(this blog was written before the terrible events on Friday; we see that the climate conference will go ahead in Paris, from Nov 30 – Dec 11)

Can a UN conference on climate change ever live up to its billing?

Under a Paris agreement, countries will set targets for climate action in 2030. Most have already announced their national targets. An agreement may also commit countries to pledge new, more ambitious climate action targets, every five years; and eliminate global greenhouse gas emissions by 2100.

I see two reasons why a Paris agreement may actually be worth getting excited about.

Ghosts from conferences past

UN climate conferences come round each December, but sometimes you wished they wouldn’t. Some past agreements have been so poor they’d make almost anything in Paris look good. As the former head of the UN climate change secretariat, Yvo de Boer, said of the last big event, in Copenhagen, in 2009: “We asked for a multi-layered cake, and got a muffin.” In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol only mustered emissions targets from 38 industrialised nations; about 90 countries signed up to the Copenhagen Accord. But the Copenhagen targets were mostly a couple of lines scribbled on a page of A4. So far, under a Paris agreement, more than 150 countries have submitted far more detailed pledges.

Paris may be learning the lessons. It will frame a long-term process, not a fix. It will set modest voluntary targets, but demand increasing ambition over time (a ratchet mechanism, in climate policy wonk). That differs from Copenhagen, which was supposed to be killer climate treaty to solve the problem, and duly flopped.


Paris seems to be catching some strong tail winds.

  1. A shift to low-carbon – Most energy research and innovation these days is focused on low-carbon technologies, such as renewable energy, biofuels, nuclear, carbon capture and batteries, judging from abstracts circulated daily to journalists. Add to that falling costs of solar power, and growing interest among cash-rich technology companies like Apple and Google in digital energy, and there seems to be a powerful trend towards a different kind of energy infrastructure.
  2. A shift away from fossil fuels – driven by climate change, and the costs of air pollution in China and India. The World Health Organisation found last year that air pollution was the world’s biggest preventable killer, causing one in eight global deaths in 2012. Burning coal and diesel, both indoors and outdoors, were the single biggest contributors. Coal is also the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gases.
  3. Consistent climate science. At present, El Nino – a natural weather cycle which recurs every few years – is turbo-charging a human-caused warming trend, and will make this year, and probably next, record hot years worldwide. Besides that, there is growing evidence for climate change risks, as record greenhouse gas emissions take their toll, not least rapid acceleration of ice-sheet melt at both poles.

Perhaps most encouraging for climate activists, if success in Paris is grounded more in the real world than a diplomatic frenzy, its results may be all the more likely to last.

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