The Paris summit was variously described as a “watershed event”, as heralding a “new normal” and as a “major leap for mankind”. The progress celebrated was, of course, the heretofore impossible-seeming ability of the nations of the world to come together and agree an ambitious deal to tackle climate change.
But while COP21 undoubtedly marked a step-change in international diplomacy from 2009’s Copenhagen debacle, it can also be viewed in terms of a different paradigm shift. Whereas in 2009, any denialism centred around scepticism over climate science, the denialism emerging from Paris is all about policy.
Tweeting from COP21, the editor of Carbon Brief Leo Hickman said compared to Copenhagen, climate sceptics were now “largely seen as joke/yesterday’s men, or just ignored”. Meanwhile Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre said that “unlike previous COPs… it’s very widely acknowledged now that the science is right and that the sceptics are a relatively quiet voice”.
Yet despite the scientific consensus and the ambition of The Agreement, there remains what Anderson describes as a “huge disconnect” between what we say we want to do and what we are actually doing. There is a silent denial among politicians about the reality of their policies and it extends to both key areas of climate change mitigation: emissions reductions and negative emissions technology.
The on-paper ambition of Paris is to limit global temperature rises to “well below 2 degrees Celsius”, but the emission reduction pledges submitted by the signatories would deliver close to 3C of warming (left). The so-called “ratchet mechanism” (below) is intended to incrementally close this gap by requiring governments to make more ambitious commitments every five years. However, unless Governments voluntarily revise current INDCs, the first opportunity to alter trajectory is 2025 when the pledges begin to expire. As Chatham House points out, by then a decent chance of achieving 2 degrees would have gone because global emissions would need to have peaked before that.
At the same time, the importance (in terms of spending) we attach to climate change appears in stark relief to our continued commitment to fossil fuels. The IMF estimates $5.3trillion was spent subsidising, largely fossil fuel, energy production in 2015. In contrast, just $100billion a year of climate finance – less than 2% of the energy subsidy – has been promised from 2020 to help developing nations cope with climate change.
Regarding technology, academics acknowledge that, given the limitations of the pledges, negative emissions technology will needed to stay within a 1.5C, and probably a 2C, target. Yet there is no explicit mention of such technologies in The Agreement. Moreover, we remain a long way from being able scale-up these technologies, such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), to the level required. A recent study authored by 40 different scientists described relying on these unmentioned but essential technologies to keep global warming within 2C as “extremely risky”.
Sadly all these factors: double-speak over emissions cuts, lukewarm commitment to vital carbon capture and unabated attachment to fossil fuels, can be found in microcosm in the UK.
David Cameron described the Paris deal as “a huge step forward in securing the future of the planet” and added Britain was “already leading the way in work to cut emissions and help less developed countries cut theirs”.
However a string of policy announcements last year, including cutting subsidies for solar power, scrapping the green deal on insulation and abolishing the zero carbon homes standard, seemed to reduce action to tackle climate change. Indeed, the chair of the Government’s committee on climate change, Lord Deben, advised ministers that because of such policies the UK’s own carbon targets may now be missed. This incompatibility of words and deeds was not lost on commentators, with Michael Grubb of University College London saying “It is beginning to look like the UK has two governments”.
It is a similar story with technology. Lord Deben’s committee said CCS has a “crucial role to play in long-term decarbonisation of the economy”. Yet last November the Conservative Government cancelled its £1bn competition for CCS, breaking their own manifesto pledge. Meanwhile, according to George Osborne, the Government remains “110% committed” to fossil fuel extraction in the North Sea and continues to support the industry through tax breaks.
It is all a long way from the optimism and euphoria in Paris. That emotion points to a genuine desire for action but policy must quickly become more consistent with sentiment if the spirit of Paris is to honoured. “It is a little hammer, but I think it can do great things,” said Laurent Fabius as he banged down his gavel and sealed The Agreement. So far we must be content with great words, because great things remain to be seen.