Steve Sawyer on COP21: Trepidation and Hope

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As someone who has worked on renewables and energy for more than 35 years, and climate change for more than 25, I can’t help but view the upcoming Paris summit with a mixture of (mostly) trepidation and (a little bit) of hope.

The trepidation comes from the huge quantity of work that has gone on both inside and outside the UNFCCC process to make the summit in Paris into something significant, a turning point, and something we can tell our children about with pride. Call me old fashioned, but I would like to see targets and timetables for getting us where we need to go. Well, we’re not going to have any of that.

The last scheduled formal negotiation session before Paris just wound up in Bonn last Friday and the text, which was shrunk by the co-Chairs down to twenty two pages from more than a hundred, has now ballooned up to more than 50 pages once again – with very little in the way of agreement on the main issues which plagued Copenhagen (and Rio back in 1992): i.e., who caused the problem and who will pay. Nearly all the issues are left for frantic informal negotiations between now Paris, which will hopefully reduce the key decisions to a few major ones which Ministers may in fact be able to address in Paris.

Which is a bit odd, because Paris will not be a ‘negotiation’ per se about the central issue, i.e., emissions reductions. The so called INDCs (pledges) which are being brought to the table, which do represent significant progress since Copenhagen, are not for negotiation – so the talks can hardly fail. Much will be made of the financial package, the loss-and-damage issue, who sits on what committees and who is in control of the paltry sums which are being contributed by governments. There is also a significant question about the long term goal, i.e., defining the end game, which will be an important signal to come out of Paris. But in the big picture none of this matters very much. Don’t get me wrong, it matters a great deal to the negotiations, but it doesn’t matter much to the question of whether or not we solve the climate problem.

But in some ways the negotiations themselves matter much less than they once did, because after the disaster in Copenhagen no one is expecting governments to provide a global framework within which to address the climate issue. What does matter is the incredible attention the climate issue is once again receiving, and a growing awareness that we have the technology to solve the problem affordably, which was not widely understood just a few years ago.

The 40,000 or so delegates who are expected to descend on Paris for the summit will mostly not be there to talk about the negotiations, but to showcase what is happening out in the real world: wind and solar booming right across the world, with increasing quality, reliability and decreasing costs; the growing awareness in the financial community of the risks of fossil fuel investments; and the thousands of businesses that are betting on a renewable energy future. How much of this is driven by the climate issue? Good question. In each country, there are series of drivers for moving away from fossil fuels: energy security, macroeconomic security, costs, creation of new industries, air quality, job creation, and climate, to name a few. They evolve in each national context over time, with climate assuming a larger or smaller role depending on circumstances – and climate is definitely at the top of the agenda for the next six weeks in many if not most places.

Perhaps the most useful thing that has come out of this process is a clear definition of the ‘gap’ between the pledges which governments have made and what is necessary to keep us on track to keeping global mean temperature rise below 2°C, or even better yet, below 1.5°C, as a growing chorus of vulnerable countries are calling for. That will give us something to focus on for the rest of this decade and into the next. The renewable energy revolution is well underway, and it is unstoppable, with or without the Paris meeting. Let’s hope the Paris meeting comes out with something that helps speed it up, so we can at the same time save the climate.