Today the long-anticipated climate conference will take off on Paris. Also known as COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties, the climate talks are decisive for the future of our planet and all lucky enough to enjoy what she has to offer. What would a successful outcome look like? Is there any hope we will get there after two weeks of negotiations? A look into the future.

“We are the first generation that can end poverty and we are the last generation that can end climate change.”  –Ban Ki-Moon

What’s at stake?

Less than a month ago, the global average temperature raised more than 1°C above pre-industrial levels for the first time since measurements begun. This symbolic boundary should be a wake-up call. 2014 was the hottest year on records and 2015 is set to break it –by far. By now, a global warming of 2°C is generally agreed by politicians to be the limit for “safe global warming”. Safe is of course a relative notion. At 1,5°C warming scientists expect a whole gamma of Island nations in the Pacific to be swept of the map by rising seas. Sub-saharan agriculture will largely be ruined. Safe global warming, politicians call it.

We must limit further warming because some feedback loops peep around the corner. Once unleashed nature gets in a vicious circle of ever increasing warming.  To avoid a further rise in global temperatures we have to do one simple thing: stop pumping carbon dioxide and other nasty greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Okay, okay. You still want to drive your car, heat your house and fly to a sunny destination during summer holidays. We don’t have to stop modern life as we know it overnight. Yet the situation gets stringent; a lot of precious time has been lost by years of debating and discussing without taking further action.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) makes it all fairly simple to grasp in their latest progress report, published in fall 2014 and based on over 900 peer-reviewed scientific articles. If we want to have a fair chance to limit global warming to 2°C, we have a limited budget of emissions. At the current pace we’ll have burnt it within 15 years –literally.

But if we start to curb our emissions now we still have a reasonable chance of limiting harmful global warming. And let me stress it again: we HAVE TO. If not, natural feedback loops kick in and everything we do afterwards will be too little, too late.

Different greenhouse gas emissions reduction scenarios: time is ticking away (photo: CarbonCountdown)

Different greenhouse gas emissions reduction scenarios: time is ticking away (photo: CarbonCountdown)

Since the rate at which we have to decrease our emissions is so enormously big (see the picture above), I believe only a very strong and global agreement on emission cuts can give us a fair chance of succeeding. That’s why the climate conference in Paris is so important. I believe it’s simply the last time we can do something meaningful on a global scale that will be on time. Cities, communities and companies around the world have not been waiting for governments to take measures, yet the current actions don’t add up. We need more, much more. And that’s only possible with globally agreed and enforced commitments. As Naomi Klein puts it in her book This Changes Everything, our planet needs a Marshall plan for the climate. I could not agree more.

Business as usual is no option

What will make or break the negotiations in Paris is what China, India and other developing countries will do. Since the first climate conference in Rio in 1992, the biggest struggle has been to find a balanced agreement between developed and developing countries. So far, we haven’t succeeded in doing so.

“We’re in a giant car heading to a brick wall and everyone is arguing over where they’re going to sit” –David Suzuki.

Where developed countries, especially in Europe and also Japan, have been asking strong measures for several years, fast growing economies such as China fear such measurements would put a brake on their growth and path to the western welfare. Poor and economically weak developing countries ask very strong commitments and financial help from the rich. Those countries are vulnerable to the effects of climate change but don’t have the financial means nor technological know-how to adapt to them.

The last year has marked a change that no-one would ever have dreamed –or feared if you’re in the fossil fuel industry– of some years ago. In the months before COP21, several countries published their commitments regarding emission reductions for the coming years. Following a ‘pledge-and-review’ approach, those commitments would be reviewed every five years or so and if wanted adapted. This approach was agreed during last year’s conference in Lima.

The good thing is that all countries present agreed to cooperate with this approach –a historical unicum. Said to stimulate a positive spiral of ambitious commitments which would grow over time, history learns that in reality pledge-and-review approaches don’t work very well. Remember the Kyoto protocol, that was abandoned by the US, Russia, China and the developing countries?

photo: LWF youth

COP18 in Doha, three years ago (photo: LWF youth)

Additionally, head of the UNFCCC Cristina Figueres already commented that countries’ pledges so far add up to a 3,5 °C global warming scenario, rather than the agreed 2°C. Due to the fact that each country can choose how much it will do and is able to change their commitments later on, we have no black-on-white guaranty that significant action will be taken.

One thing is sure: it will no longer be the US and Europe who dominate the talks. Look at China and India as a good indicator for what we can expect as an outcome of COP21. Given the fact that China has made climate change one for their top priorities last years, there is a bit of hope. Due to enormous public pressure and the increasing death and healthcare burden of the Chinese air pollution, Chinese governments have made bold investments in renewable energies. In 2014 those even exceeded the investments of Europe and the US together.

How COP21 could break with the tradition: a price on carbon

You’re probably wondering what kind of solution truly would make a difference. The current problem with the climate is the well-known tragedy of the commons. If several players use a common good, in casu our planet’s environment, selfish players free-ride on the efforts of others to care for this common good. As long as economies can keep pumping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere without paying a price for it, they have no stimulus to change their behaviour. The obvious solution that finds more and more common ground is the introduction of a pricing of carbon –and other greenhouse gas – emissions. Two systems are often considered, let’s have a look at their pros and cons.

You may be familiar with the famous Prisoners’ dilemma from game theory. Two men are arrested for a crime, yet no sufficient proof is available to give them full sentence. The two are questioned separately. If one confesses, he will be awarded with freedom and the other will get the full sentence of twenty years. If both keep their mouth shut, they get a sentence of one year due to lack of sufficient proof. If both confess they each get a reduced sentence of five years.

Game theory predicts that the men will betray each other, resulting in a suboptimal situation where they both have to serve five years. Since one prisoner does not know what the other will do, it’s best to betray the other whatever the other will do. Yet, if the prisoners would be able to cooperate they would both shut their mouth and serve each one year, which can be seen as the globally most optimal situation. Got it?

The prisoners' dilemma

The prisoners’ dilemma

Following this reasoning, some scientists and economists propose a global carbon price as the best solution to solve the climate crisis. It’s certainly the easiest to implement of all solutions on the table. For every ton of emissions, the polluter has to pay an agreed price to the country’s government. It is crucial that the average price on carbon in every country is at least as high as a globally agreed price. Otherwise companies would have the possibility to move to a country with a lower or no carbon pricing.

To be truly effective for the climate, the carbon pricing should be accompanied by a green tax shift: taxes on good things such as employment to taxing of bad emissions. In theory this would lead to a zero extra cost for society. In theory. Because governments tend to use taxes to fill up gaps in their budget, rather than putting it in a fund for green technology.

Yet, the idea of a global tax is very tempting and certainly would be a big step forward for the climate. If countries cooperate and share the burden of paying the price for carbon, the optimal solution in the prisoners’ dilemma is obtained. Both a common commitment and a mean of enforcement are crucial to make this system effective.

Another solution is the so called cap-and-trade system. A ceiling for total emissions is agreed and polluters have to buy emission rights to be able to emit part of this total emission budget. The reason why this is so nice is that it truly sets an absolute maximum on the total amount of emissions. And we actually know what carbon budget we have left before we risk serious climate catastrophes.

Yet a cap-and-trade system faces several bottlenecks as well, as is seen in Europe. There is a continent wide cap-and-trade in place since 2010. The big problem is that at the start of the implementation, big polluting companies obtained a lot of free emission rights thanks to heavy lobby work, threatening that they would move their activities outside Europe. Subsequently the price of emissions rights dropped to a level of around 7 euros per ton. Such a low price is no longer sufficient to stimulate any significant actions to reduce emissions. The European Union is currently working on a reviewed version which should solve this problem. Also China is planning to introduce such a system.

Signs of hope

You may remember the last climate conference of same importance in Copenhagen in 2009. Everyone involved agrees that was a total disaster. Expectations were very high, since the need for a global binding agreement was already widely recognized. Amid full economic recession, rich and poor couldn’t come to an agreement and the last day images of riots in streets of Copenhagen traveled around the world.

Manifestation in Copenhagen during COP15 (photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

Manifestation in Copenhagen during COP15 (photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

Why would it be different this time? There are a lot of positive signs and momentum has been building strongly over the last two years. I’ve reported about it several times on this blog. Obama made climate change a key point of his legislation calling it an issue of national security, China is on board… in fact never before so many countries made a pledge to reduce emissions. The Keystone XL pipeline is officially rejected and Shell decided to stop its explorations for oil in the Arctic region. Citizens start suing their government in The Netherlands and Belgium for the lack of climate action and win.

Solutions to tackle climate change have come a long way since 2009 as well. In many countries renewable energy is now competitive with fossil fuels –even without any carbon pricing installed. Technology is here to take up the battle against climate change and finally it’s not only climate activists who seem to notice.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done” –Nelson Mandela

With the threat of terrorism stronger than ever, the climate talks will also be peace talks. The link between a disrupted climate and social unrest are obvious and have been shown by various researchers. In fact the current refugee crisis in Europe is already a presage of what we can expect of a world with a destabilized climate. The recent events in Paris made the French authorities to prohibit all public demonstrations linked to the climate conference, yet they decided to continue the official talks itself. World leaders were very quick in reconfirming their attendance. Governments seem to be fully aware of the urgency of the climate challenge (finally!) and hopefully this fosters a positive cooperation between the different countries.

Wrap up: a crisis worth a Marshall Plan

COP21 is our very last chance to come up with a sufficient set of global binding commitments to curb carbon emissions. A global cap-and-trade or similar carbon pricing system would mean a big step in the good direction if implemented wisely. But it will not be enough. Massive investment in renewable solutions for electricity production, heating and cooling of buildings, transport and agriculture are necessary to stay within our carbon budget.

I don’t expect world leaders will come up with the Marshall plan for the planet that we so urgently need. For me the negotiations will be successful if leaders come up with a strong and binding global commitment that guarantees rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

And let’s stay positive. If there is one thing the climate conference has shown before it even begun, is how fast the climate movement has grown. It’s no longer a bunch of hippies. It’s a diverse group of concerned citizens ranging over all classes of society: from the street sweeper, over the young mother to the cleantech entrepreneur. They all share a common dream: built a better world, for themselves and future generations.

“If enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one.” –Naomi Klein

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