What lessons can be learned from the agreement negotiated in Paris during the Climate Change Conference (COP 21)? An interview with Amy Dahan Dalmedico, Research Director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and climate change specialist.
What is your analysis of the Paris Climate Change Agreement?
Given the state of the world, with its egoisms, national interests and blocking forces, we have the best deal possible. As it is not binding, it should not be assumed that its outcomes are guaranteed if we do not support it, if the most determined civil societies and State actors, especially in Europe, do not take more decisive action.
There are encouraging points in this agreement, but it does, however, sacrifice two important aspects: the large-scale actions that need to be conducted in the short-term by emerging countries. What these countries have pledged falls too short and for them, the review of greenhouse gas emissions will only really begin between 2023 and 2025. Until then, countries are of course encouraged to take action, but the results of their policies will only be reviewed after 2020. My scientific opinion is that it is a shame, as we know that everything is irreversible in terms of climate change. The quicker we act, the more likely we are to turn the tide.
Over the long term, many aspects are still taboo, such as the time when we will need to do without fossil fuels. Oil-producing countries do not want to consider this stage, and the negotiators found very convoluted forms of writing to say that we need to “absorb what we emit”. Yet the technologies that would allow us to absorb the carbon emissions simply do not exist today! There is consequently no real stabilization of the climate in sight.
To conclude, I welcome the fact that there is a growing awareness of the climate problem around the world, but I am concerned about the lack of a clear vision of the transformation ahead, which will be enormous.
Is the fact of having changed the target for global warming from 2°C to 1.5°C by 2100 not a breakthrough?
Developed countries have accepted this target, which the most vulnerable developing countries lobbied for. But it does not strike me as being realistic. To achieve it, all scientists will tell you that massive and immediate efforts are required. This is precisely because we only have five years ahead of us with the level of current emissions. We will subsequently need to drastically reduce them. It must be recognized that there is still a gap between words on paper and what we are actually going to do. This is regrettable.
Why has a carbon price not been set yet?
There is no consensus on this issue. Climatologists such as the American James Hansen advocate for a carbon tax in the USA, Europe and China. Some 200 experts and economists close to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have signed a slightly different proposal , which would involve setting a reference carbon price in order to guarantee low-carbon borrowing, which is less profitable than the current speculative investments. Yet there is a lot of money in circulation around the world! It is necessary to set a carbon price if we want to shift considerable financial resources from investments in fossil fuels towards renewable energies, with guarantees from States and central banks.
Does the oil lobby continue to be very powerful?
The climate is not only an environmental problem, but an international power struggle which must take account of the problems of energy and hegemony. Everyone saw Saudi Arabia’s obstructionist tactics during the discussion and, to a lesser extent, those of Russia. The other Northern countries do not refuse to consider the post-oil era and are seeking compromise. They have conceded a 1.5°C target to poor and developing countries, which are extremely vulnerable to climate change. This target has been written down, but it does not cost much, since there is no possibility for legal recourse before a potential climate tribunal. In addition, this target is not combined with an adequate financing program.
Are solutions to financing being found with the successive COP?
The pledge made by developed countries in Copenhagen in 2009 to provide USD 100bn a year of “climate” finance for developing countries has not yet been taken in hand. It was reiterated in Paris, but in an even vaguer way. There was previously talk about contributing to the Green Climate Fund starting in 2020. It is now more a question of setting up a mechanism to control the money that has already been given – the USD 62bn of financing mentioned by an OECD report, using a calculation method which is contested by developing countries. A new mechanism, located outside the OECD under UN administration, is in sight for 2025 in order to allocate the minimum pledge of USD 100bn a year.
In other words, it is not clear who is going to control these amounts, which are going to prove to be even more vague. In practical terms, India could avoid massively using its coal for its development, but this effort requires investments in which Northern countries and international finance must participate. The climate change agreement still suffers from a marked lack of preparation on the issue of financing.
You advocate for a different form of governance to address climate change. Is the new mechanism under discussion to ensure green finance not a step in the right direction?
It is an encouraging sign, but the efforts are still too slow. For over twenty years now, since the Rio Summit in 1992, we have been dragging our feet and postponing deadlines. The climate is a race against time. Mechanisms may be set up, but they need to be combined with initiatives of variable geometry which speed up the movement. For example, France has pledged to bring together the countries that show more ambition and want to act faster. The industrial alliance in the solar sector announced by the Prime Minister of India should be supported.
Are the climate negotiations a telling sign of the changing relations between the North and South?
Indeed, we are seeing an artificial extension of the North-South divide under the terms in which it was expressed in Rio in 1992, with the countries included in “Annex 1”, because they have a historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, and those which were not included. The South has changed since then, whether we like it or not! Consequently, countries which have very different interests, like Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia and the small islands, find themselves in the Group of 77 and China. This is the reason for the strong internal divisions within this group. Furthermore, the African group forms a more united block, which is new and comes with a certain clout. The geopolitics of climate change has undergone profound changes and perpetuating the old division is merely a decoy.
What about China?
It is a crucial partner, the second largest world power and the leader of developing countries. This is why its position is very complex The authorities in Beijing have been showing more positive signs of goodwill for a year now. However, they do wish to retain their freedom of choice, as they do not know what the global economic environment will be like in fifteen years. We should not forget that in five years, the USA’s situation has completely changed: it has much less need for oil from the Middle East because it has developed shale gas. No one had anticipated this rapid development. Situations can change very quickly. We should not imagine that everything is frozen until the end of the century.
What would be your recommendations for action to more effectively tackle the climate challenge?
I would start more with an observation: international institutions do not currently consider the climate as a priority issue. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank continue to finance programs based on the exploitation of fossil fuels. We continue to act on the basis of economic rationale which has nothing to do with the climate. The effort that needs to be made is six to eight times higher than the USD 100bn pledged for developing countries by 2020. These USD 100bn, which sound huge, are in fact a meagre amount in terms of adapting the most vulnerable countries to climate change and fostering low-carbon development in emerging economies. There is an enormous gap between the money that continues to be invested in the wrong directions and the amounts devoted to the “green economy”.
Unfortunately, the negotiation does not deal with these choices. There is also no reference to transport in the agreement – neither air nor maritime – whereas it is central to the effort to reduce carbon emissions. We will be faced with this rift between wishful thinking and the reality until the climate becomes a crosscutting issue, systematically addressed in all fields and all arenas. It is for this reason that we, as observers, scientists and civil society need to continue the debate and be vigilant.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.