The Paris climate negotiations, explained

Has anyone ever tried to convince you to order something off a menu that you couldn’t afford? Or had a friend buy an expensive appetizer and assume you’ll help split the bill? The dynamic isn’t too far from what’s happening in climate policy right now, with hypocritical, richer countries trying to convince poorer countries that green energy is the way forward.

Comprehension questions

As world leaders gather in Paris for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) one thing at least seems clear: “business-as-usual” is not an option. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), annual CO2 emissions will, on current trends, have reached around 100 gigatonnes by the year 2100 (compared to 32 today), with an atmospheric concentration of >1000 parts per million (around 400 today). Such a scenario — Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5— will see global temperatures rise by between 3.2 and 5.4°C relative to the pre-industrial reference period (1850-1900). The consequences in terms of rising sea-levels, extreme weather events, ocean acidification, biodiversity, food security, and so on, hardly bear thinking about, although we may already be starting to see them.

This worst case scenario is not inevitable. Limiting global warming to 2°C above the pre-industrial reference (we’ve just exceeded +1°C) would, scientists believe, enable the most damaging effects of climate change to be avoided. According to the IPCC, we have a 66% chance of achieving this by limiting total CO2 emissions to 1 trillion tonnes. Unfortunately, by 2011 the world had already “spent” 531 billion tonnes of this “carbon budget“, and was due to reach the trillion mark by 2045. Hence the need to shift from business-as-usual to a new emissions pathway.

To this end more than 160 of the 195 COP21 attendees have submitted “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs). The EU’s, for example, pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. These pledges however, even if they are all honoured, will actually result in the 2°C limit being exceeded by between 0.7 and 1°C, prompting calls for the target’s lowering to +1.5°C.

With most COP21 attendees having submitted their pledges, the big unknown concerns what — if any — practical plan will be drawn up detailing how these pledges are to be carried out. For example, how much financial assistance should poorer countries receive to reduce emissions while maintaining economic growth? (According to India’s finance minister, “India is right to resist the world’s carbon imperialism: The rich world’s move against fossil fuels is a disaster for poorer states“.) Experts estimate $90tn of investment will be needed over the next 15 years in the world’s energy, urban and agriculture sectors. How could such a sum be mobilised so long as coal remains the cheapest electricity source? The one practical solution inherited from previous COPs, the Kyoto Protocol’s “cap-and-trade” carbon trading scheme, is perceived to have been a failure.

Blocks on road to Paris climate deal | FT World

► Subscribe to the Financial Times on YouTube: The Paris talks to secure a binding deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions and global warming start in late November, but business and policymakers tell FT environment correspondent Pilita Clark that major stumbling blocks remain on carbon pricing, compensation and other issues.

Comprehension questions

It is this practical debate that our debaters will be having over the next two weeks, with questions such as:

Over to you !

Our online debate starts Friday (timetable here)
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