rapidly retreating glaciers, and melting ice sheets.
As greenhouse gases know no borders, the problem is a global one and, logically, so must be the solution. In Rio de Janeiro back in 1992, countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and have been meeting annually ever since to work towards a way to prevent the apocalyptic predictions of the IPCC from coming to bear – so far without any physical results to show for their efforts. Not that getting 195 countries, each with their own specific circumstances, to agree on something is an easy task. Imagine trying to get fifteen of your friends together to go out to dinner. How difficult is it to find a date and time that suits everyone? How is the restaurant chosen? Is it in everyone’s price range? Who pays? Now multiply the logistical challenge by thirteen, and the stakes...infinitely.
Over the past twenty three years, the UNFCCC has evolved into an unwieldy monster of a mechanism. Its numerous spin-off working groups, committees and funds, plus the many plans, programs, tracking and reporting processes that it requires countries to undertake overwhelm public servants worldwide. In the face of environmental changes that are becoming increasingly evident and alarming, such a painstakingly slow, cumbersome process can seem infuriating and poorly adapted to the urgency of the issue at hand, instilling skepticism and disillusion in many.
The UNFCCC and its associated annual Conference of the Parties (COP), however, do serve an important purpose – if one looks beyond the elusiveness of a global deal to keep emissions at safe levels. They force governments to put climate policy on their agenda. By obliging countries to report on their progress, and to develop mitigation and adaptation plans, countries have no choice but to think about how climate change will affect them, what action they can take, and whether what they are doing is enough. The process also gives the media, NGOs and civil society something to rally around, thereby acting as a vehicle for raising awareness. It is of no surprise that, given the high coverage of COP21 in December in Paris by the French media, the French are more concerned about climate change and more willing to take action than the global median . Many COP attendees comment that the side events, at which countries, NGOs and businesses share ideas, projects and experiences, are often more fruitful than the negotiations themselves.
COP21 is now on our doorstep. The most important climate conference since that in Copenhagen in 2009, it aims to establish a multilateral agreement that will ensure that greenhouse gas emissions are kept at levels that will not allow the world to warm more than 2C. Those in the thick of the negotiations are confident that some sort of agreement will be reached – unlike in Copenhagen, countries have had more time to “do their homework” – economic and technological studies, rigorous stakeholder consultation - and many have now learned from their own climate policy experiences and have legislative frameworks in place. How ambitious this agreement will be, however, remains to be seen. Deep fault lines remain between developed and developing countries, and finance is still the key sticking point – who will pay, how much, and for what. Political egos continue to hamper the process. Those looking at the agreement-to-be through the glasses of realism concede that it initially will not be ambitious enough to keep warming below the 2°C threshold, and that the best bet will be to integrate a review mechanism that will allow the level of ambition to be ratcheted up over time.
Whatever the outcome of COP21, it will not be enough on its own. The biggest danger is seeing it as a panacea to solving the world’s climate dilemma, when in fact it is only one piece of a far larger puzzle. At the end of the day, it is a piece of paper that compels countries to implement domestic policies to curb emissions. But, in the absence of punitive measures under international law, this will require political courage. It will require civil society demonstrating their desire for such policies. It will require the campaigning of NGOs. It will require each and every one of us to adjust our habits. It will require technology to keep providing better, cheaper solutions to consume less energy and switch to renewables. It will require business to get on board.
This is already happening. The historic US-China agreement on curbing emissions, wins by civil society such as pressuring Obama to finally block the development of the Keystone XL pipeline, and technological developments such as the recent Tesla battery to store renewable energy are all examples of progress. But we all need to keep the pressure on. Our future depends on it.