All signs point to a treaty of hope in Paris

Despite the recent setbacks, there are signs that point to a successful outcome for the UN climate talks in Paris. At the very least, it will achieve more than the UN meeting six years ago in Copenhagen.

In less than a week’s time, more than 130 of the world’s leaders will arrive in Paris to kick off the United Nations climate change summit – billed by some as the most important global meeting in recent history.

There’s been a growing global momentum since its lead-up, but since the start of the year, the French capital has dominated headlines for other reasons. In January, Islamist terror attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket left 17 dead. Last week, the city again became a bloodbath after deadly attacks involving shootings and bombings by terror group Islamic State killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.

While the city remains in high alert, the French government were quick to affirm that the UN talks would go ahead, pledging that it will not “give up in the face of violence” by cancelling the summit, expected to be attended by the likes of the presidents of US, China, Russia and India along with 40,000 other delegates, journalists and observers.

Even so, the meeting has been inevitably affected. The French government – under a state of emergency that’s been extended for three months – has banned protests and side activities outside the negotiations on security concerns, including the high profile Global Climate March planned in Paris on November 29.

Canadian social activist Naomi Klein, well-known author of ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate’, called the move “disturbing” and a serious blow to the talks, arguing that civic society events are integral to the process and this amounts to silencing those most affected by climate change.

Nonetheless, despite the apparent setbacks, there are signs that point to a successful outcome in Paris. At the very least, it will achieve more than the UN meeting six years ago in Copenhagen.

It was in 2009 similarly billed as the “most important meeting of the century” – with high expectations that world leaders would finally ink a treaty. Countries were making pledges to cut emissions for the first time as climate change finally moved from a fringe issue to take centrestage globally. But the talks infamously fell into disarray, with deep levels of mistrust between developing and developed countries manifesting in ugly ways during negotiations.

Paris, however, will be different - and here are three reasons why.

First, the political climate is vastly different. In the time since the Copenhagen meeting, the science behind climate change has gotten more robust.

A successful outcome would be more than a victory for the Planet. It would be a symbol of hope, and a powerful restoration of faith in humanity at a time when the atrocities by terrorist organisations are casting a pall on human history.

This year is set to be the hottest year on record. And apart from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) 2013 AR5 report - which conclusively found that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” - the world has witnessed the devastating impact of numerous climate-related events from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the debilitating drought in California and the havoc on agriculture and marine industries that this year’s unusually strong El Nino has wreaked. 

While there still are the climate change “deniers and lukewarmers” who continue to question the existence of the problem, generally there is a stronger sense of conviction among the global public that we need to address it.

The record-breaking investments into renewable energy and low-carbon technologies worldwide, as well as the announcement by G7 nations in June to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century, are powerful signs of that shift.

Second, significant efforts have been made to address the bitter rifts we saw in Copenhagen. The talks then, as I recalled, were marked by an acrimonious atmosphere. Negotiators would walk out of talks, and at angry press conferences, countries would take pot-shots at each other - Venezuala at rich countries, US at China, China at the US, and so on.

Contrast that with the unified front displayed by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last November when they unveiled ambitious carbon reduction targets for their countries that included China peaking its emissions by 2030.

It was most telling during a recent business forum in Singapore that Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia president’s special envoy on climate change, said he was optimistic about Paris and that it would be different from its predecessors because “the human element has changed”. 

“In the past, there has been an element of distrust… This has been largely overcome,” he told reporters.

Thirdly, the groundwork has been laid within and outside the negotiations.

More than 170 nations, including Singapore, have already submitted their emissions reduction commitments known as ‘INDCs’ prior to the meeting; and there is a growing movement separate to the process which the UN says is “the biggest wave yet” of climate action.

New UN figures show that cities and metropolitan regions, as well as the private sector and other major institutions, have made almost 7,000 new pledges into the UN’s Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) database, an online portal that functions as a central clearinghouse on climate-related commitments by all entities other than national governments.

The fact that this is happening - regardless of whether a treaty is signed - might just make it easier for global leaders to summon to political will to do the necessary.

Finally, adding an interesting dimension to the UN talks is the recent Paris terror attacks, which some political observers say could be the catalyst for the world to display a united front. Leaders could be more disposed to achieving a symbolic and positive success both for France and as a signal of global confidence in the international UN process.

So the question is: what would this treaty look like? And what would it mean for you and me?

The Paris treaty is also not the end of the road. It will just be the beginning of a decades-long process to reform existing global energy systems and market mechanisms, as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy.

Analysts say to define success only if the treaty is “legally binding” is too simplistic. In Copenhagen, the attempt to legally bind - and make punitive - any carbon reduction commitments by countries made an agreement impossible. 

The focus this time is on global cooperation and national specific contributions, which although is unlikely to be binding under international law, will at least guarantee universal participation.

And even though scientists have noted that current pledges are not sufficient to keep warming to under 2 degrees Celsius to avert dangerous climate change, experts generally agree that a weak agreement is better than no agreement at all.

Any treaty will therefore need to include reviews and revisions of commitments, so targets can be ratcheted up over time. This has been provided for in the current draft agreement, and is also seen by experts as the best way to measure, report and verify - a process known as MRV - individual country commitments. The level of transparency required by the treaty is meant to give countries the confidence in each other’s pledges.

The draft text, which swelled from 20 pages to 54 in the last round of negotiations before the Paris meeting, contained other substantial progress on key issues such as pricing carbon, mitigation and adaptation, but also fell short on others such as finance. UNFCCC executive secretary, Christiana Figueres, who chairs the talks, noted however that it is a “Party-owned text that is balanced and complete”.

“The challenge for governments is to bring it down to a much more concise and coherent form for adoption in Paris,” she said.

For the rest of us, this meeting has been talked about for such a long time that there may be “climate fatigue”, and along with it, a desire to disengage. After all, what do these high level talks have to do with daily life?

Well, in a matter of time, policies adopted by countries will soon trickle down to impact how we live. In Singapore, for example, the government has pledged to cut emissions intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and to peak emissions by then.

This could mean more costly energy in the future as the government seeks to price carbon, but it could also mean more technological innovation as we adopt more renewable energy and smarter ways of living.

The Paris treaty is also not the end of the road. It will just be the beginning of a decades-long process to reform existing global energy systems and market mechanisms, as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy.

For the average consumer, the Paris talks serve as a reminder that collectively, our actions chart the future of our Planet. It is our duty as global citizens to understand the challenges and choose to consume and live responsibly by supporting the right businesses and voting for the right policies.

A successful outcome would be more than a victory for the Planet. It would be a symbol of hope, and a powerful restoration of faith in humanity at a time when the atrocities by terrorist organisations are casting a pall on human history.

We need something we can pin our hopes of a better future on. And the Paris meeting is perfectly poised to be precisely that. 

A version of this column was first published in The Straits Times.

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