Will the Paris Climate Change Conference be the game-changing event many have waited for?

Will the Paris Climate Change Conference be the game-changing event many have waited for?

A colossal task

It has been six years since a UN Climate Change Conference of such potential significance. The last was COP15 held in 2009 in Denmark, the overall goal of which was to establish an ambitious global climate agreement commencing in 2012 when the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol was due to expire. COP15, however, was a conference marred by sharp criticisms of the hosting government in its approach to the delegations of less developed countries, which in the end resulted in no deal, with the key governments responsible for the largest proportion of global emissions backtracking at the last minute. The 2015 Climate Change Conference will prove just as challenging, but there are renewed hopes for a joint agreement to be reached given the level of urgency under which the guest delegations will have to carry out their negotiations. High ranking officials from 195 nations are attending the conference, where leaders of developed and developing countries are expected to grant mutual concessions in an effort to curb the emission of greenhouse gases enough to prevent the Earth’s temperature increase from reaching the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The recent revelations of Volkswagen’s CO₂ emissions cover-up shows just how complex the issue of addressing carbon emissions is. Given the sheer number of stakeholders (business players, local and regional authorities, international corporations, ordinary citizens, etc.) that to a greater or lesser degree have a stake in dealing with carbon emissions, it might prove difficult to ensure their honouring of the greenhouse reduction pledges. Thus, the successful implementation of a ‘climate change’ deal relies heavily on a transparent endorsement of the prescribed measures by those who directly or indirectly contribute to the rising CO₂ levels.

The Paris Conference promises to be a ‘climate change legacy’ test for president Obama. Six years ago it might not have been the perfect time to push for an environment protection agenda, and issues like national health insurance and economic growth were given priority over reaching a climate change deal. Now, it is up to Barack Obama to display a level of leadership that would galvanize other key governments into carrying honest and constructive negotiations that would lead to signing a climate change deal by December 11. In 2013 Obama pledged his full support for renewed talks on global warming and proceeded with coal mining plants carbon emissions cuts. Hopefully, president Obama will keep the momentum going, and the successful implementation of emissions cut initiatives at home will give him enough credibility to convince other parties to follow suit.

It has been estimated that the gas reduction pledges from the EU, US, Mexico and China alone will cost global economy some $730bn every year by 2030. A prospect that proves hard to compromise on, especially when more and more people around the world find themselves below the poverty line and we witness a staggering increase of worldwide income inequality. In the case of the United States the reduction of greenhouse gases emission by 26-28% are expected to hit the GDP to the tune of $154-$172 bn annually. The above figures show just how challenging a negotiation on striking a deal can be. It comes down to the the willingness of certain decision-making players (like China, Russia, India - and United States to a certain extent) to proceed with the deal implementation without limiting their economic expansion. What is more important, is to make sure we avoid walking into the same trap twice, by holding frank and transparent talks that every delegation can be a part of - regardless of their economic leverage or size of GDP.

In anticipation of these tough but hopefully promising talks, we decided to summarise some of the carbon emissions data that have been put forward by a number of agencies and research centres around the world. We hope it will provide the reader a general overview with regard to the current situation we are faced with when it comes to climate change. A situation that spurred 195 worldwide delegations to put aside their disagreements and to negotiate for a ‘common ground’ solution until December 11.

Defining ‘climate change’

At the moment the world is faced with an unprecedented rise in greenhouse gases emission rates, with the CO₂ concentrations reaching a new high of 390 ppm (parts-per-million), while the CH₄ and N₂O concentrations growing to 1800 ppb (parts-per-billion) and 320 ppb respectively (Chart 1).

Chart 1. Globally averaged greenhouse gas concentrations

This uncontrolled rise in the carbon emissions gave birth to the ‘greenhouse effect’ that our atmosphere is trying to cope with. In addition to sustaining life on the planet, the Earth’s atmosphere serves as a protective layer that absorbs some of the incoming radiation letting through just enough heat to warm the Earth’s surface. Once it reaches the surface, much of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the land and water areas, emitting infrared radiation that is released back into space, avoiding the overheating of the planet. However, when the Earth’s atmosphere contains huge quantities of so-called ‘active gases’ like CO₂, CH₄ and N₂O, the emitted infrared radiation cannot easily penetrate the atmosphere layers and some of it gets absorbed in the process - hence, the ‘greenhouse effect’. In this case the atmosphere acts as a greenhouse in that the thermal energy that used to be released back into space is trapped in the atmosphere, which keeps the Earth heated without ensuring enough time to cool it down. All these factors together have significantly impacted upon the Earth’s surface air temperature evolution, that has been on an upward trajectory for the last 100 years. (Chart 2). Thus, most of the negotiations that will be carried out at the Paris Climate Change summit will be focused on how to limit global warming close to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Chart 2. Global Annual Mean Surface Air Temperature Change

It should come as no surprise to find out that the main contributors to the planet’s greenhouse effect are countries that have a rich industrial history or are on verge of becoming an industrial powerhouse. Countries like China, United States, European Union member states (Germany in particular), Russia, Japan, South Korea, India, Canada and UK are seen as the main culprits behind the recent ‘hike’ in carbon emissions, being responsible for around 80-90% of the world’s CO₂ emissions (Chart 3).

Chart 3. Main CO₂ emissions contributors

The urgency of tackling the global warming phenomenon is due to the irreversible climate change consequences, that will impact upon the Earth’s ability to support our way of living. The Earth’s weather patterns are already affected, making the weather more unpredictable and disruptive. It is no longer a secret that there is a direct connection, that we still do not entirely understand, between global warming and weather related disasters. It appears that much of the weather cataclysms intensity increase is attributed to climate change processes that we are witnessing at the moment. According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR): * “weather-related disasters became increasingly frequent in the late 1990s, peaking at 401 events in 2005. Despite a decline in frequency since then, a sustained rise in the number of floods and storms pushed the average annual total up to 335 disasters per year after 2005, 14% higher than in the previous decade and more than twice the level recorded in 1980-1989 (Chart 4).”

Chart 4. Trends in the number of disasters by major category (weather-related & geophysical) 1995-2015

No matter how obvious are the consequences of global warming for the wider public, there are still many high ranking officials voicing their disbelief and opposing to the worldwide efforts aimed at addressing this complex issue. Nevertheless, even if one tries to downplay the effects of global warming on climate change, one cannot disregard the fact that the weather related disasters are happening more often and becoming more destructive - a pattern that, if not entirely, has something to do with global warming.

The case for addressing the climate change factors will prove a complex task to approach. Most of the complexity comes down to the economic agents and sectors that ultimately shall be affected by the decisions taken at the Paris summit. The economy sectors that contribute the most to the CO₂ emissions are the ones that are widely seen as responsible for economic growth (Chart 5). Thus, the question of tackling the climate change amounts to the readiness of some governments to prioritize the future of our planet over their economic expansion. For some accepting any measure that one way or the other will be perceived as something undermining their economic growth, might prove a ‘hard pill to swallow’, and therefore there is a substantial risk of getting stuck in a negotiation deadlock.

Chart 5. CO2 emissions per sector (million metric tons) 2011

It is up to the host as well as to the guest delegations to find a way to compromise on economic issues without threatening a proper climate change agreement, to which measures everyone involved in the decision making process will be able to abide by. One way to do it is by emphasizing the negative impact, the climate change consequences, would inflict on the economic welfare of the leading nations, if left unresolved. According to IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) we have already started to bear the costs associated with global warming (Chart 6). Therefore, the climate change advocates shall prove skilfull in convincing those who are still doubtful about the conditions under which an ‘emissions cut’ deal shall be struck, by showing that the long-term economic gains resulting from a responsible approach of the climate change issue, will outweigh the short-term benefits spurred by an excessive reliance on industrial activities.

Chart 6. Widespread impacts attributed to climate change based on the available scientific literature since the IPCC 4th Assessment Report

Most of the research studies that have investigated the immediate consequences of the climate change process on Earth’s ecosystems portray a gloomy future for our planet. According to the IPCC Report on climate change we shall expect a 3 to 7°C rise in surface air temperature and around 30% rise in average precipitation by the end of 2100 (Chart 7), if we keep up with the same pace, as we did for the last 100 years. It is therefore important for the worldwide delegations that are meeting in Paris, to acknowledge the gravity of the situation they are faced with and to refrain from the hidden temptation of compromising on climate change issues to the benefit of their economic interests.

Chart 7. Change in average surface temperature (a) and precipitation (b), 1986-2005 to 2081-2100

In contrast to the 2009 Climate Change Summit that took place in Copenhagen, there is hope that the 2015 Paris Conference will produce a comprehensive plan of actions aimed at tackling the rising temperature levels, which every conference participant will be capable of endorsing.

Chart 8. Climate Change Performance Index 2015 - Overall Results (compared with the previous year (Part 1)) Chart 8. Climate Change Performance Index 2015 - Overall Results (compared with the previous year (Part 2) source: Germanwatch & Climate Action Network Europe, The 2015 Climate Change Performance Index

References: http://www.euronews.com/2015/11/30/leaders-ponder-the-cost-of-greenhouse-gas-reductions/ http://www.euronews.com/2015/06/26/green-house-gasses-explained/

Written By - Stefan Gulipac Green Match

Topics: Business, Guest Blogger, Legislation, Science

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