Energy & Environment
Paris is the political moment
Liz Gallagher / Nov 2015
With only a few weeks left until COP21 the pace and breadth of attention are palpable.The drop in the price of oil, the global divestment from coal, the surge of cheaper renewables are all creating strong real-economy tail winds ahead of Paris. The economics of addressing climate change are perceived as more affordable and the immediate benefits more obvious. The burden of proof is shifting away from renewables, now increasingly perceived as less risky in comparison to fossil fuels and the risks entailed with continuing a business as usual pathway.
These real-economy tailwinds, combined with historic political moments are creating increasing political momentum out to Paris. Key moments include the People’s Climate March – the largest climate march in history; the US-China bilateral – affirming serious collaboration between these two significant emitters; the G7 commitment to a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of the century and the UN Secretary General’s leaders lunch which affirmed the need for Paris to deliver an enduring regime. All of these moments were prompted by COP21, thus demonstrating the value of a multilateral agreement whereby countries stepping forward together provide each other with political cover domestically, increasing the probability of a more ambitious outcome than would otherwise happen unilaterally.
For the first time ever in the history of the climate talks, 86% of global emissions are now under control. Most countries have put forward their INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – climate plans). These INDCs will make a material impact on our quality of life, meaning better access to energy, more efficient and cheaper transport, lowering fuel import costs, providing substantial health benefits and other significant co-benefits. These INDCs will also transform global energy markets. India and China’s pledges alone suggest that between them, the two countries will install twice the current global capacity of wind and solar in the next fifteen years.
These INDCs get us significantly closer to the 2°C obligation, but are unable to entirely close the gap. We know that many countries will likely overachieve their INDCs, in particular the EU and China. But the gap still remains. Therefore, Paris will need to do more than just inscribe these INDCs in a legal text. World leaders have agreed and affirmed the 2°C obligation as the threshold of unmanageable climate change. If 2°C cannot be reached, they will need to justify why this threshold is no longer dangerous.
Paris will be different to past agreements such as Kyoto and Copenhagen. The momentum building is both ambitious but honest. We understand that Paris won’t deliver an outright 2°C trajectory. Therefore, Paris will go beyond the ‘one-off deal’ approach, and instead build an enduring regime to keep us on track to 2°C. Paris should provide real-economy actors with more certainty than previous agreements; it should appeal to a variety of investment cycles and horizons to deliver material impacts.
The politics of Paris are also vastly different in comparison to other agreements. Building multilateralism in a multi-polar world is challenging. This is the first attempt to deliver a truly global agreement on a common good. Aligning the energy systems of 196 nations is complex and takes time. The UNFCCC has already made progress, despite perceptions of being one of the least dynamic of the international regimes. There are no other multilateral processes which can point to as many tangible outcomes delivered as under the guidance of the UNFCCC. In previous years, the involvement of the US and China has caused disruption and delay. This time around, the two largest emitters are working together collaboratively ahead of Paris. This marks a significant shift in how many ‘realists’ perceive the potential for a strong agreement in Paris, and has helped convert those previously hedging their bets. These two actors are a significant centre of gravity driving the level of ambition in the agreement. But both parties have a vested interest in securing the details of a climate agreement under a multilateral setting, rather than stitching up a deal on the margins both for political and substantive reasons.
French Diplomacy ahead of COP21 has been effective and efficient in securing understanding at the Ministerial level, and delivering the choreography required to harness the politics out to Paris. Coupled with the US and China driving the agenda and level of ambition, as well as progress made on the INDCs, the political space ahead of Paris is relatively contained in comparison with other moments such as Copenhagen, we know roughly the boundaries of the agreement we can expect. The major components of an agreement are in place, but the quality of the deal still remains open. The devil is in the detail, and this detail can turn Paris from an average outcome into an enduring regime. Precision and clarity are critical to avoid confusion in how different actors interpret Paris.
Inside the negotiations, unusual alliances are beginning to form to secure workable propositions on issues around the Long-term goal; markets and other elements. Whenever there has been a robust outcome at any COP, it is in large part thanks to countries coming together from across the political spectrum to share priorities and demonstrate their influence. At present there is no clear force for high ambition, challenging the current political dynamic. This lack of alternative dynamic to that secured by the US and China, has the potential to reduce the sense of jeopardy going into Paris and minimise the political space available to construct a stronger outcome. However, this alternative alliance for higher ambition should not be ruled out, and could still come together in Paris for tactical reasons under the right conditions. Europe has often worked with its allies in the developing world in previous COPs and Paris will hopefully be no different.
At present, progress has been uneven on the issues. Particular elements which require more conceptual clarity include Financing the new agreement, with no real grasp or leadership in developing a credible offer for the new deal. In addition, the issue of Loss and Damage (when adapting to the impacts of climate change becomes impossible) also lacks conceptual clarity regarding how and whether to anchor this into the core agreement. This uneven progress could store up challenges during COP21.
But what matters most in Paris, is not the details in the deal, but the impact on the world. Paris is both the agreement but importantly the political moment. The interpretation of the Paris agreement will be contested, but looking at the profound shifts that have taken place over the past few years should only empower the forces of decarbonisation to accelerate and push the politics further. Paris should be empowering, it should open up the political space in future to keep us on track for 2°C.