The Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21)

October 2, 2015 Stephen Murgatroyd

In 1996 the European Council of Environment Ministers determined, simply as a basis for political action, that a rise of average surface temperatures above 2C would be more than the world could cope with and thus the 2C target was born. While discussion of this started long before 1996, this was the first occasion it was set as a target (see here for a comprehensive history of this target). This decision was based on scientific advice from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and analysis of climate models from James Hansen at NASA.

Richard Betts, a UK Meteorological Office scientist, compares the 2C limit to a speed limit. He explains in a short blog post:

"The level of danger at any particular speed depends on many factors... It would be too complicated and unworkable to set individual speed limits for individual circumstances taking into account all these factors, so clear and simple general speed limits are set using judgement and experience to try to get an overall balance between advantages and disadvantages of higher speeds for the community of road users as a whole."

This December at the Paris Climate Change Summit (COP21), the nations of the world will share their commitments to C02 reductions (some of which will have conditions attached, such as those from India) which they have been led to believe will impact climate in such a way as to help keep increases in global surface temperature under the 2C target. However, an analysis of the commitments made to date suggests that this is unlikely to be a successful process. Current commitments fall short of what is needed for CO2 reduction by 10 gigatons according to EuroActiv France (a lobby organization) and the lead French negotiator for COP21. All are hoping that negotiations between now and December will bridge this 10 gigaton gap.

The analysis of what is needed relies on a number of climate models which are already known to be problematic (see here for a discussion, especially section 1.3). They take insufficient account of the impact of the sun and the oceans on climate change and show significant predictive variation between them – models differ significantly in their forecast of future climate conditions. This view is confirmed by an analysis published in Sustainability Science which says:

“.. according to our estimate based on our global energy systems model DNE21+  and a simple climate change model MAGICC, these pledges are nowhere near sufficient to limit the temperature increase to less than 2C since pre-industrialization if we apply 3C as the best estimate of the equilibrium climate sensitivity.”.

Further, commitments do not necessarily convert into action, as the evidence from Kyoto Accord outcomes show.

But Paris is not just about CO2 reductions. It is also about money. India, for example, has said that it will not adhere to CO2 unless adaptation funds are made available. Many small states and developing nations say the same (see here). What is being asked for is access to $100 billion a year from 2020 with the fund building up to that figure from now onwards.  On top of the contributions by states, largely via the Green Climate Fund, investment projects by other funds and private companies may also be taken into account under certain conditions, in order to help reach this target. Many developing economies are looking for cash to enable them to avoid fossil fuel-based energy systems. Right now, just $10 billion sits in the Green Climate Fund and no one is really clear where the $100 billion a year will come from.

Some groups who will attend Paris also want the world to stop using fossil fuels and move quickly to renewables – their basis for meeting the CO2 targets. Others are looking for ways of transitioning more gradually to a post-fossil fuel economy. Few agree on means, though most agree that CO2 is the focal point for climate change management, this despite observed evidence which shows that there has been a pause in the rate of global warming (see here). That is, even though CO2 has increased significantly over the last 18+ years, global surface temperature has not rises anywhere near the rate that the climate models predicted (see here). Indeed, the models have significantly overestimated the predicted temperature rise since 1979.

Paris, like the previous 20 Conferences of the Parties, will be interesting. A very large number of people will seek to agree, line by line, a binding climate treaty. The chances of success are slim, especially since the preliminary meeting in Bonn earlier this year scrambled a comprise document together (see here) to provide the basis for the Paris talks. Jan Kowalzig, climate change policy adviser at Oxfam, who attended the Bonn talks, described the negotiations in as “unbearably tardy.” He said:

“If the negotiators keep up that slow pace, the ministers at the UN summit will get an unfinished paper that they will have to resolve with no time for reflection. The outcome will then most likely be an extremely weak new treaty that will not save the world from climate change”.

The paper crafted at Bonn provides a variety of options and is not a set of clear and explicit commitments. The stumbling blocks – as always – are cash and CO2 cuts. Despite many years of meetings, these remain the problem.


Many are pinning great hopes on the Paris talks. History tells us, however, not to get our hopes up. We have been here before. What is likely to happen is that some face saving document will be crafted in very late night sessions which few will then feel a binding commitment to. Even nations that make firm and clear commitments may not keep them. It would be better to stop seeking global agreements, see climate as a regional not international issue and develop regional and local strategies to adapt to the changing climate. Global governance is gridlocked and broken as far as this issue (and several others) is concerned. The real action is local and regional.
Written by Stephen Murgatroyd - contact stephen.murgatroyd@shaw.ca for permissions.

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