One Planet

All signs point to a treaty of hope in Paris

The Eiffel Tower, lit with the blue, white and red colours of the French flag, is reflected in the Trocadero fountains in Paris, on Nov 23, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

In less than a week's time, more than 130 of the world's leaders, including those from the United States, China, Russia and India, 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 has been growing global momentum in the lead-up but, since the start of the year, the French capital has twice suffered terrorist attacks. The more recent one on Nov 13 left 130 people dead and many more injured.

The French government wants the UN talks to go ahead and has pledged not to "give up in the face of violence" by cancelling the summit. But given the country's current state of emergency, protests and other activities on the sidelines of the main negotiations have been banned, including the high-profile Global Climate March that was to take place on Nov 29. This has earned the ire of civil society activists.

The Eiffel Tower, lit with the blue, white and red colours of the French flag, is reflected in the Trocadero fountains in Paris, on Nov 23, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Despite these setbacks, there are signs that point to a successful outcome in Paris. At the very least, the Paris summit will, in my view, achieve more than the UN climate change meeting six years ago in Copenhagen, which I attended as a journalist.

Back in 2009, there were also high expectations that world leaders would finally ink a treaty. Countries made pledges to cut emissions for the first time as climate change finally moved from a fringe issue to take centre stage 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.

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

This year is set to be the hottest year on record. And apart from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change'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 are still climate change "deniers and lukewarmers" who question the existence of the problem, generally, there is a stronger sense of conviction among the global public that climate change needs to be addressed.

The record-breaking investments in renewable energy and low-carbon technologies worldwide, as well as the announcement by Group of Seven 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 seen in Copenhagen between developed and developing nations. The atmosphere at those talks was acrimonious. Negotiators would walk out of sessions, and at press conferences country representatives would take potshots at each other in anger - Venezuela at rich countries, the 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 Mr Rachmat Witoelar, the Indonesian 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.

Third, 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 even outside the negotiations of what the UN calls "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 in the UN's Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action database, an online portal that functions as a central clearing house 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 the political will to do the necessary.

Finally, adding an interesting dimension to the UN talks are the recent Paris terror attacks, which some political observers say could catalyse 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 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?

Analysts say to define success only if the treaty is "legally binding" is too simplistic. The focus this time is on national specific contributions which, although 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 the target of 2 deg C to avert dangerous climate change, experts generally agree that a weak agreement is better than no agreement at all. That also means that any treaty will need to include reviews and revisions of commitments, so targets can be ratcheted up over time.

The text, which swelled from 20 pages to 63 in the last round of negotiations before the Paris meeting, was marked by substantial progress on key issues such as pricing carbon, mitigation and transparency, but also fell short on others such as finance. Ms Christiana Figueres, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary, who will chair 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, the question is, 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. That could mean more costly energy in the future as governments seek to price carbon, but it could also mean more technological innovation as we adopt more renewable energy and smarter ways of living.

For the average consumer, the Paris talks are also a reminder that, collectively, our actions chart the future of our planet. It is the duty of global citizens to understand the challenges and make responsible consumer and political choices.

  • The writer is editor of Eco-Business, an Asia-Pacific sustainable business online publication. This is a fortnightly column on the environment.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2015, with the headline All signs point to a treaty of hope in Paris. Subscribe