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Mike Robinson – RSGS CEO

2015 is meant to be a big year for climate change. In December, the next round of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP negotiations will take place, with international governments trying once again to reach agreement on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. It will be the 21st such negotiation.

The Kyoto Accord which fell out of the earlier process has now come to an end. It needs to be replaced. But it needs much more than that. It needs to be greatly improved. The targets it set fell well short of any meaningful reduction in terms of mitigating climate change. Most scientists think it is essential that we keep any average temperature increase to below 2°C. 2°C isn’t ‘safe’, but it’s a hell of a lot safer than a 3°C average increase in global temperature. The higher the temperature, the more likely it is to trigger ‘feedbacks’, which are shifts in natural processes (such as loss of ice, or melting methane clathrates) which add to the cycle of warming. And while 2°C may not sound like much, if you liken it to body temperature, a 2°C rise above average would make you very ill. 4°C would be a disaster! The Kyoto agreement would be lucky to avoid a 4°C increase. And worse than that, many countries even then refused to ratify it, or dragged their heels in signing it. On the positive side, although the US Government didn’t ratify it, more than 100 US cities took the lead and independently signed up.

But this inadequate agreement is now defunct, and the world needs to agree a further accord to help address this issue. There is a great expectation that COP21 in Paris in December 2015 will achieve such a deal. I hope so. Although there was similar hype over the same conference (COP15) in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Because the amount of greenhouse gases remains in the atmosphere for a long time (CO2 usually for more than 100 years), every tonne of CO2 we add stays there for decades. Temperature rises are increasing all the time with emissions, but it takes a wee while before temperature responds, so we are already due more warming based on current cumulative emissions alone. The more we continue to add (and the more quickly we add it), the more likely we are to exceed 2°C. So the sooner we reduce emissions the better.

Because Kyoto achieved so little, the pressure is to get the Paris agreement to do even more. And because early reductions matter more, there is pressure to deliver meaningful reductions sooner rather than later. But despite knowing the dangers, is the world ready to cut back on or give up on fossil fuels?

What will be the sticking points in the lead up to Paris? Well of course the OECD nations have built their economies and wealth on fossil fuels. The US dollar is itself propped up by merit of being the only currency in which oil is traded. So who will force the pace when so much current money is in oil, gas, coal?

Then there is the issue of ‘fairness’. The non-OECD nations feel injustice, both in the fact that the west has become rich on fossil fuels and does not want them to follow the same path, and also because their citizens are more at threat from climate change consequences. Some areas of the globe, especially countries of high population and poor infrastructure, are generally more susceptible to its impacts. The global south generally wants the north to shoulder the burden of blame for climate change, and wants the north to help fund the south to protect its populations from climate change dangers, and adapt its economies to be more sustainable.

And then there is the power-play between the big global players. The USA is the highest per capita emitter. China is the biggest overall. India and Brazil are the fastest growing. So any success rests on their agreement. Only Europe seems remotely inclined towards magnanimity, but even that is dependent on the others agreeing, so it still displays only limited leadership.

So will the Paris COP be successful? Who will be prepared to agree reductions? How much will each agree? Will it be ‘fair’? And who will pay for it all?

There is a lot to resolve. But the stakes are really high too. Maybe a positive international deal can be reached. It really rests on whether there is the political will. If real progress can be made, then the Paris COP will be a huge achievement and will be the first to be memorable for all the right reasons. Along with the Sustainable Development Goals negotiations in September, could 2015 be the year the world finally grows up?