How the future of our planet will be decided upon in Paris

DOOR BRAM DE BOTSELIER. About 150 heads of state and government will come together in France’s capital for one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders ever. On the agenda, only one issue: the climate. But what exactly is the problem and why is it taking so long to come up with a solution?

Bram De Botselier is currently pursuing the Master in European Studies and is the chapter leader of the United Nations Youth Association (VVN Youth) in Leuven. You can find him on twitter at @bramdebotselier.

From November 30th to December 11th, the whole world will be watching the Paris climate conference. If you want to impress your friends and colleagues, you should probably use the official name: 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and 11th Conference of the Parties Serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. Or you can just use #cop21, that works too.

What is being discussed?


Bram De Botselier

As global warming is caused by the emission of greenhouse gasses by factories, cars, livestock and so on, this has always been the focus of climate negotiations. The whole point of the negotiations is to reach an agreement to reduce global emissions, in order to limit global warming to 2°C compared to pre-industrial times. Scientists say an even higher temperature increase will be hardly manageable.

The famous 1997 Kyoto Protocol included targets to reduce these emissions, but expired in 2012. Efforts to extend the protocol failed. A new agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and preserve our planet for future generations, that is the goal in Paris. If this all sounds very familiar, you are probably right. In 2009, leaders from all corners of the tried to do the same in Copenhagen. However, the result was quite disappointing.

The ghost of the Kyoto Protocol

A first reason for the difficult negotiations is the division between developed and developing countries, created by the Kyoto Protocol. The former have to reach certain reduction targets, the latter have no goals.

This approach was not very successful. First of all, several major industrialized countries chose not to participate, such as the US and Canada. Secondly, it is of course true that industrialized countries are responsible for most historical emissions. However, no one was aware of the negative effects on the climate. Can you blame someone for doing something with negative consequences, if no one was aware of them? Can you blame a smoker in 1876 for his own death, while the connection with lung cancer was only made decades later?

Thirdly, developing countries had no targets under the Kyoto Protocol. This is problematic, because some developing countries have become quite rich. According to the World Bank, South Korea and Singapore are richer than Spain or Israel. In the spirit of the Kyoto Protocol though, the former countries would not have to do anything, while the latter are supposed to reduce their emissions. You can wonder whether that is fair. Finally, some developing countries have become some of the world’s biggest emitters, such as China, India and Indonesia. It is simply impossible to solve the problem without them.

It’s all about the money

So what is exactly the problem? The industrialization of Western countries was the cause of many emissions, but is also the basis of a very wealthy society. We cannot deny developing countries becoming prosperous as well. They only need to do it in a carbon-friendly way. Easier said than done? It is possible. The EU’s economy grew with 45% since 1990, while the EU reduced its emissions with almost 20%. The secret for that is new technology. Using renewable energy, but also using gas instead of coal would be a good start. Developing countries should improve their economy, without going through the very polluting industrialization stage. The only problem is, as usual, money. New technology is expensive and why would a poor country invest in solar panels if they can just take coal from the ground?

Mitigating climate change would annually cost 0,06% of economic growth, (…) not acting would cost 5% of the world GDP.

But there is also good news! The Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change, a UN organization that reports on the latest scientific developments, has calculated that mitigating climate change would annually cost 0,06% of economic growth. For 2014, this would have meant that instead of 2.5% economic growth to $77,868 trillion, we would only have 2.44% growth to about $77,821 trillion. The difference is about the same as the amount of money Americans spent on their pets in 2014. In 2007, the British economist Nicholas Stern published a report that said not acting would cost 5% of the world GDP. Annually. Forever. He has recently also said that he underestimated these costs.

More good news!

Since the 2009 conference in Copenhagen, leaders have gathered annually to come up with a solution. In almost every summit since 2009, they agreed to have an agreement in 2015. In order to increase the chances of success, they have come up with a completely new approach.

Instead of sitting around the table and fighting over how much emissions each country should reduce during the conference, the United Nations asked what each country was willing to do on a voluntary basis. These INDCs (or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, if you want to impress your friends even more) were all going to be added up during the conference, to see how far we would get. It proved to be a major success: 178 countries have an INDC and they cover 95% of the global emissions. In comparison, the Kyoto Protocol covered less than 15%.

However, after adding up all of these INDCs, we are still going towards an estimated increase of around 3°C instead of 2°C. This is a lot better than the more or less 4,7°C if we did not do anything and for the first time in the history of climate negotiations, we are at least on the right track. But it is not enough. And that final degree, that will be the main issue in Paris.

Rock star politicians

So how likely is it that the world leaders will agree? A new rock star-like and pro-environment politician became the new Prime Minister of Canada. Also Australia has a new head of government, who succeeded a climate skeptic. But then there is also Poland, where the new conservative government does not really care about climate change. Finally, there is the problem called the US. Even though President Obama is quite climate-minded, one out of three Members of Congress deny the existence of climate change and congressional support is necessary for a good climate agreement.

So will an agreement be reached? The expectations are quite high, but we do not know. Should they agree? Well, especially with the current interest rates on saving accounts, climate change mitigation seems like a good investment to me!