Michael Jacobs on Paris 2015

Professor Michael Jacobs, visiting professor at UCL and LSE and an expert on climate and energy policy, gave a talk on this vital topic on Monday 13 July, at a meeting organised by the Muswell Hill Sustainability Group. Prof. Jacobs is at present advising the French Government on preparations for the Climate Change summit in Paris later this year. The useful summary of his talk below was prepared by Jane Howard of Transition Highgate.

His talk addressed 4 main issues:
•Can a new climate deal be agreed this year?
•What is the shape of the emerging deal?
•Why there are good reasons to believe a deal is possible.
•What are the likely features and obstacles.

Background to Paris 2015

2015 is a different proposition from earlier UNFCCC international conferences, because the agreed aim is to try to agree a legal successor to Kyoto. If achieved, any agreement would take effect from 2020.

Copenhagen 2009 was widely seen as a failure, coming after 4 years of interim negotiations and significant interventions, such as the 2006 Stern report and the 2007 IPCC 4th assessment. Expectations were high, and the conference was mistakenly hyped up as a make-or-break “solution” to climate change problems. As pre-conference negotiations had been slow, it became apparent that no legal treaty was reachable, and the aims were scaled back to seeking a political agreement. However, in some ways the hype was beneficial, as it put pressure on governments, and most nations, including major economies (such as India and China) did agree in principle to make emission cuts. In Cancun later, the Copenhagen Accord – half of an agreement, as not all parties signed up – was adopted by the UN, and so was not a complete failure. Although many countries were now expressedly willing to adopt climate policies, this in itself was clearly not enough.

International conferences are needed to make countries act together, since, if they are left to their individual devices, no concerted global effort would result. The big prize for Paris would be to agree simultaneous action, but the perceived failure of Copenhagen has created an atmosphere of doubt.

How is Paris 2015 different from Copenhagen 2009?

Paris is different for 3 main reasons:
•There is less hype, and thus less pressure (this is both good and bad).
•The state of economic understanding of the low-carbon economy is now advanced. In the last 2 or 3 years it has become clear that the fossil carbon age must end. Any level of stable temperature requires zero carbon emission, and the fact that much fossil fuel remains to be extracted is irrelevant. As is often said, the stone age did not end through a lack of stone. A new industrial paradigm is now mandatory. Renewable energy sources are becoming dramatically cheaper, and the holy grail, electricity storage technology – hybrid cars, home batteries – although at an early stage, is attracting investment (see for example Tesla). Countries are beginning to introduce carbon pricing, whether through trading schemes or a carbon tax. China will introduce an emissions trading scheme next year. So the economic imperative is beginning to influence political decisions.
•An urgent driver for change is the realization that fossil fuel emissions toxify air quality and kill people. China is aware, too, that as its total water supply originates in the Himalayas, it must move rapidly to substitute renewables for coal. India, an even worse environmental case, is beginning to move.
•Countries have shifted their positions – China, which sabotaged Copenhagen, is now convinced to seek international agreement. Obama has since 2010 ceased to try to work through Congress, and now implements emission reduction by executive authority through the Supreme Court and the EPA, drawing on existing clean air legislation. (Needless to say, the continuation of this policy would require a new Democrat president …)

So: in the lead-in to Paris there is much greater clarity about what is at stake. But there are of course problems.

Finding a new approach: issues and problems

•Negotiations towards Paris are making very slow progress. There are 5 months, and 2 more negotiating sessions, to go before the summit. The text for discussion was 89 pages long, is now down to 86, and is unlikely to shrink to a working text of 15 pages in the time available.
•The Kyoto model had 3 main features; a) a focus on the distribution of emission reduction targets proportionally between countries; b) the premise that international agreement should precede any implementation; and c) a clear distinction between developed and developing countries, which acted as a kind of firewall in the Kyoto protocol. Emission reductions were to be voluntary in developing nations, and money would be transferred from the richer to the poorer nations.

This model has been abandoned for Paris. Instead, the following problematic principles will apply:
•What countries undertake to do to reduce their carbon emissions will be decided by them individually. Agreement will be by aggregation of individual countries’ commitments: this is a bottom-up as opposed to a top-down model. The main flaw in this approach is obvious: the aggregate will not be enough to address the climate change problem, and will certainly fall short of the stated target of 2º average global warming – at present 4º is more likely, and this would be disastrous.
•There will no longer be a strict structural distinction between rich and poor countries, as these boundaries have been blurred, and it is unthinkable to exclude China, India and Brazil from the “developed” category for climate purposes.
•Negotiations will focus on the rules that set out the nature of countries’ obligations, not on the content of their actions. An obvious problem is – is this enough – and what room for disagreement does this approach present? Very strict targets, insistence on 5-yearly monitoring, etc., could invite rejection.
•On finance, there is still an expectation that rich countries would transfer funds to the poor for cutting emissions – but this issue remains tense.

Pulling these threads together, what Paris is working on is a model where countries submit quantified proposed emission reductions according to the formula: Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)

So far, several countries or groups, eg the US and the EU, have submitted their numbers. A way to think of this is that, if the world had done nothing to reduce emissions since 2010, the level would now be 68 gigatonnes per annum, leading to warming of 5º or 6º – a disaster. A reduction to achieve 2º warming – in itself a very uncomfortable level – by 2030 would need emissions of 42 gigatonnes. This would call for extremely rapid decarbonization. 42 gigatonnes would be the median, 30 better, but at present there is a gap of 26 gigatonnes. So the INDCs so far submitted are nowhere near sufficient.

What is essential to avoid failure?

1.Countries must commit to revisit and reset their targets on a 5-year cycle.
2.The long-term goal must be zero carbon emissions – G7 (though a weak body) has already stated this aim. Can Paris achieve this aim as part of an agreement? A clear objective is needed, if for no other reason than that investors will need guidance when considering their investment choices.
3.There will need to be a system of MRV – measurement, reporting and verification. Transparency, and no freeriding, is essential.

What form will a legal agreement take?

Kyoto specified sanctions for defaulters through the international courts – but when Canada defaulted, it simply withdrew from the protocol. The US does not ratify any international treaty, nor will China, so this sanction will not form part of any Paris treaty. The potential legal outcome will be a hybrid one, with matters of content subject to domestic law.

Can there be a deal? Yes – all parties want it. Will there be a deal? This is about 60% probable. Will the deal be sufficient? No, but a weak deal will be better than none.

Points made in response to questions

•Climate change was not an issue in the recent election, as all parties had agreed policy with leading NGOs. What is important now is what major companies will do when making investment decisions.
•Cameron must be made to feel under pressure in Paris – there will be mass NGO demos in coming months, and these do have an effect.
•It is true that the agenda for Paris does not touch upon desirable climate policy solutions, such as carbon pricing, withdrawal of fossil fuel subsidies, and support for green technologies. This is where pressure is needed on governments.
•The UK is on target for its 40% fossil fuel emission reduction up to 2027. However the recent budget has gone in the wrong direction, eg by removing subsidy for onshore wind, and withdrawing the carbon neutral regulation requirement for new-build housing. The EU could do better than 40%, but is held back by Poland. The EU carbon price is too low, but work has started on tightening it. Only Sweden has raised its price so far. But carbon price is not the driver for renewable energy.
•Do we need a world strategy? In the end it will be capitalism which will take carbon out of the atmosphere. When capitalists find ways of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and making renewables pay, there will be progress in the long term, but this needs government interventions and incentives to push it along. International agreements alone won’t achieve this.

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