Amy Dahan Mathematician and science historian, Emeritus Research Director at the French National Institute for Scientific Research (CNRS)
"Emerging economies shifted the focus to their development needs and weighed down negotiations. "
Climate Talks: When Words Disconnect from Reality
The December 2015 Paris AgreementOil contract under which the oil that is produced is shared between the state and the oil company... was hailed as a major step forward in a historic process. However, the road ahead is still long and arduous if the international community is serious about limiting the average increase in global temperatures by the end of the century. In this article, historian Amy Dahan shares her analysis of future perspectives in the light of past events.
Since its emergence 20 years ago with the Kyoto ProtocolInternational agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change... , climate governance has gone through several phases linked to changing global geopolitics.
The first phase characterized the 1990s, when the developed world started heeding scientists warnings about the climate impact of greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... (GHG) emissions from human activities. Industrialized nations responded quite quickly, reaching a first international agreement in 1997 at the third "Conference of the Parties" (COP 3) in Kyoto. But the cracks soon began to show. The United States refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for fear that it would threaten U.S. consumption habits – the American way of life – and demanded that all countries take part, including emerging economies.
Little by little, the world slipped into a period of what could be termed "disconnected reality". Sound bites repeatedly assured the public that the world was slowly but surely "making progress". But the reality was different: globalization intensified competition among countries, China began to rise, shale gasShale gas is found in deeply buried clayey sedimentary rock that is both the source rock and the reservoir for the gas... was developed in the United States and Fukushima stopped the expansion of nuclear powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... in its tracks. Emerging economies shifted the focus to their development needs and weighed down negotiations. GHG emissions exploded. The tone remained optimistic in the run-up to the 2009 COP 15 in Copenhagen, but the summit, attended by all the major world leaders, ended with a brutal reality check.
After the failure of Copenhagen, the U.N. process was saved by the diplomatic efforts of emerging economies calling for a bottom-up approach (which the U.S. had been pushing for from the start). Instead of rules imposed from above, the emphasis was on universal awareness and action within each country's capacity. A U.S.-China joint announcement made during Barack Obama's November 2014 visit to Beijing got the ball rolling. This new approach reached maturity in December 2015 with the Paris Agreement, the result of COP 21.
So, what happens now? While further progress is possible, care should be taken to avoid lapsing back into the "disconnected reality", or gap between words and acts, that still prevails in some areas. For example, the target of limiting the increase in temperatures to 1.5°C by the end of the century has been implicitly confirmed, but many scientists think that keeping it to even 2°C will be challenging. And promises have been made about balancing global emissions and absorption capacity by the end of the century, but no indications given on how this will be achieved.
In the real world, there are both positive and negative signs. Renewable energies are becoming more efficient and less costly. And China has signaled a desire to make a decisive change, motivated by the deadly pollution caused by its intensive coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... use. But this will not be enough as there are still uncertainties surrounding development in India and Africa that will persist until financial aspects such as the price of carbon or the shift in speculative investment to the energy transition have been resolved.
On the other hand, the coal divestment campaign is starting to gain ground. The commitment of non-state actors including major corporations, foundations and NGOs was key to COP 21's success, and this trend may continue to develop. And national pledges, COP 21's other innovation, should be confirmed in the coming years over the course of regular meetings.
Time is of the essence. If the world is to stay within the lower range of global warmingGlobal warming, also called planetary warming or climate change... estimates, this movement will have to pick up pace and act while there is still time.
Amy Dahan is a mathematician and science historian who currently serves as Emeritus Research Director at the French National Institute for Scientific Research (CNRS). Since 2002, she has led an international, multidisciplinary research team studying the scientific, political and epistemological aspects of climate change. Dahan is also the co-author (with Stefan Aykut) of 'Gouverner le climat ? Vingt ans de négociations internationales' (Presses de Sciences Po, 2015).