Earth as xmas pud


RSGS CEO Mike Robinson discusses what decisions and agreements he would like to see coming out of the Paris 2015 COP international climate negotiations.

All I want for Christmas…

All I want for Christmas is a robust deal out of the Paris 2015 COP international climate negotiations.   The fact that the world’s governments have come together again to try to agree a global framework for dealing with climate change is an indication of the severity of the issue, and the absolute acceptance of the need to act.   Paris is the 21st formal annual COP, but it promises to be a particularly significant test of the international will and commitment to reach a meaningful deal.

Going into the negotiations, there are commitments from nearly 95% of countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.   These include commitments from the USA and China, both of whom have dragged their heels in previous negotiations.    But even then, the total emission reductions to which countries have indicated commitment are forecast to keep any global warming to at minimum a 3˚C rise in global average temperature.    It is better than previous commitments but it is still well short of what is required if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

We need to keep any likely global temperature rise as low as possible (and definitely below 2˚C according to most commentators), as even a small change can trigger all sorts of unexpected consequences.   This is a very high-risk ‘game’ to be playing.   You wouldn’t want a 3˚C (5.5 ˚F) rise in your own body temperature, and we can’t afford the planet to have one either.

The ambition and the pace of progress remain frustratingly weak.   Right now we are at a level of 400ppm Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.   This gives us a 70% chance of avoiding exceeding a 2˚C rise in average global temperature.    But it is still rising by circa 3ppm/year and for every extra few parts per million CO2 we add, the likelihood of higher and higher temperatures rises too (see table below).


CO2 estimated thresholds
ppm CO2e
180 – 288 Past 400,000 yrs
400 Current level
410 2˚C (33% risk)
450 2˚C (50% risk)
500 2˚C (85% risk)
550 3˚C (50% risk)
650 3˚C (60% risk)
750 4˚C (80% risk)

Current commitments for Paris, if enacted, would apparently lead us to around 550-650ppm.    Up until now, we have simply been too slow and reluctant to limit them further.   Ideally commitments would aim to contain emissions to below 450ppm in order to give us at least a 50:50 chance of avoiding a 2˚C rise.   But although this still remains out of reach, there has been progress.   Despite all of the many pressures on the international political landscape, the international community does at least continue to convene regular annual meetings and we are edging towards a better deal at every juncture.   The current commitments improve on anything offered previously and they include more countries too.   So although the timescales seem slow and progress can seem under-whelming and stilted, the whole process is undeniably progressing in the right direction.

So is a robust deal by Christmas too much to ask for?   It will depend on many things, not least the appetite of politicians to see beyond the immediacy of those tragic and brutal events in Paris only a fortnight earlier.   Will this distract, undermine or strengthen their resolve?

The success of the COP itself though, will ultimately rest on the level countries will commit to reduce emissions by and how quickly.    And how it will be paid for.   There needs to be a legal and funding framework to enforce targets and support adoption of low carbon technology by developing nations.   There needs to be funding to help protect those countries most impacted by climate changes.   And the monitoring and systems to keep track of it all.     So, yes it is a lot to ask for, but I don’t expect it all to happen right away.    Whatever is agreed, this will not be the end of the process.

Beyond Paris we need to actually make the reductions happen.   Targets however stringent are only targets after all; we still need the concerted action necessary to deliver them, and that will take renewed and continual effort.   We need a shift in our behaviour – less waste, better transport, better planning and more energy efficient housing.   We need to champion long-term planning.   We need to find solutions for producing and storing heat and electricity more sustainably and wasting less of it.   We will need to seek creative solutions to what we eat and how we travel.

I don’t believe humans have ever been sustainable.   Climate change has perhaps underlined this more than any other single issue.   Whilst it is easy to be cynical and pessimistic, I have the sense that this is a challenge humanity can rise to.   And if we can work out how to be sustainable then we can look forward with real optimism and a belief in our future.   The world has made progress on dealing with the climate challenge, however slowly.   It is just that we are running out of time, so the bigger the step that leaders can agree in Paris, the more optimistic we can be.