The closing plenary session of Dentons Global Energy Summit in London on April 22nd, appropriately scheduled to take place on Earth Day 2015, offered a unique series of perspectives on the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Dirk Forrister, President and CEO, International Emission Trading Association (IETA), gave a keynote address setting Paris 2015 in the context of previous global climate change negotiations. Anne Lauvergeon, Founder and CEO of ALP S.A., Partner of Efficiency Capital, a fund dedicated to technology and natural resources and a former CEO of AREVA, spoke on the involvement of business to the Paris process. Ashley Ibbett, Director of Office of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in the UK Government's Department of Energy and Climate Change, explained the role CCS has to play in tackling climate change. Adrienne Courboud Fumagalli, Vice President for Innovation and Technology Transfer, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), gave an insight into the ways that innovative technology will facilitate interaction with and between the 40,000 delegates attending Paris 2015. Jeffrey C. Fort, co-director of Dentons' Climate Change practice, chaired.

The road from Rio

Concerted international action to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at safe levels began with the agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The UNFCCC has been ratified by most of the world. In subsequent UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COPs), it has proved more difficult to reach binding international commitments that move beyond its fairly broad aims. So, for example, the Kyoto protocol (1997) set binding emission reduction targets, but was not ratified by the US or Canada. COP15 in Copenhagen produced explicit recognition of the need to limit global temperature increases to 2°C in order to avoid dangerous climate change and provided countries with a mechanism for committing to emissions reductions up to 2020, but fell short of achieving legally binding agreements and was widely considered to have been a failure. COP21 in Paris later this year has a new starting point (agreed at Lima in 2014) and aims to set out a framework for all countries to commit to emissions reductions beyond 2020.

To be fully effective, a UN instrument must be agreed by all parties. Given the issues at stake and the tensions between countries with developing and developed economies, the process of achieving agreement between all parties to the UNFCCC is never easy. But Paris 2015 can succeed—as long as it is recognised that it will only be a starting point, and not a final solution to the problem of international co-operation to mitigate the risk of climate change. Anybody who wants to hear at the end of COP21 that greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures will fall from now on will inevitably be disappointed—in the short and medium term, both will continue to rise. What matters is establishing a realistic pathway towards limiting temperature increases to 2°C. On market mechanisms and the creation of a global carbon pricing system, all that is needed to begin with are series of short, enabling provisions such as the drafts produced by IETA.

One of the key advantages of the approach being taken in Paris 2015 is the focus on "bottom up", Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to emissions reduction by each country, which countries are invited to submit well in advance of the COP rather than attempting to agree "top down" targets at the COP itself. Proposed INDCs so far include a 26-28 percent reduction on 2005 levels by 2025 from the US and a reduction of at least 40 percent by the EU on 1990 levels by 2030. Another positive sign is the growth in emissions trading schemes adopted by national or sub-national governments, including most recently a series of "pilot" schemes in China, one of which alone (Guangdong) represents a market equivalent in scale to the whole of Germany. In North America, the linkage of sub-national schemes in Quebec and California shows the potential for connecting different carbon markets that could eventually be exploited if links were to be established between, say, emissions trading schemes in Europe, China and North America—whether as a series of bilateral agreements or under the umbrella of the UN. Finally, the progress achieved in recent COP preparatory sessions for Paris 2015 has been noteworthy (recent negotiations in Geneva actually ran ahead of schedule) and the French foreign ministry is clearly investing a lot of effort in the success of the project.

A different kind of COP

Businesses, and a wider group of stakeholders, need to be involved in and enabled to contribute to the Paris 2015 process. This is recognised both by those organising Paris 2015 and an increasing number of influential global companies, such as the founding members of the RE100 initiative that has seen BT Group, Commerzbank, IKEA Group, KPN, Mars, Nestlé, Philips, Reed Elsevier Group and Swiss Re, amongst others, commit to going "100% renewable."

One of the ways in which Paris 2015 will be different from Copenhagen in 2009 is that the organisers are determined to harness the power of social media to provide both real-time analysis of the negotiations and a flexible platform to pursue the conversation after the conference. As a result, the COP process should be much more transparent and stakeholders in the negotiations, including business and civil society, should have a broader and deeper engagement with them. And after the conference, there will be more scope to hold those who have signed up to any new deal to account. The goal is to make it impossible for any world leaders attending Paris 2015 to lapse into the sentiment expressed by President Obama when he said in an unguarded moment at Copenhagen "everybody here has other much more important business to take care of."

Getting a deal at the COP is the easy part

Paris 2015 can provide a framework that could provide the political impetus to establish trading schemes that result in a global carbon price and stimulate investment in action to reduce emissions. But what forms will that action need to take in order to avoid dangerous climate change?

Investment in renewable energy obviously has a key role to play. The challenge is to continue to reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of renewable technologies to the point where they are no longer reliant on subsidies, at least to the extent that they are now in many countries. At the same time, it is important to develop energy storage technologies that will enable those renewable sources that only generate intermittently to operate more flexibly and help manage their impacts on the grid.

But renewables alone, even combined with inherently low-carbon generation in the form of nuclear power (where public opinion allows it to be deployed) are unlikely to be enough—and are also not necessarily the cheapest way of decarbonising all parts of the global economy. Anyone who experiments with the "2050 calculator" established by the UK Government as a way of assessing the impacts of different combinations of supply-side and demand-side measures on the achievement of its statutory goal of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, will find that significant action in other areas is also required.

In particular, the UK Government believes that with fossil fuels still providing over 80 percent of the world's energy and some of the industrial processes that use them not being capable of replacement by low carbon electricity, it is important to focus on developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) so that CO2 emissions can be permanently prevented from being emitted into the atmosphere by being trapped in suitable underground rock formations.

The first commercial scale CCS power plant opened in Canada in 2014 at Boundary Dam. Two US projects, Kemper and Petra Nova, are scheduled for completion in 2016. The UK Government, advised by Dentons, is funding work on projects at Drax and Peterhead. If the technology can be developed for cost-effective deployment in all coal-intensive power markets where the appropriate geology for CCS exists, it could make a major contribution to decarbonisation. If the switching of 1 percent of coal-fired generation to gas would produce as great a reduction in emissions as an 11 percent increase in renewable generating capacity, then the removal of emissions from that 1 percent of coal-fired generation would presumably be equivalent to a 22 percent increase in renewables.

Another major challenge is reducing the emissions that arise from deforestation and the degradation of forests, particularly in developing countries—which are currently equivalent to the emissions of the entire global transport sector. Key initiatives here are the UN's REDD programme, which aims to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives to reduce emissions from forested lands, and REDD+, which goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.