In four weeks’ time, the world will awake to news that a marathon round of talks in Paris has produced a new global climate change accord. Or collapsed in failure.
If a deal is struck, it will be the third UN climate agreement in 23 years. The first two — a 1992 accord sealed in Rio de Janeiro and the 1997 Kyoto protocol — both failed to meet their chief objective: preventing a rise in the carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels that scientists say is warming the atmosphere to risky levels.
The question is whether a new pact will achieve more than the first two did to shape the fate of the earth’s climate, and an estimated $90tn worth of investment. That is the sum experts think will be spent over the next 15 years on infrastructure for the world’s energy systems, cities and farm sectors.
If the Paris meeting delivers a global agreement robust enough to persuade investors they will make more money from backing, say, a wind farm instead of a coal power plant, or green bonds instead of BP shares, it is possible to imagine emissions falling.
But even this close to the two-week Paris meeting, which starts on November 30, it is almost easier to say what an eventual agreement will not contain, rather than what it will have in it:
Don’t expect a specific global carbon price or a ban on fossil fuel subsidies
That is because, just as generals often fight the last war, the Paris negotiations have been shaped by the failure of the Kyoto protocol and the attempt to replace it at the 2009 Copenhagen summit — the last time the world’s governments tried to work out a way to collectively curb their carbon pollution.
The Kyoto treaty was sealed amid warnings from scientists that CO2 was accumulating in the atmosphere at such a rate that soaring global temperatures would raise sea levels, melt Arctic ice and magnify extreme weather disasters.
So, borrowing from past global arms treaties, the agreement included specific, legally binding emissions targets for each of the nearly 40 rich countries it was supposed to apply to. But climate change proved a more intractable problem than nuclear warheads. The US never ratified Kyoto, largely because China was never covered by it, and Canada pulled out of it, leaving a handful of countries accounting for a dwindling share of emissions still in it.
The Paris negotiations, which were launched nearly four years ago, are supposed to cover all countries, rich and poor. But they are also a recognition that it is impossible to force nations to cut their pollution. No gunboat will ever be sent to stop a government building a new coal power plant.
So the Paris agreement is based on all countries volunteering climate action plans. To give the accord teeth, many countries want these pledges to be reviewed every five years to see if they are producing enough global emissions cuts, then ramped up if they are not.
That is similar to the approach in Copenhagen. Back then, however, governments left it very late to spell out what sort of pollution reductions they would offer for the deal. The world leaders who arrived in the Danish capital to finalise the accord were confronted with an unwieldy mess of options and the conference collapsed in acrimony.
This time, it was decided countries would spell out their plans well ahead of time. More than 160 of the 195 countries involved in the Paris talks have done this since March, the first time so many nations have made so many climate pledges in such a short space of time.
In another acknowledgment of past wars, world leaders will come to Paris at the start of next month’s meeting, deliver a bevy of encouraging speeches, then fly off leaving their ministers behind to complete the deal.
But an accord, if reached, will still be based on dozens of widely differing national promises, not one single, internationally agreed policy such as a global carbon price.
In other words, the European oil and gas companies that have called for a global carbon pricing framework ahead of the Paris meeting have done so safe in the knowledge this would never emerge from the talks.
We still don’t know how sturdy a new accord will be
Ahead of next month’s meeting, it was decided negotiators would meet four times this year, in Geneva and Bonn, to produce a clear and concise draft agreement for ministers to finalise in Paris.
But there was so much bickering over the draft text at the last meeting in Bonn in October that the final document going to Paris is far from concise. At more than 50 pages it is shorter than the drafts that went to Kyoto or Copenhagen but it is still highly repetitive and confusing. There are several competing options for almost every important clause in it.
“The most experienced lawyer on this earth will not be in a position to interpret this text,” Russia’s negotiator said at the end of the meeting in Bonn.
That is slightly over-egging things, but it is far from an ideal document.
The problem is not just that there is a plethora of rival options on the most basic points, including how much countries should collectively cut global emissions by and when. The larger difficulty is that there is so much in it that the EU, the US and other countries most eager for a successful deal will find almost impossible to swallow.
It includes clauses requiring some form of support for small island nations and other countries facing loss and damage from climate change. There are also measures to ensure developed countries deliver not just $100bn a year to developing countries by 2020 — a promise they have already made — but ever larger sums in later years.
If the agreement legally obliges signatories to meet such goals, it will strengthen arguments that it would have to go to the US Senate for approval, something the Obama administration is keen to avoid.
The same goes for the clauses requiring rich countries to keep toughening their climate actions over time, but allowing many developing countries to do a lot less — and only if wealthy countries give them enough money.
That means there will have to be very deft diplomatic footwork by the French government when it effectively takes over the management of the Paris talks.
At the heart of France’s challenge is the dilemma that has always bedevilled UN climate talks: the divide between wealthy countries whose pollution initially caused global warming and developing nations eager for their share of industrial wealth.
The issue is exacerbated by the fact that unlike Kyoto, the Paris accord is supposed to induce emissions cuts in all countries, including the 130-odd developing countries in the largest negotiating group at UN talks, known as the Group of 77 and China.
That means wealthy countries are “asking for something that hasn’t been done before”, says Bernarditas Muller, a veteran G77 negotiator. “They’re shifting responsibility for mitigation [of emissions] to developing countries.” And that, she says, will be impossible unless these countries get large and predictable sums of money to help them cut their pollution.
It is still not clear what signatories to an eventual Paris agreement will be legally obliged to do
The Obama administration would prefer to join any Paris accord that emerges next month by executive agreement, rather than putting it to a hostile Senate.
But that may be hard if the deal contains new legally binding obligations, such as a clear requirement to meet the climate action pledges that countries have submitted this year. That smacks of a Kyoto-like treaty, which is “definitively” not going to happen, as US secretary of state John Kerry told the Financial Times this week.
So it is unlikely the agreement will specify that the targets in those 160-odd pledges must be implemented, and the pledges themselves could be shunted off into a UN registry. Governments could still argue the deal was legally binding, because it may contain many requirements, such as the rules for reporting and verifying countries’ emissions.
The US is not the only country that would prefer this path. China and many other nations are wary of legally binding international obligations, especially those with the profound economic impact of a climate treaty.
But it is far from clear what sort of compliance system, if any, might emerge. Some countries have inserted a measure in the draft text to create an International Tribunal of Climate Justice to penalise laggards. But there is virtually no chance this will survive.
If countries’ emissions targets are not legally binding, will investors notice what comes out of Paris?
If investors know any deal struck in Paris could be overturned by a new Republican president in the US, the world’s largest economy, and by politicians elsewhere, how much hope is there of shifting that $90tn into greener infrastructure?
It is tempting to say, not much.
But it is also true that what has been achieved so far for the Paris negotiations is unprecedented. The countries that have published climate plans over the course of this year account for almost 90 per cent of global emissions.
As a result, we now know how nations from China and the US to Ethiopia and Brazil are planning to cut their emissions from 2020, the year the Paris accord is due to take effect. Dozens of nations have spelt out plans to boost their solar power generation (India), install more wind farms (Myanmar) or make their cars more fuel-efficient (Mongolia). If all the pledges are implemented, it would mean global emissions rise to the equivalent of 56.7bn tonnes of CO2 by 2030 according to an assessment the UN published last month.
That is nearly 4bn tonnes less than it would have been without the pledges. But the trouble is, it is still well over 10bn tonnes more than what the latest scientific report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests is needed to have a reasonable chance of avoiding 2C of global warming from pre-industrial times.
Countries have already agreed at past UN talks that this 2C threshold should not be breached. The 2C number was produced by political, not scientific, consensus and some countries say the Paris accord should require an even lower 1.5C.
Either way, because temperatures have already risen by nearly 1C since the industrial revolution, it is clear that the current round of climate pledges will have to be significantly improved if there is any hope of avoiding risky warming levels, as the FT’s climate calculator and other research shows.
Few people think Paris will be a repeat of Copenhagen
It is still broadly expected that next month’s talks will produce some form of new climate agreement. After Copenhagen, many countries are anxious not to be blamed for a repeat of that disaster.
This time, the talks are not being held in the shadow of a global financial crisis, as they were in 2009. The cost of some types of renewable power equipment, especially solar panels, have also plummeted. The talks will be managed by France, a diplomatic giant compared with Denmark.
And there are signs that the world’s largest carbon emitter, China, is far more serious about cutting its emissions than it was in 2009. If it were not, it is doubtful Washington would have been able to engineer the groundbreaking deal it announced with Beijing last year, in which each set out the climate pledges that are part of the Paris talks.
Still, the divide between developed and developing countries remains large. And there are several countries, including many big oil exporters, that would be quietly pleased if there were no deal at all.
So Paris may turn out to be a diplomatic triumph but a scientific failure.
In other words, there is a real chance a deal will be struck, a medium chance it will be very strong — and a small chance it will produce the deep cuts in emissions required to avoid risky global warming.
Get alerts on Climate change when a new story is published