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COP21: A Triumph or an Illusion?

By Don McLean on Monday 21 December 2015

The photos of the delegates with big smiles, applauding and raised arms clearly illustrate that COP21 was a major success.  Delegates went home and could report a major achievement.  It was a massive step forward, achieving a global commitment to significantly reducing carbon emissions thereby substantially reducing the impact of global warming.

Should we all rejoice?

What are the key agreed targets from COP21?

  • To keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C
  • To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100
  • To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge
  • For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

The agreement is the first where all countries have committed to cut carbon emissions. Some aspects of the agreement will be legally binding, such as submitting an emissions reduction target and the regular review of that goal.

Every five years countries will have to declare their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contribution’ or INDC.  The idea is that every five years countries will set new, more rigorous targets.

What won’t be legally binding will be the emission targets. These will be determined by nations themselves and the INDC need not be a meaningful target.  For example a study on 31 of the INDC’s submitted so far show over 50% are inadequate and likely to lead to global temperature rises of 3-4⁰C.

In addition, whilst it is legally binding that the INDC targets are set, it is not legally binding that you need to achieve them.  This is a major weakness.

To date, 147 countries have submitted their INDC’s.  If these targets were to be achieved they will only reduce global warming to 2.7⁰C. This is well above the 2.0⁰C goal of the Paris Agreement.

Whilst ambitious goals have been set at COP21 it is left to others to work on how to implement the goals.

These INDC’s will require serious political commitment to deliver the targets, particularly if it requires reducing economic growth or is too expensive to implement.

Additional Concerns

US President Barack Obama has hailed the COP21 agreement as “ambitious”.  I am uneasy with the word ‘ambitious’ in this context.  He also admitted that the deal was not “perfect”, he said it was “the best chance to save the one planet we have”.  Again I don’t like the non-committal tone of the message.

In addition, China’s chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua agreed with the President and he also stated that the deal was not perfect.

It appears that COP21 achieved much good will and clearly a verbal intent to take action, but what will happen if one or more countries renege?  Will the agreement collapse like a pack of cards?

The big question is will there be the political strength in each country to implement the measures to tackle this problem?

Buildings, cities, manufacturing and industrial processes will play a major part of a countries carbon reduction strategy.  The problem each country faces is that there is little or no commercial lobby for energy efficiency.  The lobbying is done by the renewables and clean tech sectors.  Whilst these are important there is little point in renewables or clean tech if buildings are wasting 30%-50% of their energy in the first place.

Is it surprising that if buildings are not made energy efficient then more renewables and clean tech will be required?

Unfortunately, I fear the success of COP21 could be more of an illusion than a triumph. Put the Champagne back into the vault, it will be a long time before we will know if COP21 was a success or not.


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