Our Last Chance: The United Nations Paris Conference

“I think it’s absolutely vital for every country, to send a signal that the viciousness of a handful of killers does not stop the world from doing vital business,” – USA President, Barack Obama

Just over two weeks since the terror attacks of November 13, the city of Paris will play host to a new kind of emotion; as world leaders converge on the city of light, hope will replace the fear on the streets both in France and around the world.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the 21st COP (Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). From November 30 – December 11 world and business leaders, scientists, concerned citizens and climate sceptics alike will be in Paris in order to decide on the fate of our planet beyond 2020.

In the wake of the Paris People’s Climate March being cancelled due to security restrictions, protesters have instead placed out their shoes to symbolise the steps that would have been taken ahead of the conference. Credit: Avaaz

Many have written off Paris’ predecessor – Copenhagen COP – as a categorical failure, and so too the entire UNFCCC process. However, without these historic meetings the world and our ways of life are doomed. A current ‘business as usual’ scenario will lead us to almost 5°C of warming by 2100, an outcome which will impact the Earth beyond even the predictions of our best scientists (though some have done their best to make an educated guess, see below).

That is not to say that Copenhagen was an overarching success by any means, however many lessons have been learned and steps have been taken to prevent a similar outcome. One of the biggest differences between Paris and Copenhagen are the “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs). An INDC is similar to telling everyone what dress you are going to wear to the party before you go; it outlines what each participating nation is willing to commit themselves in order to combat climate change. It means that everyone is going to Paris very much aware of where they, and everyone else stands. This is important as it allows discussion to be focused on topics such as funding, technology sharing, monitoring of progress and other, more broadly applicable, matters. What’s more, there is an expectation that the outcome agreement of Paris will be legally binding and all parties have been made well aware of this going in, which means their INDCs must be well-considered.

A map representing the number of countries who have submitted an INDC ahead of the conference in Paris. Credit: CAIT Climate Data Explorer

Paris has set itself up up to be a new standard of climate negotiations, it has addressed all issues that arose in previous conferences diligently and what’s more, the opinion of Copenhagen and subsequent expectations for Paris have been so low, that it seems difficult to imagine how they might be disappointed.

Understanding the Politics of Climate Change

There are two primary divides that comprise international climate politics (and, for that matter, all international political negotiations). The first is between the ‘big players’ and the ‘small’ and the second is the North-South divide.

The separation between the big players and the small in UN politics became abundantly clear at Copenhagen when, after days of negotiations between hundreds of delegates, the final resolution was drafted in a room with barely twenty nations following a long meeting between the US and China. All the voices that had been heard and the work that had been done was undermined by a group that was essentially comprised of the G20. Naturally this greatly angered the General Assembly and was an example of how those who are most vulnerable to climate change (such as the small island states) are left out of negotiations that will decide their future.

This handout photo made available by the German Press office shows world leaders calling the shots on the final day of the Copenhagen conference in 2009. Credit: AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / BUNDESREGIERUNG / STEFFEN KUGLER

The second, and arguably more pressing divide is that between what academics refer to as the global North and global South. The North comprises most developed nations and is headed by powers such as the US and the EU. The global South is a large bloc within the UN of developing nations who attempt to set aside their differences to achieve their group goals. The conflict between the opinions of the North and South have been at the heart of stagnant climate talks. In a nutshell, the issue lies in responsibility, compensation and the right to develop.

The South, quite reasonably, argues that the North has been responsible for the vast share of pollution since the Industrial revolution and therefore should be responsible for getting us all out of this mess as they got us into it. Furthermore the South wants compensation for the damages it will incur due to global warming and the costs associated with converting to a less carbon intensive economy. Lastly, the South primarily functions on a Western-inspired method of development and therefore claims that they have a right to continue polluting so long as they are developing as the North has already done so and otherwise it would be ‘unfair’. Naturally the North rejects the South’s arguments for the most part. It calls for a global effort to reduce warming and encourages the South to develop in a greener way. And it is not as though the South have been left empty-handed, while the total amount the South believes it requires in order to fulfill it’s collective INDCs is somewhere around US$407 billion, the North has already pledged to provide US$100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020 (though in the past these kinds of promises have rarely been met).

While these divides have shaped climate negotiations in the past, progress is being made. For the first time the North has also stipulated ways in which it will support the South in adapting to climate change as well as funding their efforts to reduce pollution. Furthermore, big players on both sides are coming to the table with less stringent demands for the sake of progress. For example, China has said it will establish a Fund for South-South Cooperation on Climate Change in order to establish a network in the South bloc. This breaks the tradition of the North being the only ones obliged to provide climate finance.

INDCs: Who’s been promising what? 

As the INDCs essentially shape the nature of the conference as well as our future climate and economical landscapes, it is important to understand what nations have been willing to pledge and what these pledges mean. The following is an analysis of six big polluters, half from the North and half from the South.

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California has been struggling with drought conditions that has caused the local government to drastically cut water use. If the USA does not cut its emissions scenes such as this will become more than an anomaly. Credit: Damon Winter, The New York Times

The United States of America:

Under the Obama administration the nature of US climate policy has shifted dramatically in spite of an incessantly stubborn Republican opposition. The US has promised to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025 against a 2005 baseline. While this is not necessarily more ambitious than its 2020 goal, it will mean that the US will have to double its rate of emissions reductions. The potential for the USA to actually achieve these goals lies largely in the outcome of the next federal election. If the Democrats remain in power it will likely remain in place, however if a Republican takes the Oval Office it will not take long for them to retract the executive actions needed for the US to meet its targets without having to convince Congress.

Some have argued that the US’ target does little to acknowledge the fact that the US was the world’s largest emitter for some time and it’s prosperity is thanks to its polluting habits. Some calculations would require the US to reach zero emissions by 2025 in order to represent their real ‘fair share’ of the climate change burden.

Nonetheless, the fact that the US is coming to the table with a productive contribution and a seemingly positive and progress-focused outlook should not be underestimated. The world’s super power is a heavy weight on the international stage and its actions shape many.

China’s population suffers through the worst air pollution on the planet, causing severe long term health impacts. Credit: Reuters/China Daily


China is a new face on the frontline of climate negotiations. It’s acknowledged the impacts of its emissions and the security implications of runaway climate change and increasingly expensive fossil fuel energy sources. Now China is the biggest producer of photovoltaic cells and is largely responsible for the rapid decline in costs for renewable energy technologies. China has added nearly half of the additional renewable power generated globally over the past decade and is investing more in the industry than the US, Eu and Japan combined.

According to China’s INDC it hopes to peak its carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030 (estimated predict they will achieve this before their deadline). It also aims to reduce carbon intensity (the amound of carbon emitted for each unit of economic output) by 60-65% of 2005 levels by 2030 and will source 20% of its energy from low-carbon sources by 2030.

It should not be forgotten, however that China is responsible for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and its coal-generating capacity is still expanding and shows no sign of ceasing. Furthermore, many have highlighted that non-CO2 emissions are missing from China’s targets and that these many continue to grow even if CO2 does reach its peak.

Nonetheless, a lack of action from China has long been an excuse for a lack of action globally. What was the point if the world’s biggest polluter was going to continue in its ways? But there is a sense that China is strongly in favour of a deal in Paris and is more willing to play hard ball than ever before. If this is the case, the super powers of the North and the South have already set the Paris conference on a better course than Copenhagen, and it hasn’t even started.

A wind farm being built on the coast of the United Kingdom. Credit: Vattenfall

The European Union

Restating targets set by EU leaders last October the European Union has committed to reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 against a 1990 baseline. They believe it is in line with their longer term goal to achieve 80-95% reduction by 2050 and halving global emissions.

The EU has also expressed its desire for Paris to cause a 60% cut in global emissions by 2050 against a 2010 baseline in order to reach a net-zero global emission level between 2080 and 2100 in order to limit global temperatures to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures.

Many developing nations, particularly those most affected by climate change impacts (such as low-lying island states) say this isn’t enough as the security of their land requires no more than a 1.5°C rise. Furthermore, doubts have been raised about the EU’s ability to meet their target as their carbon intensity has only been decreasing by 2% per year since 2000, meaning they would have to double their reduction rate in order to meet their 2030 target.

Coal processing worker in India. India is opening coal power plants at 2.5 times the rate the USA is closing their’s. Credit: Associated Press


Predictions speculate that India’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will be up 90% compared to current levels. While India argues that emissions come alongside their right to develop the reality is that this would mean that its emissions will eclipse the EU and US in terms of total emissions in 2030 (though on a per capita basis they would still remain quite low).

Nonetheless, India has promised a 33-35% reduction in emissions intensity by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Furthermore India has vowed to nearly triple its renewable energy capacity by 2022 and raise the share of zero-carbon electricity generating capacity to 40% by 2030. This target has not been taken into account for their emissions reductions, which means they may exceed their target.

There are concerns over how these endeavours will be funded. India calculates that it will cost US$2.5 trillion – a much higher price tag than other INDCs (though comparative on a per capita basis). Though it is not specified how they arrive at this some and others have calculated it to be only half of the amount in the INDC. However, the cost may be justified for India who is predicted to face a loss and damages cost of 1.8% of India’s GDP each year until 2030 due to climate change.

Indigenous Australian and Pacific Island community leaders march at the front of climate protests in Sydney, Australia on the 29th of November, 2015. Credit: Anja Bless


Australia’s commitments to emissions reductions have become synonymous with lack of ambition. In spite of its renewable energy potential Australia remains one, if not the highest emitter per capita and the only nation to revoke anti-climate change policy.

Australia has pledged to reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2030 based on 2005 levels. This is a significant improvement on its 13% reduction by 2020 and would double the rate of Australia’s emissions reduction. Australia also has a Renewable Energy Target which stipulates that 23% of its electricity should come from renewable sources by 2030.

Many have been frustrated with the lack of forward thinking ambition by the Australians and concerns have been raised about whether the current policy and funding models could allow Australia to even somewhat meet target.

“This seems to be another example of Australian exceptionalism when it comes to tackling the biggest economic, environmental and security challenge of the 21st century. If the rest of the world followed Australia’s lead, the Great Barrier Reef would disappear. So would my country, and other vulnerable atoll nations on Australia’s doorstep.” Tony De Brum, Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands.

Rain Forest In Brazil Are Cleared And Burned By Settlers For Farmland
Logging encroaching on the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil Credit: Stephen Ferry


Brazil is home to a large portion of one of the world’s most important forests – the Amazon. However, long has there been a battle waging between loggers and the rainforest, to the point that the Brazilian government was forced to intervene and in doing so it managed to reduce Brazil’s emissions by 41% between 2005 and 2012. While this is a great success, in the year’s since a reform on the forest protection law has meant that deforestation is again on the rise in Brazil and increased by 28% between 2012 and 2013. Furthermore, emissions from the energy and agriculture sectors have been on the rise meaning that Brazil’s emissions will likely peak once more before they can decline.

Brazil has promised in its INDC to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 37% below 2005 levels by 2025 and aims for a 43% reduction by 2030. While this target is higher that most of those set by other developing nations it is important to note that by 2012 Brazil had already achieved beyond its stipulated reduction goal. Therefore it is simply a matter of the Brazilian government ensuring the emissions levels do not increase too much more by the deadline.

Are we doing enough?

The question is, after over 94% of emissions have been accounted for by the INDCs, are the promised reductions enough to prevent runaway climate change? The short answer – no. Even if the INDCs are adhered to we will head for 3°C of warming by 2100. To put this in perspective; at 1.5°C  low lying island states such as the Maldives will manage to remain above water, at 2°C  they will be flooded and their occupants will have to flee their ancient homes. Those nations will be lost. What’s more, the last time the Earth was believed to have experienced temperatures at 3°C above pre-industrial levels was the Pliocene Epoch around 3 million years ago. At that time there was almost no ice anywhere, the sea level was 20 metres or so higher than now and forests went to the edge of the Arctic Ocean where now there is only tundra. While it will take some time for these changes to manifest, this will be the direction in which we will head. The consequences of such a rapid temperature change will cause a significant drop in food production (in spite of a higher global population), increased urban heat levels (such as those heat waves which killed thousands in India this year), more droughts and wildfires and an inevitable refugee crisis on a scale never seen before. The impacts will be felt not only in the developing world and resource wars will become the norm.

Effects of current pledges and policies on global temperatures. Credit: Climate Action Tracker

The most concerning thing about rapid climate change is its unpredictability. The term ‘runaway’ climate change refers to the potential for the effects to build on each other as feedback processes deteriorate the situation beyond the parameters of predictability. For example, in the Arctic where if the permafrost melts (a process we are already seeing happen) vast stores of carbon dioxide could be released into our atmosphere. Some scientists suggest that there is as much organic carbon in the permafrost as the world has burned in fossil fuels since the Industrial age began. This mass emission would only increase the rate of warming, and melting, and warming which would greatly inhibit our ability to mitigate climate change. The matter would essentially become out of our hands as a snowball effect caused this ‘runaway’ climate change.

The Arctic Tundra is alread beginning to melt, effecting ecosystems and emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Credit: Sarah Beck

So what does the future hold?

Very few believe that the outcome of Paris will be a complete u-turn on investment in climate friendly technologies. What is less certain is whether the talks will become the catalyst needed to set the scene for nations, businesses and investors to accelerate action against climate change. The main hope for the conference is that it will build momentum and address issues such as financing, accountability and fairness in order to prevent parties leaving with a lack of clarity on the future of climate change mitigation.

It is important, in the end, to realise that progress has already been made. The Kyoto conference concluded with no set targets and a lack of US support, Copenhagen was only able to gain consensus on the reality of human induced climate change and the fact that something must be done without specifying what. Paris has already dealt with that which was lacking at both conferences before it has even begun, this indicates that as a global community we are learning. And learning over time is inevitable as never before have we as a species faced an issue that is both caused by and effect all of us. Most importantly, Paris has already set the tone globally for how our future will look and real change will not necessarily come from governments, but from the market. It is likely that although the free market largely caused this issue, it will also solve it through innovation, investment and changing consumer behaviours. The Paris conference is simply drawing a map for the market to follow.

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One comment

  1. Fantastic article, rarely does anyone bring up Copenhagen as anything other than a categoric failure. I completely agree with the conclusion that Copenhagen exposed the flaws in previous climate change mitigation policy and allowed a dual approach to developed/developing states. Hopefully the deal between China and the United States earlier this year will provide some solid fundamentals for Paris. I’m quietly optimistic that there will be significant success – whether Australia will contribute to that is another question.


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