The United Nations Climate Summit in September 2014 was the first meeting of heads of state to discuss climate change since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) conference in 2009 in Copenhagen. The summit was not intended to negotiate a new international climate treaty, but to provide leaders with an opportunity to demonstrate political will and commitment towards reaching an agreement at the UNFCC conference in Paris in December 2015. Did we learn anything new from the podium speeches about the prospects and content of an international agreement?
Perhaps the most significant announcements came from China. Its vice premier, Zhang Gaoli confirmed that China's target is to ensure that domestic greenhouse gas emissions reach their peak “as soon as possible” and to cut carbon intensity (but not absolute emissions levels) by 40 to 45 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. Announcements by other leaders were more modest. President Obama announced the US would publish next year a plan to reduce its emissions after 2020. This follows his announcement earlier this year that new regulations will be introduced to reduce carbon emissions from existing US power plants by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030.
The EU confirmed its intention to adopt the target it announced earlier this year to reduce emissions by 40 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. The UK said it was on track to meet its existing targets. France announced no new policies or measures but did pledge $1 billion to the UN's Green Climate Fund, while Germany confirmed its recently announced emissions and renewables targets. A new declaration on forests was signed by 27 nations, eight regional governments, 34 multinational corporations, 45 NGOs, and 16 indigenous peoples groups. It includes a voluntary commitment to "at least halve" net deforestation by 2020 and to "strive to" end it by 2030, but was not signed by Brazil.
If any progress towards a global agreement was made at the summit, it will have happened away from the spotlight in meetings between senior diplomats. That said, it is looking unlikely that any agreement that is reached in Paris will include any binding commitments to reduce emissions. For the past 20 years, ever since talks first began to draw up the Kyoto protocol, progress has stalled around the extent to which the burden of any binding commitments should be shared between developed and developing industrial nations.
Political and economic conditions are less favourable for an agreement than they were in the run up to Copenhagen. The prospect of the US senate approving a climate change treaty by the necessary two-thirds majority seems remote at best. The EU, which has been a strong advocate for action in the past, has recently seen the post of climate change commissioner merged within the energy post and the in-coming commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, is known for his support of, and links to, the oil sector. Meanwhile, Germany and Japan's reliance on fossil fuels are both increasing as they shut down their nuclear reactors, and Russia, the world's second largest oil producer, is also likely to oppose any new agreement.
In April 2014, the UN released a 20-page discussions paper which it hopes may form the basis of a draft negotiating text . The paper sets out many different options but with little indication provided as to which are the most favoured or likely to materialise. As to burden sharing, for example, options proposed are for the lead to be taken by developed nations; the burden to be shared globally; and for "parties with the greatest responsibility and highest capacity" to take the lead. The paper provides little by way of clarity and direction. The current majority view is that if any agreement is reached in Paris (and that itself is far from certain), it will likely to consist of various voluntary or aspirations commitments to control emissions by individual or groupings of countries.
How much does it matter whether an international agreement is reached next December, or indeed ever? For the past twenty years, it has been assumed that an international agreement was the necessary precursor to meaningful action by national governments, but in recent years a different pattern seems to have emerged.
Despite the failure in Copenhagen, many countries with no previous formal emissions targets made domestic commitments, including China, Mexico and Brazil. Admittedly, some of the commitments were aspirational and based on emissions intensity rather than absolute emissions levels. China has introduced seven regional pilot emissions trading schemes and has recently confirmed plans to commence a national scheme in 2016. South Korea is expected to set up a domestic emissions trading scheme in 2015. Japan has introduced a carbon tax and new laws promoting energy-efficient cities. The UK has passed the Climate Change Act requiring current and future governments to reduce absolute emissions by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050, a target which the government claims the UK is on track to meet. Commentators have also pointed to the fact that the US had already reduced its emissions even without participating in the Kyoto process by more than 10 percent on 1990 levels. China too has reduced annual increases in coal consumption from almost 20 percent a decade ago to virtually nil.
Economists are increasingly arguing that national self-interest is the only route to overcome the burden sharing debate and deliver emissions reductions. Others have gone further and argue that the conditions for national self-interest to prevail already exist. Earlier this year, a new report, Better Climate, Better Growth: The New Climate Economy, was published by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The Commission is co-chaired by Nicholas Stern who authored the Stern Review in 2006 which began the debate around the economics of tackling climate change. The main conclusion of the report is that renewables and other low-carbon investment have already proven to be in the national economic self-interest, and that there is not necessarily a trade-off between growth and climate protection, even in the short-term. For many countries, including China and India, the prevailing factor is physical and economic energy security, which has driven reductions in fossil fuel consumption. For China, urban air pollution is a major issue, and it also hopes to become the world leader in solar and other renewable and low-carbon technologies. In the US, the development of unconventional gas has revolutionised the energy market and is quickly displacing the use of coal in electricity generation.
This is not to say that all is well and that no further action is required. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continue to rise and increased at a record pace in 2013, due both to increases in global emissions and the faltering ability of oceans and forests to absorb carbon dioxide. Progress towards an international agreement remains very slow and uncertain, but recent years have cast doubt on the link traditionally made between international and domestic action on climate change, and also the assumption that there must be economic winners and losers in order to tackle climate change.