Road to COP21: no plan B this time

paris1An upcoming COP21 in Paris. What to expect?

On the 21st and 22nd of October, I had an exclusive chance to be a part of the upcoming COP21 negotiations. For those who are not aware of the abbreviation, it stands for 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference which is going to take place in Paris intensely for 2 weeks starting from November 30 and which will decide our strategy to tackle climate change. As a result, Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats organized several workshops and discussions, including signing an agreement on their proposals for COP21, and some 100 young European citizens were invited to participate and I was among those lucky ones to be chosen. Since I am a master’s student focusing in sustainable development and energy policy, it was an indispensable experience for me to learn more about the role that the EU is going to play during the decisive negotiations next month, a life-changing event indeed not only for me, but for the whole world.

Ever since Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, an acknowledgement was agreed upon by the global community on the government scale: the global warming is real and one of the main culprits is the rapid increase of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Even though this protocol might seem the most successful treaty mitigating the global warming and its man-made origin, 4 UN member states, including the US and Canada, have not ratified it or have withdrawn from it. Furthermore, a succeeding treaty is required which will start to work after the year 2020. This rather successful diplomatic achievement was later followed by Copenhagen Summit in 2009 which ended with no results. 6 years later, further and more concrete steps have to be taken by the global community as a binding international climate change agreement.

The situation of global warming and its projections are murky. Ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution the world has seen a dramatic increase of carbon dioxide by 110 to 140 ppm (particles per meter), the main cause of a greenhouse effect and global warming as its consequence. Furthermore, the current level of 400 ppm is measured to be the highest in at least 2 million years![1] This has resulted in the global temperature rise by 1°C since the pre-industrial age average, with the pace getting faster and the concentration levels reaching dangerous heights.

With the machine of global warming working in a seemingly unstoppable way, it is already impossible to simply halt it (i.e., to cut carbon emissions to zero). Therefore, a compromising strategy is needed to at least prevent the Earth from the most devastating consequences. As a result, a strategy of not exceeding 2°C increase since the pre-industrial level is to be set as a binding international goal, as it was proposed in 2005.

Climate change is not only about the climate, it is about us and justice

One of the points that I would like to make and which has been repeated numerous times by others is that it is us, a global community, who are going to be most severely affected by the climate change. So tackling this global issue means preventing the Earth from deepening inequalities and severe disruptions in the development. Some readers might wonder what could be the link between the climate change and such a universal value as solidarity and equality. There is a clear one and this was also pointed out numerous times during the event in Paris.

In fact, climate change is not only about the global warming. It also makes anomalies more prevalent, so we can expect devastating typhoons, floods, droughts, waves of heat (accompanied by waves of cold) and other natural disasters becoming more frequent realities year by year, as well as a sea level rise resulting in sinking entire cities and even countries in the future. Such phenomena threaten our own survival and development. Furthermore, it depends inequality, because countries which are the least developed ones are more likely to be affected by this horrendous phenomenon most, especially their biggest cities. Therefore, mitigating climate change is also a move of justice and for global peace.

21 proposals by Progressives

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The event, of course was not only at a consultation level, it also marked an involvement of Socialists and Democrats, the 2nd biggest political faction in the European Parliament, into an upcoming climate change conference by jointly signing a document of 21 official proposals for the upcoming conference. This document stressed the importance to sign a ”universal and binding agreement”, “applicable to all Parties”, with periodic reviews.

 In order for the European Union to remain a leading figure in mitigating climate change, all member countries sould speak with one voice during COP21, putting serious efforts in preventing global deforestation, as well as food waste in EU member states, while promoting local production and consumption. Furthermore, a sustainable economical transition has to be made, ensuring the creation of workplaces in a renewable energy sectors, replacing the ones in fossil fuel-based ones.

 Obviously, much of the hardships that the renewable sector faces is financially-based. So many economic reforms were proposed. Among some that are already implemented to a certain extent, such as carbon pricing, there were some novel proposals, such as the redistribution of at least 10% of traditional portfolios to eco-friendly economic projects by 2020. Also, a suggestion was made for the implementation of “a roadmap for scaling up predictable, new and additional international climate finance for the period until 2020 and beyond” while establishing “a mechanism to facilitate accountability and monitoring”. Development banks should also be heavily involved and international financial transaction tax (FTT) could finance “climate action”.

Solidarity was a term used not a single time during the discussions, as well as in the document itself. Among concrete suggestions was a “dedicated sustainable development goal on climate change” in the post-2015 agenda of the UN, as well as the legal definition of climate refugees and their rights within the Geneva Convention. A new economic model of economic growth, poverty reduction, sustainable development and the fight against global warming should be pursued, with the equitable access regardless of gender to it guaranteed, drawing a financial and technological solidarity as one of the priorities.

 Last but not least, the ideas of sustainability have to be pursued and implemented on a local level too. Europe should support their cities pursuing ambitious climate policies which should be pursued together in a framework of Covenant of Mayors. The change of attitude by the general public is equally necessary.

 This document containing 21 proposals was signed by the Social Democratic leaders of Europe, including French and Lithuanian Prime Ministers.

“Europe and COP21 – Last chance for a real deal!”

This was the title of an in-depth discussion, involving professionals, – Michel Aglietta, Economist and Advisor at CEPII (French research centre in international economics), Teresa Ribera, Director of Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), Laura Slimani, President of YES and MJS, Pervenche Berès, Member of the European Parliament, as well as the audience. It was agreed that another failure as seen in the previous conference in Copenhagen must not be repeated and has to be avoided at all costs. To attain this, all Parties have to work hard to draw different viewpoints between developed and developing countries together. Taking into account a difficult situation that developing countries face, a proposal was made to spend some 100 billion USD to help poorer countries fight the climate change, starting in 2020, especially for the reason briefly mentioned earlier than poorer economies are more likely to be heavily struck by the consequences of climate change. Social ecology must not be forgotten either – we have to conquest social, vital rights in order for us to live in a safe planet. We have to clearly understand that COP21 will not be the end of the road, but rather, a work which will have to be constantly developed.

Michelle Aglietta noted that we need to change the amount of money we invest and where we invest. Also, a sceptical point of view was expressed regarding the common fuel price, because of different living standards. Energy efficient buildings were not forgotten either as means to lower energy demand.

 Carbon taxation was also mentioned. At the moment the European Union has no pan-European carbon tax implemented, despite some of its members having already adopted some ambitious measures. Nevertheless, carbon taxes are becoming more and more common way for the governments to promote renewable energy usage worldwide.

 Some inconvenient facts were also remembered, for example, the disproportionate amount of investments for a renewable energy sector (100 billion USD/year, while fossil fuels account for some 40 times more). Seeing numbers like this, smart actions should be taken to make renewable sector more attractive to invest while divesting from the fossil fuel. TTIP was again very briefly criticized by having a potential to improve carbon emissions. In fact, for the development to be sustainable it has to be not only about economy, but about the environmental and social factor too, only then it could flourish, according to Teresa Ribera. She also added that just like post-“communist” states had a successful transition from centrally planned to free trade economies, not without a help from Europe, all countries have to transit to the carbon-free economy accordingly. And this can be reached only through solidarity.

 Gianni Pittella, a leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, emphasized the importance to invest a lot to the renewable energy sector and recycling and also repeated the need to make a transition from a linear to circular economy.

 Since French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was also present as one of the signatories of the proposals for COP21, he also made a speech in which he mentioned ecological refugees becoming a more serious issue and noted that 250 billion USD are allocated to the sustainable future.

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How can you tackle climate change?

 On October 22, a day after a ceremony of signing a document of proposals, a 5-hours-long discussion between participants, experts (Bart Vercoutere, Sylvain Vanston, Stephan Singer), young people with testimonies (Govinda Upadhyay, Maddy Hodgson, Alien De Deken) and policy makers (Matthias Groote, Kathleen Van Brempt, Gilles Pargneaux) was held.

3 main questions listed below were discussed during the debates:

  • Are governments, university and industry doing enough to make a real difference in combating climate change?
  • How can divestment be encouraged and should governments ban public financial institutions such as pension and assurance funds from investing in high-carbon activities?
  • What can be done for the awareness to be raised about the devastating consequences of climate change? How to translate this into specific actions that reduce emissions on a global scale?

These topics sparked a lot of discussions and many opinions and discourses were raised. B. Vercoutere, General Manager of i-Cleantech Flanders, noted that business models are slow to deal with new and effective engineering solutions. Furthermore, investors are reluctant to make long-term investments into newest technologies, so the involvement of civil society is a must. This notion of the overly inflexible legal system was agreed by MEP Mathias Groote as well, who suggested a better framework on a political level, as investments are 40 years fixed and such a long span deter from investments. He also referred to the dissonance between the “political cycle” which changes every 5-7 years and the natural cycles which might take some 25 years for the results to be seen. Nevertheless, he expressed his support for electric cars and low-carbon societies, as well as a change of attitudes and the rise of new societal trends, such as car sharing. When asked about the governments’ involvement in combating climate change seriously, a young scientist and one of the founders of LED Safari Govinda Upadhyay, he stated that the EU climate policy is going towards the right direction, even though more actions and initiatives should be taken. G. Upadhyay also noted that sometimes people are not informed well enough about the advantages of new technologies and if only this notion was changed and these technologies were started to be considered “cool”, more people would start using them and thus the demand could be created. In general, the idea of new technologies and its soft power was agreed upon by fellow participants in the discussions.

The second question about the carbon divestment saw a split of opinions. Some doubts were raised about the effectiveness of forcing financial institutions not to invest in carbon activities. According to Maddy Hodgson, Warwick University student and activist, a pressure has to be maintained, but in a democratic manner, as even the complete ban would not prevent the law from being repealed by the future governments. M. Hodgson pointed to wicked societal relationships with the nature. This notion was supported by MEP Kathleen Van Brempt who urged us, consumers, to choose wisely and in a sociably responsible way, so that the money would move into the right direction. That might be a stepping stone to the profitability to invest, especially if an attractive image by the general public was drawn. However, these arguments did not convince the owners of more radical viewpoints who would claim a seemingly inescapable relation between Capitalism and exploitation of natural resources and urged a large scale carbon divestment through uncompromising laws and high taxation.

Stephan Singer, a director of Global Energy Policy, WWF International, suggested more democratization and decentralization in the energy sector, so that the just transition to a low-carbon economies can be reached, not forgetting to help the most vulnerable countries out. Alien De Deken, a youth movement climate expert, draw attention that even though, hopefully, there will be a piece of change in COP21, it will not solve every single problem, related to energy, so the initiative has to be taken by each individual. He invited everyone to ride bicycles and referred to a bicycle riding event, organized by activists in Paris. Gilles Pargneaux, a MEP, has repeated what European Socialists and Democrats had already pointed out, that is, a closer cooperation with the religious communities and their involvement in combating global warming. (I find it important to emphasize that many important religious figures have publicly backed the initiatives to mitigate the climate change, including Pope Francis and Dalai Lama XIV, both of whom are outspoken critics of lack of awareness towards this worrying issue). G. Pargneaux also noted that it is not solely states’, but everyone’s business to take an action and that we need collective statements. Having criticized so-called climate change deniers, the politician suggested always counter-agumenting using the proofs and evidences that clearly indicate the main contributor to the climate change being human activities.

Conclusion

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Having been concerned about the climate change and constantly reading articles about various issues, related to it, it was an indispensable experience for me to be a part of the preparations for an upcoming COP21. Needless to say, it was a very pleasing experience to meet fellow Europeans who are also aware of the climate change and its consequences, just as it was useful to learn about numerous strategies and ways to mitigate it.

 First of all, the common goal of shifting from a linear economy to a circular one is one of the aims that all countries should pledge to pursue. The developed circular economy would effectively solve the problem of the excess of waste, as well as a shortage of resources, because the products would not go to waste, but would instead be reused again. Finding common strategy for all Parties to mitigate the climate change by reducing carbon emissions is also an act of solidarity, because the consequences of global warming seriously threaten the development of developing countries by deepening inequalities, as well as world peace. A term climate refugee has been coined to denote the victims of climate change. In order for the worst scenario not to happen, the global society has to pledge on not letting the temperature increase by 2°C and allocate carbon budget which they will need later. Even though low-carbon energy sources are still seemingly significantly more expensive than fossil fuel ones in a global market despite carbon taxation and quickly advancing technologies, it has to be taken into account that high-carbon technologies are already more expensive, because dealing with the consequences of climate change is going to cost us much more. Even more importantly, public attitude towards energy efficiency, recycling and other issues will also play a decisive role. These and another pillars for a sustainable future is just the beginning of a continuous and tireless work and they will not be solved once and for all, even if COP21 summit talks will be of a great success. However, as for the upcoming December, all world governments have to take responsibility and firmly pledge to find the common solutions to make human activities less devastating for the planet we are living in, as there is no plan B this time.

References

(the original text with 21 proposals)

Audrius Sabūnas is a Graduate student in Energy and Environment at Vytautas Magnus University.

[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2010PA002055/full

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