How a Lack of Logic in Paris Offers Hope to Our Sustainability Struggles

If there was one element that trumped all else at the Paris COP negotiations, it was surely ethics. Not technology, science, economics, or business (these were all key players, of course), but a strong feeling of moral conscience and responsibility. What do I mean? Well, when you look objectively at how the process unfolded through a purely rational/logical lens, it just doesn’t make sense.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at how our global emissions stack up (see image below and explore further here). The world’s top 10 emitters emit more than 70% of our greenhouse gas emissions. If we extend this to the top 20 parties, we’re pushing 80-85% of the global total. Compare that to the lowest 100 emitters, who are responsible for less than 3%.

Top 10 emitters

Source: BBC News “Six Graphics That Explain Climate Change”:

In other words, if our primary aim was to reduce global emissions, we would only really need a deal inclusive of 10-20 parties (in this case, the EU represents 28 countries so let’s say 40 or so nations). Of course, developing nations’ emissions will continue to rise in the medium-term, but most of those projected to experience the largest growth are already included as top emitters. The remaining 150 or so countries included in the deal are a mere drop in the overall global stock.

And yet, somehow, the biggest influencers in Paris were predominantly the little fish—the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Least-Developed Countries (LDCs). The discussions were dominated by calls for justice from the 100-150 smallest emitters. They didn’t get everything they protested for, and many have criticised the final deal on the basis that it doesn’t go far enough to protect these nations. However, they did push for the inclusion of a new 1.5C temperature target, maintain a clear principle of differentiation based on their special circumstances, walk away with a promise of $100 billion of climate finance from developed nations (per year by 2020), and the inclusion of a clause for loss and damage (although it should be noted that this does not include any liability claim).

If we view this through a purely rational and objective perspective, this shouldn’t have happened. The underlying principle of a negotiation is that parties trade-off between contribution and compromise to reach a mutual outcome. Kids learn this bartering process in the playground: “I’ll give you X if you give me Y in return”. Yet somehow the 100-150 smallest emitters walked away from Paris with something positive despite bringing very little to the negotiating table. They turned up in Paris with little-to-no bargaining power, yet managed to gain far more than many had expected. If the top 10-20 emitters wanted to reach an agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they could have done so on their own and on their own terms. If that was their main objective they didn’t need to make the challenge harder for themselves by tightening the temperature target or committing to climate finance to those nations outwith the top emitters.

It might be cruel to suggest that many of the lowest-emitting nations add negligible value to a global climate change agreement. But that’s exactly my point: we have to question how we’ve reached the stage where many of us find this ethically unacceptable and what this means for the directed we’re headed.

Many will wave this away as nothing new or ground-breaking: “of course that’s the case—we’re doing so because it’s the right thing to do.” However that hasn’t always been the case; in fact, a large shift towards ethical responsibility at the global level has been a fairly new development. It hasn’t always been this way. In earlier human history (going back to hunter-gatherer periods) our ethical boundaries probably didn’t extend far beyond closest relatives. This was slowly extended to the tribal level, then perhaps a regional coalition. Progressively the span of who (and what) we include in our ethical spheres has widened. Philosophically it’s argued that ethics are not static—it’s not as simple as being “ethical” or “unethical”—but dynamic. They have evolved over time. We’re now at the stage where they have evolved to the global level.

It’s interesting to consider how quickly this expansion in moral spheres has occurred. Think about half a century ago: even if global warming was as pressing as it is today, it’s hard to imagine the Paris negotiations unfolding as they did. National interest and protection was far too dominant. We’ve been involved in the UNFCCC negotiating process for 20 years now and have, on the whole, failed miserably. Overriding self-interest (where “self” in this case represents a country or party) by many large parties (for example, the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for fear of “sacrificing their economic advantage”) was a key reason for this failure. Even as recent as six years ago in Copenhagen we hadn’t reached the stage where we were willing to put this aside for a global deal. The evolution in global ethics—unlike its slow Darwinian cousin—has been a rapid and recent development.

So what? Is this really a big deal? Well, it actually is—it has important implications for how our progress on climate change (and other global issues) evolves in the coming years. The important point is that our [dominant] global economic system (one which continues to feed our unsustainability) is one which treats us as self-interested materialist individuals. The stability of a capitalist system relies on us buying and consuming more and more stuff. The purpose of this acquisition of more stuff is to, selfishly, maximise our own satisfaction. It might look ridiculous on paper, but it’s a growth system we’re very much locked into and find it hard to decouple from. It is, at least, if we’re self-interested individuals. However, if the Paris negotiations proved anything, it was surely that we don’t always behave in this way. We either feel responsibility for those beyond the “self” or “self” has now been widened to incorporate humans at a global level. I haven’t yet worked out which is the case.

This uprising of global ethics evolved so fast that we didn’t really see it coming. A couple of decades ago we might not have predicted it. This fact provides some hope for the future: because we can’t currently see how it’s going to happen doesn’t mean that it won’t or can’t. Humans, and the world, are changing fast and often in ways that are not entirely rational or logical. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but perhaps we can take heart in the fact that sometimes we succumb to decisions that just don’t make rational sense.


Success at COP21: A Crucial Springboard

I nearly titled this article the “COP21 Wrap-up” before catching myself from falling into the potential post-Paris sinkhole we could easily tumble into. After all, it’s not a finalisation at all but rather the beginning of a new course of action. Seeing this agreement as the finish line would represent a grave mistake. We’d be digging ourselves into a hole if we milked the celebrations and successes of Paris for too long, forgetting that we’re still a long way from making it a reality.

However, a congratulations and glass of champagne were very much in order at the weekend. Over the past couple of days I’ve seen a number of commentaries on both sides of the spectrum: some stomping on the outcome, others hailing it as a planet-saving deal. I lie somewhere in the middle.

Let’s not underestimate how challenging and monumental the task is in getting 195 countries to all agree on anything, let alone an issue which creates such large divides due to its intrinsic link to development, economic growth and differentiation. Managing to get all countries to adopt and sign on to the agreement is a success in itself. It’s never been done before. At the same time, it’s important to be constructively critical of the outcome—that’s the only way we make progress. The deal is certainly not perfect: there a number of major imbalances and ambiguities which need to be rapidly addressed if we’re ever going to turn it into practice. It does, however, send a strong signal that a path towards a lower-carbon economy is where we collectively want to go. How we now respond to this impetus is critical.


So what’s my take on the some of the major plusses and minuses in the final agreement? I was most closely following the emissions mitigation side of the negotiations—not because the other elements are not crucial, but because our ambition and success in mitigation directly feeds into all of the other elements. How much adaptation, climate finance, and loss and damage will be needed in the coming decades will be directly dictated by how far we’re willing to go in our collective mitigation efforts.

The deal finally agreed on a long-term target of limiting warming to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”. Personally I don’t think this distinction in temperature target merited the amount of focus it was given. As has been highlighted (and I discussed in an earlier post)—our current pathway, and our pledged reduction pathways are still a long way off either of these targets. In fact, the EU (who was one of the loudest shouters for a 1.5C target admitted that it hadn’t yet looked into the policies or action that would be needed to achieve this). I hate to be a party-pooper in this regard, but we’re not going to keep warming below 1.5C. Even if we somehow managed to achieve a very rapid global decarbonisation, there is still sufficient inertia locked into the climate system to carry us close to that threshold. Many experts have suggested that the only chance of doing so would be through negative emission geoengineering technologies, a particularly contentious area of discussion. That being said, I do think we can achieve our 2C target (or very close to it) if we’re smart and committed to doing so.

There are a couple of vital decisions in the agreement that will help us get there. Two vital ones are the so-called “ratchet mechanism” and global stocktake. As has been said, our current national pledges are projected to result in a warming of roughly 3C—significantly beyond our global target. We evidently need a major scale-up in commitment beyond these initial INDC promises. The agreement has defined that there will be a five-year global and national emissions stocktake to assess our progress. This requirement for transparency was initially a major sticking point in the negotiations with many developing nations arguing the need for such scrutiny was unnecessary and indicated a lack of trust. It indicates no such thing: we need to have an accurate sense of what we’ve achieved, where we are and where we’re headed. The same scrutiny is attached to everyone—there’s no singling out here.

Based on these periodic assessments, the “ratchet mechanism” acts as a driver to encourage nations to scale-up their commitments to levels more in-line with the level of action needed to stand a chance of reaching our target. The key word here is encourage [the actual wording in the agreement is that these revised pledges “should” be more ambitious than their initial commitments]. This is the major deficiency in the current mechanism: it’s done on a voluntary basis. Moving forward, if we’re to make such a tactic effective, we need to develop a more standardised, fair framework for scaling-up these commitments. If we fail to do so, I fear the well-intentioned mechanism will be silently swept under the rug.

The other important element in terms of mitigation was the decision to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible […] and achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”. The wording of this long-term target is crucial (and slightly soft in its lack of definition of the timeline for achieving this). The capacity of our natural (land and ocean) sinks is still a highly uncertain area of research—we don’t yet have concrete indicators of how much carbon our sinks are capable of sequestering, how stable/consistent these are, and how they might evolve with future emission trajectories. If we’re make this a key focus of our future policy decisions, our understanding in this area needs to rapidly develop in the coming years. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been given the task of assessing such balanced 1.5C and 2C pathways by 2018 to inform future policy decisions. I don’t have the space here, but will try to do some further analysis on this area in a future post.

The Paris result represents a key turning point in changing the way we do things. We’ve generated an important momentum that we now need to harness and maintain. Let’s not waste it. Yes, constructive criticism will be imperative to make sure we progress on the right track—we are doomed to failure in our target if we fail to do so. I rarely hold back from challenging conventional opinions if I feel it’s necessary. That being said, I’ve been slightly disappointed in the harsh dismissals from a few distinguished figures in the debate. Now is a time to build up on the base that was set in Paris, not a time for tearing it down. The result is open enough for positive value and contributions to be added. For those committed to the challenge ahead (which should surely be all of us), it’s time to start building the blocks to turn those promises into action.


COP21 Finale: Au Revoir Paris, et Merci Beaucoup

Friday came and passed without a climate deal. Considering the scale of the challenge, the developments over the last few days, and slow progress over the past two weeks, this wasn’t particularly surprising. The Presidency has tentatively scheduled a release of the final agreement at 9am tomorrow morning—I’m still cautiously optimistic that this will go ahead and we’ll reach a reasonable result. Do I think it will be effective and robust as it stands? Probably not. As I’ve detailed in several blog posts throughout the conference, there remains a distinct lack of consistency, fairness and effort standardisation. I do believe, however, that a reasonable deal can provide a sufficient base to build upon in the coming years. An international deal is not the end result; it’s the beginning of a new journey.

Not only were today’s planned plenary sessions cancelled, but there has also been no feedback, information or updates from the UNFCCC or delegation parties. Those at home are in-the-know as much as those here. This lack of openness has, unsurprisingly, created an atmosphere of tension and restlessness in the COP21 community. Despite being eager to hear how the talks are progressing, I’d much rather the delegations spent their time resolving their issues than wasting precious time telling me about them.

Therefore in the absence of any major developments, I thought I’d briefly sum up my reflections on the COP21 experiences, and thank a couple of people who gave me such an opportunity. If someone had told me five years ago when I began my Bachelor’s degree, and again last year when I began my Master’s that I’d have the chance to attend the UN Climate Convention on Climate Change, I wouldn’t have believed them. For most involved in the climate change community, such events are aspirations. To be here at the age of 22—surrounded by distinguished leaders in the field—is an incredibly humbling experience. Not many get such a chance.

It’s a rare opportunity to be surrounded by others so obviously invested and committed to the climate change issue. It has been a unique environment to engage, learn, challenge and debate with representatives from almost every country on a complex challenge so close to my heart. The conference has offered an eclectic mix of representatives: policymakers, business representatives, engineers, economists, financiers, academics, activitists, NGOs. It has become apparent to me that I don’t distinctly fit into any of these groupings—this is probably been a result of my conscious efforts to develop as a generalist rather a specialist in any one area. Seeing the dynamics between each of the groups from a peripheral view made the experience all the more interesting. It also gave me more clusters to poke holes in and throw rocks at (this is the scientific method for challenging hypotheses after all).

Being in Paris, and checking in to news from beyond the walls of the conference centre has also been a valuable lesson. Possibly a stark warning to how easy it is to get sucked into the fields and circles we operate in. No matter how important the COP process is to people here (and many who aren’t), the reality is that it’s hardly a passing thought for a large percentage of those back home. This is not a criticism for those disconnected from the issue, but a wake-up call to those who have the illusion that this is the single most important issue to all. We have to take this away as a key lesson; ultimately if we’re serious about challenging climate change, it is our job to question why they’re not engaged and find effective ways of helping them to get involved. It’s not enough to come to these events, convince ourselves that we’re changing the world, and throw our hands up in despair that others aren’t joining the cause. Take on the responsibility of helping others to do so.

This brings me on to a couple of thanks to people who have helped me get here. I’ve attended the conference as a representative of the University of Edinburgh. To them, I am grateful not only for the opportunity to attend, but also for a stimulating education there as a student (and a teaching job at the end of it!). More specifically, I have to pay a special thank-you to Dave Reay, my former lecturer/supervisor and current boss. His lectures, books and Carbon Management MSc programme have provided me with an invaluable education in the multidisciplinary aspects of climate change. What he was unable to teach in the classroom, he has given me the unique opportunity to experience here in practice. Finally, I owe a thanks for the Department of Sustainability and Social Responsibility (SRS) at the university for their financial support in attending. The deal was that I would do some blogging in return—I suspect that trade-off was as fair as this deal could turn out to be (I’m the free-rider in this case, if anyone was wondering!).

In the coming days weeks and months after the release of the final agreement I plan to continue these frequent blogs (probably not daily—I have a job to go back to!) with more in-depth analysis of the overall deal, its implications, and further developments in more detail. It’s also important to remind ourselves that climate change is just one component of a wider global sustainability challenge; I plan to also address these other elements of the jigsaw.

If you’ve been following these blogs over the past few weeks: thank you. I hope you’ve found something interesting/frustrating/thought-provoking in at least some of them. Au revoir Paris, bonjour to a new climate pathway.

The Final Countdown at COP21

Yesterday I alluded to the notion that we’d need a Usain Bolt class of performance to reach an effective deal by Friday. We’ve almost made it. A strong push out of the blocks, and a day of sustained running has pushed us further towards sealing an agreeable outcome. The atmosphere here reminds me of Bolt’s 100m world record race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics: 30m from the finishing line and some have already started celebrating. Things are still progressing (because issues remain), but there’s a definite sense that the inertia and build-up is going to push us over the line.

The mood at COP21 had a feel of tension and restlessness today. In a desperate attempt to iron out differences, the day was filled with bilateral and multilateral meetings behind-the-scenes. With delays and cancellations to planned plenaries and the release of the final draft outcome, most were very much left in the dark as to how these meetings were going. Pretty well was the answer, when at 9pm, the President Fabius Laurent finally released the final Paris draft outcome (I’m sure I’ve used the phrase “final draft” on several occasions already—this is the last time, I promise).

This draft outcome has been cut again, now down to 27 pages; the number of bracketed (disagreed) aspects has been slashed to around 50 (down from 900 or so at the beginning of the week). Compromises are obviously being reached as middle-grounds begin to feature in the text.

One of the most significant decisions is the re-adjustment of the previous target to limit warming to 2C. Calls for increasing this level of ambition to 1.5C warming have been a persistent, core element of the Paris talks; led by the small-island states and least-developed countries who fear the consequences of a warming beyond this limit, more than 100 countries have joined the push for increasing ambition. Not everyone was on board, however, with some emerging economies fearing this could impinge on their future development and mobility. Thankfully this divide has not led to a collapse in the deal with both compromising to reach a middle ground. The latest version mandates that temperature rise must be kept “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”. This wording is sufficiently ambiguous that I’d say we’re still aiming for what we were before: keeping temperature rise below 2C, with 1.5C as an added bonus if we can manage. But let’s not reignite a discussion which has finally been closed, and put the stone back over that one.

Everyone has different sections of the text they’re most heavily invested in, whether that be finance, loss and damage, adaptation, mitigation—each tracks the minute changes and amendments in their area of interest, ultimately missing the details in others. I’ve been closely following the section titled “entry into force” which prescribes how many countries need to sign on to the deal for it to come into force. The developments have been interesting: earlier drafts prescribed not only the number of countries that had to be involved, but also the percentage of global emissions they had to cover. This latter requirement was strangely removed in the prior draft version with the only requirement being “50 to 60 countries”. This was absurd. It would be very easy to form a deal with 50-60 developing nations, covering only a few percent of global emissions. What purpose would that serve? Thankfully a mandate for a sufficient percentage of emissions has been reinstated. It’s now required that [55] countries sign, covering [55][70] percent of global emissions [note the square brackets meaning this is not yet agreed]. It surely has to be the higher of these two options—55% of global emissions is far too low.

It’s amusing to step back occasionally and observe how the conference would appear to someone not so heavily involved in the process; building excitement every time it’s announced that a new draft is to be released; mad schoolchildren-esque stampedes to get a copy. Maybe analogous to the negotiation process, compromise is a tall order when it comes to getting your hands on one. Absurd, of course, to anyone from the outside—they are, after all, just words on paper. Important words, nonetheless, but still just drafted agreements. The COP21 experience is very much a carbon bubble (and in this case, I’m not referring to unburnable carbon or stranded assets).

The side events have been a welcome semi-transition back into the outside world. The side events feature programmes of sessions, panels, discussions primarily focused on related aspects beyond the Paris agreement. Covering topics such as agriculture, technology, finance, mobility, development (and many more), the discussion moves away from the deal itself towards how we’re going to put it into practice. The deal is the overarching guiding principle, but what ultimately matters is how we make it happen, and what happens on the ground. These sessions have been an interesting insight for me, and I’ll probably cover some of their discussions in post-Paris blog posts.

But as we move into the final day of negotiations, eyes are diverted from the academics, engineers, NGOs, business leaders back towards the ministers and delegates. To their credit, these negotiators have been working tirelessly through the nights over the last few days to make this deal happen. We’re getting there, but there’s still some issues to be resolved. We’re at that crucial moment when Usain Bolt dropped his arms to his sides and punched his chest in celebration 10-20m from the finish line; most still believed that he was going to win, but there was always a sliver of chance that he’d rejoiced too soon. Let’s not let complacency get in the way of this unique and crucial opportunity.

I’m Glad We’ve Reached a “Starting Point”…on the Penultimate Day

The experience at COP21 has taught me a lot—there are some aspects where classroom and textbook learning are no substitute for practical experience—not least how to behave as a politician (should I ever need to call on it). A few years ago, I probably would have despaired at the whole drawn-out negotiating process. Back then I was almost exclusively from a science background; the climate change issue was a purely technical one, we knew it was happening, so why were we not doing our utmost to address it? The last few years through my Master’s progamme, and various avenues of sustainability consultancy and writing work, I’ve added a reasonable grounding in business, economic and political perspectives to this science base. In fact, I’ve come to accept that climate change is hardly a technical challenge at all—the economic and political hurdles are the real determinants. Thankfully the despair I would have previously felt has subsided to amusement and curiosity.

Still, even this progression didn’t quite prepare me for just how slow the negotiating process would be. Today (Wednesday), after much deliberation, the French hosts released the revised final draft agreement text. There has been significant progress since the previous version—the draft agreement was cut from 21 pages down to 14 (the full text was cut from 43 down to 29 pages), and the number of bracketed, disputed aspects has been reduced by 75% from the first draft. The issue is that those sections still to be agreed (primarily differentiation, finance, loss and damage, and level of ambition) are central and core to the whole agreement. They represent not merely a difference in wording or phrasing, but a strict divide in underlying principles. Bridging these differences will require severe compromise from some parties.

Following the release of the final draft text, the UNFCCC President announced a five hour recess for parties to study the text, carry out further consultations and bring their reflections back to the evening plenary session. Now this is where I really learned how to be a politician at one of these events. You see, it appears to be almost compulsory to structure your speech in the following way:

  • spend several minutes thanking the French Presidency for their arrangement of the meeting, their great facilitation, the way the process has been structured, the other parties for their consultation so far;
  • remark that this text is a “good starting point” (it’s reassuring we’ve managed to reach the starting line on the penultimate day);
  • state the other groups of nations whose opinions they align with;
  • highlight the various remaining issues they have with the text [this occurs with variation in levels of composure and rage depending on the personnel];
  • close the speech by reassuring the Presidency that they have the nation’s utmost support in reaching an agreement.

Shrouding the core disputes in a cloak of politeness makes it hard to fully discern how far we are from reaching a compromise. It makes me ponder whether this is part of the reason we’ve reached such a late stage with so much still unresolved. Is there such a thing—sorry Mum—as being too polite? When dealing with complex issues requiring compromise, does it inevitably lead to the situation where the core differences bubble over at the last hurdle?

It’s also interesting to note the dynamics of these plenary meetings. There are no requirements for any nation to speak; speakers are given the floor upon request. It’s notable that the richest developed countries have been eerily absent from speaking up. Typically a representative from the EU and Umbrella group (non-EU developed countries) will speak on their behalf, but contributions from individual developed nations have been virtually non-existent. Are ministers from nations such as the US, Canada, UK even there? In contrast, representatives from developing nations are becoming increasingly desperate to push for some adequate form of climate justice for their populations by Friday. As strongly stated from the Barbados minister: “We will not sign off any agreement that represents a certain extinction of our people.” Perhaps this hard-hitting reality is the reason for such hush from rich nations. We’ve been shamed into silence.

It’s rather hard to see how the magnitude of the issues still under debate can be resolved (in a way that still leaves a sufficiently ambitious and fair deal) in the time we have left before Friday. Many nations called out the text on its lack of balance. However, the Malaysian minister summed it up well in one of the rare moments of humour: “Mr President, I have to disagree—it seems your text is very well balanced; everyone seems unhappy with it”.

Compromise, nonetheless, has to be reached somewhere. Ministers and delegates have pledged to work through the night to get us there. If we have only just reached the “starting point”, then this past 20-year marathon process has quickly evolved into a last-dash sprint. We’ll most certainly need a Usain Bolt performance to get us over the line in time.


The COP21 Approach: Tackling a Science-Based Target Without Using Science

Aside from watching Al Gore present an updated 2015 version of his historic “An Inconvenient Truth”—and have him casually stroll past in one of the conference corridors (when I say “casually”, I mean surrounded by security guards, cameramen and a herd of fans)—I spent a large part of Tuesday in Paris at sessions discussing the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). To clarify for those unfamiliar with the jargon: prior to the negotiations, each party/nation was asked to submit their greenhouse gas mitigation plans—these formed their INDC. Essentially they represent how each nation is willing contribute to collective global action.

Most of the discussion was extremely positive about the role of the INDCs. This mechanism whereby nations can self-determine the level of their obligations is new to the UNFCCC process, and it has managed to address some of the key issues from the Kyoto Protocol. Within the Kyoto agreement, developed nations were allocated reduction targets while developing nations were exempt from mitigation goals. This was fair based on the fact that developing nations should be prioritising poverty alleviation, growth and social mobility. However, we quickly realised when emerging economies (such as China and India) leapfrogged developed nations and became some of the world’s largest emitters, that fully inclusive, global cooperation from all nations was necessary. The INDC mechanism largely does so—more than 180 countries (covering more than 94% of global emissions) have submitted climate action plans. The INDCs have encouraged nearly all nations to contribute to the overall framework. This is a great start.

However, it does need to be acknowledged that even if every nation was to fulfil their proposed goals (because they “intend” to do so doesn’t necessarily mean they will), it’s likely that we’ll end up with an average warming close to 3C (the actual quoted figure is 2.7C, but with such large uncertainty bands, I don’t feel comfortable quoting this to the 0.1C level). At the same time, we have persistent calls for a readjustment of the 2C target to 1.5C [I covered this in a bit more detail in an earlier post]. At yesterday’s plenary session, it was revealed that despite several resistors, there are wide calls from nations for this readjustment. This ambition is refreshing, but none have reflected this level of commitment in their proposed INDCs. The quoted reason for readjusting our temperature target to 1.5C was on the basis of the “science” advising us on the warming levels that would be considered “safe”. But the INDCs we’re using to get there are not based on science at all—they’re a mish-mash mix of individual intentions.

We have the classic issue here of trying to develop a framework by using both a bottom-up and top-down approach. Either can work on their own, but trying to combine the two and expecting them to add up doesn’t. If we’re going to be serious about building a robust, transparent international agreement, we can build it in one of two ways.

We can use the bottom-up approach: this is the method the INDC pledges use. Each nation declares what its intended goals are, and we build all of these together to form a global commitment. The level of temperature rise is therefore reliant entirely on the level of ambition of the INDCs. In other words: “we’ll do what we can/are willing to/want to do, and deal with whatever temperature rise this corresponds to”.

The top-down approach is a more science-based method based on a balance of the figures to give a specific intended outcome. In this context, the top-down approach would be to define a temperature target (1.5C or 2C—whatever we agreed on), then directly allocate and define nation’s commitments based on the level of mitigation we need to achieve this. In contrast to the INDCs, the commitments would have to be dictated rather than decided by choice so they collectively fall in line with the agreed global target. In other words: “this is what we want to achieve, therefore this is what we have to do to get there”.

I’m not going to argue the case either way—the choice actually reflects a broader conceptual way of thinking. But I think it is important to highlight that we’re trying to do both at the same time. If a 1.5C target is adopted, I expect in years to come that there will be major disputes about the fact that we’re off track to meet it. Unfortunately that’s what happens when nations submit their intentions and they add up to a 3C warming. If we’re seriously arguing for a 1.5C target on the basis of “science” then we have to use a science-based target allocation approach.

The INDCs can change in the coming years. I thought there might be some readjustments to them this year in Paris (especially after calls for a more ambitious temperature target), however, there has been no movement from any nation. The INDCs were supposed to be submitted as an initial commitment for negotiation at this year’s meeting but we seem to have accepted these as our new adopted goals. In fact, the INDCs are one of the few aspects in the agreement which haven’t been contested at all. That’s fair if we’re comfortable with a warming of 2-3C (2C at best if nations begin to go beyond their commitments). Personally I find the combination of these INDCs and calls for a more ambitious global target to be a bit baffling. They just don’t add up.


COP21 Week 1: Managing to Agree On What It Is We Don’t Agree Upon

COP21 rolls into its second week, and with this transition there comes a rollover of personnel as well. The first week of the process is traditionally a week for the party negotiators to debate, discuss, (fight), and iron out the fundamental discrepancies in the initial draft agreement—the proposed changes and amendments for a new draft text were submitted at the weekend for review. We now start the second week where the negotiators are largely replaced by party/nation ministers to fine-tune the remaining disagreements in the text, and try to come to some finalisation on the overall agreement. The plan is for the final text to be signed and ratified by Saturday. It might seem a bit like the classic case of the negotiators doing all the nitty-gritty legwork and the ministers sneaking in at the last minute to claim the glory of getting us there. That, however, would be a great underestimation of the work still to do in the second week of this process.

Just how much needs to be discussed, agreed and finalised over the coming few days if we’re to reach an effective deal by the end of the week? Rather than making you dig around in agreement proposals and legal documents, I’ve tried to put a rough figure on it through some [very dodgy] legwork. In the drafting process, the UN use a bracketing system—where a decision, wording or argument is contested (and therefore undecided), it’s placed in square brackets “[]”. The goal for the two-week process is therefore to reach agreement on each of these disputes and rather quickly remove these brackets from the text. At the end of the two weeks, the hope is that we’re left with a clean, bracket-free agreement.

At the end of week one, the resubmitted and reworked draft agreement was 20 pages long (the full draft text totalled up to 48 pages). At this stage in Copenhagen in 2009, the text was 300 pages long—is it really so surprising that we left that process will little to show for it? So, I decided to do a rough word count estimation of just how much of this text remains bracketed and needs to be negotiated in this “finalising week”. The word count for the full draft agreement came out at almost 12,000 words. When I sifted through and removed all the non-bracketed text (i.e. all the wording we’ve agreed on), the amount of bracketed text left was roughly 6,300. In other words, more than 50% of the agreement is still in dispute despite only a matter of days left to reach a deal. That sounds like a bit more than “finalising” to me.

Of course my coarse estimation based on word count is rather flawed—the number of words is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the scale and time needed to address each of these issues. Some matters will be more contentious than others and takes days to reach consensus (if at all), while others should be a much quicker discussion. Large topics of disagreement, for example, include those surrounding the role of developing nations in climate finance, the inclusion of loss and damage compensations, and the re-evaluation of the 2C target. Some of the more trivial disputes are ones you would only surely see in the fineprint of a legal or political agreement—who knew that debate over the word choice of “should/shall/will” could create such division?

Nonetheless it does bring attention to the fact that, despite the public optimism from the UNFCCC that we’re making significant headway (which we are, but rather slowly), it’s clear that this week remains a race against the clock to have anything settled by the end of the conference.

What happens now to try to accelerate this process? From Monday to Wednesday, the ministers and remaining delegates breakout into discussion groups; each is focused on a different section of the text (e.g. “loss and damage”, “climate finance”, “adaptation”). The hope is that with more focused discussion and role delegation, each section can be renegotiated and another version of the draft text submitted by Wednesday. Each party will then review this “final draft”, kick up some last minute brawls, and try to iron out any remaining contentions. If all goes to plan, by Friday we should have a final agreement for parties to sign and ratify on Saturday.

In today’s plenary session, a number of parties raised the concern that submission of a final draft text on Wednesday was too late if remaining issues are to be agreed by Friday. It remains to be seen whether the French and UNFCCC hosts will decided to bring this date forward.

With more than half of the text still bracketed at the start of the week, it seems unlikely that a robust resubmission will be ready prior to Wednesday. To make matters worse, I just skimmed the fine-print: “Proposals which oppose the inclusion of certain provisions in the Agreement or the Decision do not figure in this text. This is on the understanding that the inclusion of a provision is without prejudice to the views of Parties that may not support the elaboration of any such provision at all. Language that is not bracketed is not necessarily agreed.”

At least the hosts were wise enough to fill the conference centre with cafes and coffee counters; I suspect many will have a week of sleep-deprived nights ahead.

Consumption-based Targets: the Secret Ingredient for Climate Finance

Disclaimer: I should probably note from the outset that I don’t expect- or think it’s realistic- that a transition to consumption-based targets would ever be adopted and written into the final text at the COP21 negotiations. I hope, however, that if a deal is reached it might be flexible or open enough that it could be seriously discussed before these targets come into effect.

“Finance is the bedrock of the negotiations here in Paris” was how the Gambian head delegate opened his update on how Least-Developed Countries (LDCs) were reworking the COP draft text. If we didn’t know how big of a sticking point climate finance would be—we do now. Wednesday’s sessions brought the conference’s first public scuffle as Indian officials accused the OECD of greatly exaggerating their mobilisation of climate finance; the OECD reported that $57bn of their pledged $100bn per year by 2020 had been achieved, meanwhile Indian officials suggested this figure was as low as $2.2bn.

The debate around climate finance will not just be crucial in terms of adaptation, but will also be an important feature for mitigation efforts. India, for example, has reported that it will only curb its projected coal consumption if sufficient aid is transferred for it to provide cleaner alternatives instead. I suspect the debate around climate finance—how much, by when and who from—will persist throughout the whole negotiation process (and beyond).

If there’s one amendment to the whole process that would facilitate the flow of climate finance, it’s surely a transition to consumption-based targets. It’s probably worth me giving a very brief background on production versus consumption-based targets for those who might be unfamiliar with the jargon [if you’re already familiar, feel free to skip to the next paragraph]. A nation’s targets and contribution to the collective greenhouse gas budget are currently based on how much it produces within its borders. It takes no account for products which are imported, and doesn’t subtract the emissions associated with those that it exports. This means that if a country imports a lot of carbon-intensive goods from elsewhere, these aren’t included in its reported emissions or targets. This way of measuring emissions has been a blessing for a number of developed nations as they’ve offshored their industries to developing ones: since other countries are now producing a large chunk of our goods, we’ve managed to avoid their associated emissions. It’s through this accounting trick that many countries (the UK, for example) has managed to boast reasonable emission reductions in recent years; our real progress is far less impressive. We’ve simply transferred them elsewhere, onto another country’s budget. Consumption-based accounting corrects for this by re-adjusting for imports and exports: a nation’s footprint is given as a more realistic reflection of how carbon-intensive its economy and citizens really are.

consumption trade

Source: Davis, S.J. & Caldeira, K., 2010. “Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions”.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m in favour of consumption-based accounting for a number of important reasons—not least in interests of fairness and transparent accountability (I’ll probably discuss this more fully in another blog sometime). But for now, I’m just going to focus on how consumption-based targets could be the secret ingredient to climate finance transfers.

Currently, under a production-based system, climate finance is largely viewed as a goodwill gesture (or an atonement gift, depending on which way you look at it). Regardless of how you want to label it, it operates as an aid package. A reliance on “aid” comes with a range of issues—even if governments agree on the size of the compensation package, there’s absolutely no guarantee they’ll see it through. Overall aid budgets change, governments switch hands, and aid packages get slashed when domestic economies falter. There’s also the sticky issue of labeling: because energy and emissions are so intrinsically linked to development, it can be easy to re-banner some of the current “development aid” budgets as “climate aid” with no additionality.

How would a consumption-based accounting system change this? It would change this financial transfer from being a charity case to an investment. If I am a developed country and I’m buying goods from a developing nation, it’s very important to me how carbon-intensive their infrastructure and industries are. I’m importing their emissions, meaning that how much coal versus low-carbon energy they’re using, how efficient their processes are, how effectively they’re using resources have a direct influence on my own emissions and progress in meeting national targets. I will invest money in mitigation in developing countries because I also reap the benefits. It’s a win-win. It’s no different from the drive to invest in low-carbon energy and efficient technologies/practices at home—both will move me towards my target [note: this only helps with the financial transfer for mitigation, not for adaptation which is a separate issue]. If India wants finance to develop a lower-carbon grid, it’s in the interest of nations who buy from them to provide it.

For the hard-nosed who are reluctant to give financial handouts, or politicians struggling to get support from their parliamentary cronies, we re-frame the issue of climate finance as a rational business case. It doesn’t matter whether they care about climate change or overseas development—it’s a solid, necessary investment they need to achieve their targets. It just happens to have mutual benefit for both parties tacked on.

One of the UNFCCC’s founding principles was to facilitate a mechanism for technology, financial and knowledge transfer from developed to developing nations for a path to cleaner development. It has, thus far, been pretty unsuccessful in doing so. Its current production-based framework closes each nation’s borders. But this isn’t how a globalised economy works. We need to re-align this system with our economic one if we want the money to flow. If we want developed nations to really step up to their financial promises we can’t rely on goodwill alone; it’s fickle, unreliable and short-term. We have to develop something co-operative that works to the benefit of both parties.

The time of finger-pointing for who’s to blame and therefore who should pay is over; although completely valid, it’s totally unconstructive to an already difficult process. It’s time to develop long-term solutions that force us to work together. For climate finance, consumption-based targets could be the secret ingredient in helping us do so.

Turning Our Backs on 2C: the Silent Threat of COP21

It’s tough watching the small-island states trying to salvage something from the COP21 negotiations in Paris. If anyone watched the leaders’ opening speeches on Day 1, they would have heard the sorry admission from Kiribati’s leader that its future was all but over. Fiji has already offered permanent refuge to Kiribati and Tuvalu citizens once the inevitable sea-level rise makes their islands uninhabitable.

Operation Kiribati Assist 2008 - Collection and Identification

It’s therefore not all that surprising that the 44 member countries of the Aosis (Alliance of Small Island States) group has challenged some of the world’s biggest emitters to pledge to a more ambitious target of limiting warming to 1.5C rather than the formerly agreed 2C. A number of other vulnerable nations have made similar calls for a re-evaluation of the 2C target in the negotiations in Paris. Some leaders from developed nations made similar murmurings: in his opening address, French president François Hollande said we should aim for “1.5C if possible”; Obama stated that “We want to get to 2C or even lower than that.”

That’s all very well-intentioned from developed leaders but the sad reality is that their pledged commitments don’t even come close. The ambitious talk is not reflected in the commitments on the table. In fact, they’re not even close to our 2C target–if we collectively carry through on our Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), we’re estimated to reach about 3C warming. Nonetheless, it has been reported that the debate on the 1.5C versus 2C target is still very much alive and will be a major feature of the Paris negotiations. Is the Aosis group wise in reigniting this discussion; just how realistic is a 1.5C target adoption?

There is no doubt that a 2C warming will bring devastation to many–heartbreakingly, to those least equipped to adapt and have contributed least to global emissions. These nations are more than justified in calling for more ambitious targets; their voices need to be heard in highlighting how serious the consequences are. Rocking the boat is good, but I think they have to be careful not to tip it.

In reality our INDCs currently project to a 3C warming. Managing to push these pledges to a collective commitment that gets us close to 2C in Paris would be a monumental result (personally, I don’t think this is going to happen in the coming weeks, although I do believe that 2C is still achievable). The imperative outcome of COP21 should be to reach some reasonable form of international agreement that we can then build on. It’s not going to be perfect or fall in line with a 2C budget, but that doesn’t block us from getting there. The absolute worst result for Aosis and other highly-vulnerable nations is to walk away with no deal at all—no mitigation commitments, no climate or adaptation finance, no climate refugee support. I fear that spending too long re-negotiating for a 1.5C target could overshadow the talks that will help us seal such a deal.

2C was adopted as the official target for UN climate negotiations; it was one of the few decisions that world leaders actually managed to agree on in Copenhagen in 2009. I’m not implying that politicians never falter on their promises, but I’ve rarely seen them doing so on the side of generosity. The world’s largest developed emitters won’t raise their INDCs to a level that makes 1.5C achievable, and I suspect that other big emitters such as China and India would also be strongly opposed to doing so. They would perceive it as a potential barrier to their national development pathways.

The push for a 1.5C target could work as an effective tactic for the Aosis group in raising the ambitions of the large emitters closer to 2C. Acknowledging that even the adopted 2C target would be a compromise for many vulnerable nations might be a driver to close the gap between it and our current 3C pledges. Furthermore, failing on the mitigation side, it might present an even stronger case for additional adaptation and loss and damage finance. From this perspective, it might work out well.

However, if the plan is to make this UN target a main feature of the negotiations, we risk walking away from the two-week process with nothing. You can guarantee that it will be incredibly divisive with stubborn actors on both sides, and could potentially detract from the other discussions such as climate finance, loss and damage and an agreed deal which are all so vitally important. We can’t afford to spend another two weeks bartering over the final target, and especially not when we’re so far off from reaching either of them.

What would I do if I were a negotiator for one of the Aosis or other highly-vulnerable states? I’d certainly make my voice heard, make it known that even achieving 2C would still be devastating for my nation in the hope that this pushed leaders into raising their ambitions closer to this figure, and push the case for adaptation, loss and damage finance to the end. It’s the least the people of these nations deserve—the world owes them so much more. It breaks my heart that they probably won’t get it. But at least with a reasonable adopted deal they still stand a chance of salvaging something. I hope the boat isn’t rocked too hard that they’re left with nothing.

Climate Change is a Common Problem: Why is No One Speaking a Common Language?

Nearly 150 of the world’s leaders kicked off the two-week negotiation process at COP21 in Paris, each allocated three minutes to summarise recent progress, intended pledges and hopes for reaching an international climate agreement. Appearances from heads of state typically come at the end of COP events; whether to spare them another potential embarrassment of admitting failure (as they had to do in Copenhagen in 2009), or to inject a sense of optimism and leadership from the start, reversing the schedule was a clever tactic by the organisers.

Whether it was political hot air or genuine commitment, the leader’s opening session looked positive. However, there was one key issue: everyone was speaking a different language. By “language” I don’t mean it in its most obvious definition—most of the speeches were given in English or French. I’m talking about the dialogue used to communicate each nation’s commitments. We’ve ended up with a mash-up portfolio of pledges lacking any thread of consistency; some are based on absolute reductions, some on carbon intensity, others on percentage reductions from Business-As-Usual (BAU). This was already apparent from the World Resource Institute’s collation of the 156 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Not only is there no consistency in the type of INDC pledge, there is no standardisation in the baseline year, greenhouse gases and sectors covered, or target year.


Source: World Resource Institute CAIT Climate Data Explorer:

So while the audience nodded and applauded as each leader took to the stage, most probably had no idea whether each pledge was fair, ambitious or how it compared to any other nation. There is no way of contextualising this without digging for extra data, standardising each metric and crunching through the numbers. If this the case for scientists, policymakers, politicians who are already engaged in the negotiations, how can we expect these commitments to mean anything to the general public?

We need a common metric, not only as a means of comparing the level of ambition of each pledge, but as a way of effectively communicating them. If we believe in global fairness, distributive justice and equity then this should surely be measured on a per capita basis. Per capita targets would not only contextualise the current distributive gap between developed and developing nations, but would also act as an effective means of tracking how this gap narrows (i.e. converges) in the coming decades.

In terms of communication, per capita targets give individuals a tangible metric to assess their own impact and contribution. If I know my country’s 2030 per capita target, I can measure my own, see how far I have to go to meet it, and start to make personal lifestyle choices to help me get there. Individuals might finally feel like they have a role to play, and we could find we’re collectively more engaged in doing so. National contributions would be framed as a combination of the efforts of its citizens—each playing their part in reaching the pledged target. It’s an essential connection between the high-level negotiators and those who actually need to make it happen (i.e. all of us).

It’s now too late for per capita targets to feature in the Paris negotiations. If the agreement is passed, it will largely feature the INDCs in the form they were pledged. I hope, however, that following the negotiations, there is a way of re-framing these commitments into a form we can all understand. Climate change is a global problem; it’s time we started talking a global language. If we fail to do so I fear we face another round of hot air pledges because no nation could engage its citizens to join the effort.

Update from Day 3: today’s meetings featured a panel session on Climate Equity where per capita distribution or targets were not mentioned at all. Not once. I find this completely baffling.