Viewpoints: Paris Climate Summit

A climate march in Berlin, Germany, on Nov. 29. (Photo: mw238, Flickr)

Heads of state from 147 countries descended on Paris this week as the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, got underway. After giving their speeches on Monday, most of the leaders left the summit, leaving negotiators to hammer out an international agreement over this week and next.

This is the biggest international climate summit since 2009's failed effort in Copenhagen, and climate activists are pushing their leaders to ink a meaningful and binding agreement. In the lead-up to the summit, more than 600,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate for action in 175 countries, according to the Guardian—60,000 in Melbourne, 50,000 in London.

With so many countries at the negotiating table—each with its own domestic constraints—the stakes are high and the challenge is steep. As always, a schism separates the agendas of developed and developing countries. While rich nations have built their kingdoms on the back of cheap, dirty energy, and have contributed the most to climate change, developing nations race to industrialize, lift growing populations out of poverty and prepare for the heat waves, droughts and rising oceans to come. Some small low-lying island nations worry that they could be wiped right off the map. Developing countries demand that developed countries reduce their carbon emissions and provide financial and technological assistance to more vulnerable states.

There are a lot of moving pieces. To break down some of the key developments and sticking points in negotiations, provides a sampling of COP21 coverage from around the world.

Australia – Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 4: Australia is at the center of a fight that is enraging developing countries, as some industrialized nations fight for the decades-long demarcation between wealthy and major emerging economies to be broken down as part of a global pact to combat climate change. The move at the Paris climate summit prompted angry representatives of developing nation to warn that a deal would be at risk unless agreement was reached on the financial help offered to poor nations. Australia, the United States and Canada are trying to expand the number of countries paying climate funding to include advanced developing economies such as China, India and Brazil. Australia also joined Canada and the United States in trying to remove a reference in the draft agreement text that "developed countries should take the lead" in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. … Developed countries have previously pledged to deliver $100 billion a year to help the developing world cut emissions and prepare for the impacts of global warming. 

Canada – Globe and Mail, Dec. 2: If the national emissions reduction plans, known as INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions), are already in place and largely non-negotiable, what exactly are the negotiators negotiating? Lots. The biggies are financing and the legal nature of the final agreement. On the former, the developing world, from emerging industrial powerhouse India to the low-lying atoll countries in the Pacific, want the rich world to make good on their commitments to cough up $100 billion a year to help them cope with climate change. The rich world, of course, is still more than a few pennies short. On the latter, the debate is whether to make the new accord legally binding (as the European Union wants), non-binding (as the United States wants) or somewhere in between. Transparency is yet another issue. Unless countries allow independent monitoring of emissions, there is no telling whether their carbon output numbers are being fudged.

China – Caixin, Dec. 2: The United States pledged to cut emissions from the 2005 level by 26 to 28 percent by 2020, and the European Union committed itself to a reduction of at least 40 percent in 2030 from the levels in 1999. China has been hailed for an ambitious plan to cap emissions around 2030, when the use of non-fossil fuels is to account for about one-fifth of its energy consumption. These are the reasons for the hope that participating countries can come up with a milestone agreement during the Paris conference, one that allows the global community to face up to the challenges of global warming. Since the beginning of the year, China has played a key role in bridging the differences separating developing and developed countries in fighting climate change. It has reached bilateral climate change deals with the United States, France, India and the European Union.

France – France 24, Nov. 30: The world's biggest polluters—the U.S. and China—have stepped up with back-to-back commitments to rein in fossil fuels. However, the pledges still fall far short of what environmental activists say is needed to make a real difference. … Despite their ambitious talk on going green, a host of countries—chief among them developing powers such as India, Brazil or China—are wary of sacrificing growth. Here in Europe, Poland, which relies almost entirely on coal for its energy, has said it will balk at any Paris deal that it deems overly restrictive. The biggest fear of the climate activists is that corporate interests, led by the large oil multinationals, will be the biggest roadblocks. Even as a growing number of cities and universities divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies, the oil giants are openly admitting that oil and gas and other hydrocarbons will remain the dominant providers of energy for decades to come. Rich governments, some say, are complicit with—or in the pocket of—the corporate lobby, signing international trade deals that favor shale gas "fracking" and heavily polluting agribusinesses. For all the talk of renewable energy, greener energies such as wind turbines, solar and geothermal still account for less than 2 percent of the total global energy mix.

Germany – Deutsche Welle, Dec. 3: "There is an enormous gap between the visionary statements delivered by heads of state and government on Monday, and the sluggish progress of negotiations," says Christoph Bals of NGO Germanwatch. "If we continue at this rate, there will be no agreement at the end of the conference." The goal of the Paris climate conference is to conclude a universal agreement aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius by the end of the century, compared to pre-industrial levels. … Questions like what the long-term goal of the agreement should be, what forms a review mechanism could take to ensure countries make good on and even increase their pledges to reduce emissions in certain time periods, how industrialized countries plan to support developing nations financially in their efforts to choose low-carbon growth, all remain as divisive and unresolved as ever. "There are some countries, like Saudi Arabia, that block things systematically," says Bals. "In other cases, like that of India, it has become apparent that countries cannot budge from their positions without others budging from theirs at the same time."

India – The Indian Express, Dec. 4: As the inevitable fight over money broke out at the climate change talks, an angry South African representative said developing countries were not seeking "charity," but only asking that rich nations fulfill their legal commitments under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. The lament of the South African negotiator, Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, came amidst continued reluctance from developed countries to commit to raising at least $100 billion every year beyond 2020. Developed countries had themselves promised this sum at the 2009 conference in Copenhagen. The principle that developed countries must provide money to help developing nations deal with the impacts of climate change goes back to 1992, when the UNFCCC was agreed upon. It came into effect in 1994. … What is complicating matters is the attempt of the developing world to widen the donor base beyond the Annex II countries. New phrases are being coined, and developed countries say that countries in a "position to do so" or that are "willing to do so" should also contribute to climate finance, a position that is rejected by India and other developing countries.

Malaysia – Malay Mail, Dec. 1: From low-lying islands in the Pacific to parched areas of Africa, nations facing the most immediate peril of climate change called yesterday for the world to take more drastic action to avoid catastrophe. … "We refuse to be the sacrifice of the international community in Paris," Anwar Hossain Manju, environment minister from Bangladesh, said at a meeting of the Climate Vulnerable Group of threatened nations, chaired by Philippine President Benigno Aquino. "Anything that takes our survival off the table here is a red line." Low-lying small island states, and countries with highly populated river deltas such as Vietnam and Bangladesh, are especially vulnerable to rising seas, and many sub-Saharan African nations are already experiencing severe drought. In a declaration approved yesterday, the group called on the U.N. climate summit to adopt a target of a global economy fuelled entirely by renewable energy by 2050—the most ambitious goal put forward by any bloc of nations.

United Kingdom – The Guardian, Nov. 27: At least 24 climate activists have been put under house arrest by French police, accused of flouting a ban on organizing protests during next week's Paris climate summit. … Author and climate change activist Naomi Klein accused French authorities of "a gross abuse of power that risks turning the summit into a farce. Climate summits are not photo opportunities to boost the popularity of politicians," she told the Guardian. "Given the stakes of the climate crisis, they are by their nature highly contested. That is democracy, messy as it may be. The French government, under cover of anti-terrorism laws, seems to be trying to avoid this, shamefully banning peaceful demonstrations and using emergency powers to pre-emptively detain key activists."

United States – Mother Jones, Dec. 3: Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the world's lowest rates of access to electricity; nearly two-thirds of people there live without power. … Small-scale wind and solar projects, while not up to the task of fully supplying the continent's electricity needs, can often be deployed more rapidly than big fossil-fuel-fired power plants. On Tuesday, the African Development Bank announced that it would pour $12 billion into energy projects over the next five years and seek to attract up to $50 billion in parallel private-sector funding. The project has two goals: to vastly expand basic energy access, and to do so cleanly, by boosting the continent's renewable energy capacity tenfold. This is just the latest sign that the clean energy industry is likely to be one of the biggest winners from the Paris climate talks.