Climate tango in Paris

Illustration by Min Gyo Chung

Climate change is no longer tomorrow’s problem. This year alone, heat waves in India and Pakistan each killed more than a thousand people. The rainforest in Washington’s Olympic National Park caught fire for the first time in history. California is parched. July 2015 was the hottest on  record.

In December, the governments of more than 192 countries are expected to gather in Paris for a two-week meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties, known simply as COP21. The goal? An international deal on climate that keeps average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C compared to pre-industrial levels. Do that, experts say, and humanity has a shot at averting catastrophe.

In light of the accelerating international consensus on climate, these talks, more than any other before them, have the best possible chance to result in a relatively ambitious and binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and if not reverse, at least halt the warming trend. The implications are powerful. Investors and policymakers who ignore the consensus to shift to a lower-carbon future do so at their peril.

Diminutive, warm, soft-spoken – W.R. Peltier is the Canadian scientist who first linked melting ice caps to rising sea levels. He is now the director of the Centre for Global Change Science at the University of Toronto. “The meeting in Paris, in December, is in many ways a game changer on the climate file,” he told Corporate Knights. “All the previous meetings have been significant failures and very hurtful to the process.”

What’s different in 2015? The stakes are higher. The link between climate change and wild weather appears to be clearer – not just in terms of scientific data but in actual lived incidents. As well, the consequences of ongoing inaction are becoming increasingly evident. “The international community is coming to understand that this is an extremely serious issue. It is not that in the past it wasn’t understood to be serious,” Peltier adds, “but the increasing frequency of extreme events has brought the issue to a head.”

This time, it’s not just scientists warning the world of the consequences of inaction. International lending institutions also understand that inaction on climate change is as at least as risky as the status quo, and likely more so. Rachel Kyte is the World Bank Group vice-president and special envoy for climate change. She agrees with Peltier. “We have already put enough pollution into the atmosphere to see major change,” she says. “The reason why the bank is following these climate negotiations so closely is that we are ramping up. The bank provides long-term financing to sovereign and private-sector initiatives,” she explains, “and climate change is the context in which everybody is doing business now. The cost of not acting is actually going to be higher than acting.”


A date in Paris

The mechanics of the Paris conference are interesting. Rather than a top-down approach, where countries are asked to conform to global targets, as was the case with Kyoto, countries heading to Paris have been tasked to define the climate actions they are able and willing to take under a new international agreement. These country-level “actions” are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres
UN climate chief Christiana Figueres

By mid-August 56 countries – including the US, Canada, Mexico and those represented by the EU – had submitted their INDCs to the UNFCCC. Many others are expected before October 2015. The question on everyone’s mind: Will the sum total of these commitments be enough to keep us on the 2-degree or under pathway?

In all of this, the EU leads the pack. It has committed to reducing its carbon emissions 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030, a target that experts believe is not only achievable, but probable. Kelly Levin is a senior associate of Washington, DC-based World Resources Institute (WRI), a leading think tank tracking climate change. “In Europe, GDP has grown by more than 44 per cent, but emissions have declined 90 per cent below 1990 levels,” Levin explained. In other words, the Europeans haven’t just figured out how to decouple economic growth from burning fossil fuels – they are already doing it.

Also taking leadership on the road to Paris: the hitherto-unlikely pairing of the United States and China. Both flagged their intentions to take climate much more seriously last November, when they announced an historic climate deal, the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. The stated goal on the U.S. side: by 2025, to decrease carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent from where they were in 2005. Experts believe the commitments are credible. Though legislation to limit CO2 pollution failed to pass in the Senate in 2010, President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have since announced the Clean Power Plan, which lays out new rules that govern carbon emissions from existing power plants. These rules are part of a much broader climate plan from Obama that, many believe, will help the U.S. reach its relatively ambitious targets.

According to the WRI’s Kelly Levin, even deeper reductions are possible in the longer term. “Right now, the country is on the decarbonization pathway. But the commitment is only till 2025. We can’t stop there. Eventually, Congress is going to have to pass new legislation and put a price on carbon,” said Levin.

Complicating the US-China relationship in the lead-up to the Paris talks is the fact that China is a developing nation. Historically, China has taken the position that global warming is a Western problem, largely caused by 200 years of burning fossil fuels in the U.S. and Europe. Critics of the U.S.-China deal stress that it actually allows China to keep emitting until 2030, at which point it hits “peak emissions.”


Eyes on China

Peggy Liu, chair of the Shanghai-based non-profit Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (or JUCCCE), says the U.S.-China agreement shouldn’t be looked at in isolation. Last fall, following announcement of his country’s climate deal with the U.S., Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched a new energy action plan that runs to 2020. Key features: China would cap absolute coal consumption by 2020 at 4.2 billion tonnes, and coal’s share of the mix would be reduced to less than 62 per cent by 2020, from the current level of 66 per cent. These are signs that China is serious about getting emissions down, says Liu.

It’s important to note that carbon isn’t the only, or necessarily the biggest, motivator for such actions. A peer-reviewed study published in August by independent research group Berkeley Earth calculated that air pollution in China, mostly from burning coal, is responsible for about 1.6 million deaths a year. Study co-author Richard Muller said breathing the air in Beijing is equivalent to every citizen smoking 1.5 cigarettes every hour.

A screenshot from Under The Dome
A screenshot from Under the Dome

Chinese leaders are feeling the pressure to act. This was made particularly clear in the wake of the influential Chinese documentary Under the Dome – an investigation into the health impacts of China’s air pollution, sparked by a baby that acquired a tumour in utero. The documentary went viral online in winter 2015, chalking up 100 million hits in 48 hours and sparking mass unrest before authorities shut it down.

“The Chinese leadership probably wants to do more than it actually can do,” says Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “They want be seen as constructive players in Paris. But I don’t think that U.S. commitments are primarily what are drawing Chinese actions. The idea that “we can’t do more, so they can’t do more,” I don’t think that’s the world we are living in any more.”

The data bears this analysis out. According to a summer 2015 report from Greenpeace, Chinese coal generation output was down 7 per cent in April compared to just a year earlier. China is now also the largest producer of wind and solar power on the planet: in 2013, nearly 60 per cent of its new power generation was renewable. Last year, China spent around $80 billion (U.S.) on new renewable generation capacity, roughly the same as the U.S. and EU combined.

China’s crackdown on coal – and carbon emissions – is immensely important. The country emits roughly the same amount of carbon per year as the U.S., France, Canada, Germany, Japan, and the U.K combined. Further, China enjoys a leadership role in the eyes of other developing nations. As such, its early action on emissions reductions, coupled with the US-China climate deal, lends significant credibility to a game changing global deal in Paris.


Western holdouts

One initiative that the Paris talks will aim to drive forward is the so-called Green Fund, a last-minute idea proposed in Copenhagen in 2009 to salvage those failing talks. The concept is simple. Developed countries pay $100 billion in climate finance each year until 2020. The fund selects and finances clean technology solutions that allow developing countries to leapfrog carbon-intensive technologies in favour of low-carbon

“The Green Fund is the right way to go,” says Peltier. “But to be truly effective, it would have to involve a very large transfer of wealth from Western industrialized countries to developing countries and I don’t see it happening.” (Canada has signaled it will commit $300 million a year to the fund during the Paris talks. Meanwhile, other industrialized economies’ contributions to date have fallen far short of the targeted $100 billion a year.) Add to that the lack of a legal framework and insufficient regulatory oversight regarding the use of such technologies, and Peltier has little confidence that the Green Fund will have its intended impact.

Meanwhile, as the U.S., EU and China work to take leadership on climate, Canada is among a handful of Western nations viewed on the global stage as holdouts, if not obstructionists. In fact, a group led by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan recently condemned Canada as an international climate idler.

“Annan is absolutely correct,” Peltier says. “Canada has been called the dinosaur; the country which has been most willing to work to derail any attempt to real commitment. It is not even benign neglect; it’s willful neglect.”

In Peltier’s opinion, the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no interest in the issue. It continues to stick by the claim that Canada cannot do anything until the Americans do because it will kill the Canadian economy. But with the Obama administration now ramping up its climate efforts, the onus is now on the Canadian government to keep pace – which is hasn’t. The Climate Change Performance Index of 2015, put out by the non-governmental organization Germanwatch, indicates Canada is about to miss its 2020 emissions reduction target by about 20 per cent.

Canada, on the other hand, continues to invest heavily in developing oil and gas exports, including the oil sands, one of the world’s most carbon-intensive fossil fuels. “I doubt very much that this particular Canadian government will ever be willing to act,” says Peltier. “We need a government in Ottawa which understands the science” – or accepts it. With a federal election scheduled for October 19, Canada’s posture heading into Paris remains uncertain.

Corporate Knights sent an interview request to Louise Metivier, Canada’s chief climate negotiator, asking for comment on Canada’s position for this article. The communications staff responded with a statement outlining Canada’s recent actions on climate and the country’s INDC commitment – an intention to reduce emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Canada has further committed to invest $300 million in the Green Fund. It established an online ‘climate change adaptation portal’ created to help Arctic communities adapt to climate change, made commitments with the U.S. and Mexico to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, and established a North American working group on climate change.

The statement further claims the government has invested $10 billon in clean energy since 2006, and outlines several intentions to develop regulations on methane, chemicals, nitrogen fertilizers, and the efficiency of electricity sourced from natural gas. This would align Canada’s actions more closely to the U.S. lead. Unfortunately, CK’s requests for an interview to probe the $10 billion investment in clean energy, or the substance of these regulatory intentions, was ignored.


Better, but good enough?

Will any of this be enough, when measured against the most rigorous yardstick of all: what the science requires to avert catastrophe? Human beings have increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees C. Peltier believes that even with aggressive emissions reduction policies in place, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the 2-degree target, after which, some believe, irreversible damage will occur.

“We don’t actually know what degree of global warming is the degree beyond which irreversible damage will occur,” says Peltier. “But we very strongly suspect that there is such a level and it is probably not too far off 2 degrees Celsius.”

Peltier’s solution to the problem – and one supported by most economists and scientific bodies – is to put a price on carbon. “I don’t think there is any way of escaping it. The price has to be high enough to act as a significant inhibition to burning fossil fuels,” he says. “British Columbia put in a carbon tax and apparently has been revenue neutral. It is argued that has been extremely successful. “If you put a price on carbon it enlists markets in the fight against global warming. Consumers would get a strong signal to use less fossil fuel every time they stopped at the pump.”

While it is too early to tell what a deal in Paris is going to look like, it is unlikely to feature a price on carbon. However, in the opinion of WRI analyst Kelly Levin, Paris could result in a fair and ambitious agreement that puts the world on the right path and sets in motion a process for countries to ratchet down emissions over time. “More needs to be done, because climate change impacts are already around us, and we are aware that we’re not on the trajectory we need to be on,” Levin says.

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