Paris different from previous climate talks: Vivian Balakrishnan

National commitments, accountability to society, technology: these are the elements that make Singapore's foreign affairs minister optimistic that an agreement at Paris next week is possible.

Cop Main Vivian
Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs and former Minister for Environment and Water Resources, says that the COP21 conference in Paris is a "make or break" opportunity for the global community to come together and address climate change. Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore

Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affiars Vivian Balakrishnan said on Friday that he is optimistic that a universal agreement can be forged at the United Nations talks in Paris next week, noting that “never before” have so many nations committed carbon pledges towards tackling climate change.

Speaking to reporters prior to his departure to Paris, Dr Balakrishnan said that while there are a few challenges to overcome before a global agreement can be inked by next weekend, there is a “more than a 50 per cent chance” of success.

The Paris meeting – which started on Monday and scheduled to end on Dec 11 – is the fifth UN climate change talks Balakrishnan is attending. Before assuming his current position on October 1, he represented Singapore as the country’s Minister of Environment of Resources at four previous Conference of the Parties (COPs), as the talks are officially known. 

What is different about the Paris talks is that for the first time, there is near universal participation and a voluntary system of intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) that is not imposed by any authority or government, he said.

“If you had asked me two years ago, when we were first pushing for this concept, do you believe that on December 4, 157 pledges would present their commitments, I would say no,” Balakrishnan said. 

“I am optimistic, meaning I think there’s more than a 50 per cent chance that we will achieve an agreement,” he said. “Never before have we been in a situation where even before the meeting, 157 INDCs have been submitted. Collectively, this represents well over 90 per cent of all global emissions.”

The UN talks – the 21st COP meeting – is aimed at achieving a universal agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions so that global temperature rises can be capped at under two degrees Celsius. That is the level which international scientists agree that the world should not cross if it were to avoid dangerous climate change.

A previous meeting in Copenhagen meant to achieve such an agreement failed when deep mistrust between countries scuppered the negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol finalized in 1997 did not involve the biggest polluters such as the US, China and India.

Balakrishnan also noted that the need to be accountable to citizens is forcing governments to implement measures to achieve their INDCs. From the average consumer to NGOs, society will hold governments to task if the INDCs are not met, he said.I will not celebrate until I reach the end of next week. The world will have watch with bated breath on whether we are able to collectively seize this opportunity to make a difference.

I will not celebrate until I reach the end of next week. The world will have watch with bated breath on whether we are able to collectively seize this opportunity to make a difference.

Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs

Furthermore, the technological solutions to cut emissions and alleviate the impact of climate change already exists, he added.

“So I’m an optimist, in the sense that I believe the technology is available, the political imperative to take action is there on the ground,” he said. “We can move the world onto a new trajectory.”

Thorny issues

However, some thorny issues may still stand in the way of an agreement at the end of two weeks, Balakrishnan said. 

First, both developed and developing nations need to recognize that they all have a “differentiated but common” responsibility to address climate change, he said.

Developed countries have been accused of not doing enough after burning fossil fuels for 250 years to expand their economies. Developing economies, on the other hand, are seeking more leeway to grow by continuing the use of cheap but polluting sources of energy such as coal.

Second, the INDCs may not be adequate for the world to cap temperature rises at under two degrees. Currently, the combined INDCs point to a future where average global temperatures will rise by 2.7 per cent. Some groups and individuals are therefore urging all countries to do more to slash emissions. 

Another crucial aspect of this new agreement is a commitment to finance projects in developing and vulnerable countries that will mitigate as well as help them adapt to the impacts of climate change. The UN, under the Green Climate Fund, is hoping to raise US$100 billion per year by 2020 to finance such initiatives.

Policy analysts say financing could be one of the sticking points at the Paris talks.

“This fight is really about fairness. And it’s not trivial,” Balakrishnan said. “Don’t underestimate the ability of this isue to derail the talks.”

“No backing down”

Singapore, for its part, committed in July to reduce the carbon dioxide it emits per GDP dollar by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, with the aim of peaking its emissions by that time. This has been criticised by some experts as being not ambitious enough.

Balakrishnan said there are constraints in Singapore, specifically the lack of access to natural clean energy sources such as tidal, hydro or wind. But he stood by the goal, saying that it is an “ambitious, aggressive” target.

He added that Singapore will achieve its INDCs by being more energy efficient, both within households and industry; building more green buildings; harnessing technology to “do more with less”; promoting public transport and harvesting more solar energy.

Electric vehicles – in both private passenger cars and trucks as well as public buses – will also play an increasingly important role in helping Singapore slash its carbon emissions, he added.

Balakrishnan said that Singapore, like the rest of the world, has accepted that climate change is a global problem that needs to be addressed collectively. As countries have committed to national goals, they must not “back down or back-slide,” he added.

“I will not celebrate until I reach the end of next week,” he said. “The world will have watch with bated breath on whether we are able to collectively seize this opportunity to make a difference.”

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