Hopefully more than a lot of hot air: COP21 Climate Summit

2015 UN Climate Change Conference took place in Paris this month (Image courtesy of Gary Tamin)

On the morning of November 30th 195 national leaders of the world gathered in the French capital to discuss climate change. It wasn’t just random that France was picked to host this summit as 90% of the country’s electricity is produced by carbon-zero producing technology, namely hydro, wind and nuclear (Ireland choosing to stay clear from nuclear technology could very well become more and more of issue as time goes by and the debate should remain very much alive I believe). The predecessors to these talks have been deemed as failures. The Kyoto protocol 1997 set emission targets for only a handful of developed countries and the US pulled out. Copenhagen 2009 again set emission targets and China, India and South Africa did not agree as they believed it was unfair on developing nations. It appears that what Kyoto and Copenhagen had in common was setting individual national targets rather than global targets and a sore lack of what is now named: climate justice. This was a very in-depth discussion as the gathering only finished December 11th. It’s nice to think that because this summit went on for 12 days that climate change is of great concern to every nation, and that coming to a global agreement/solution was deemed vital. Although another reason for the duration of this summit could be that it is near impossible to get 195 countries to agree on anything.  I found from my reading of the summit that it appears to be a mix of both reasons, among many others.

President Francois Hollande has said this deal is strictly a “take it or leave it basis”, which means countries who sign up are expected to follow it in full or don’t sign it at all. The deal has been described by President Hollande as “ambitious but realistic”. This description could be seen as positive enforcement to encourage world leaders to sign it, because who wants to lead an un-ambitious nation? In short, before the summit began the objective was to produce a legally binding global document. In part this was accomplished as the agreement is partially legally binding and partially voluntary and comes into effect in 2020. One legally binding aspect is that all countries are to make an obligation to set emission reduction targets and the regular review of that goal every 5 years, however the targets themselves are not legally binding. The main aim is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius mean increase and to limit the increase to below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. This aim is to be achieved by a greenhouse gas reduction of 40-70% by 2050 (This seems to be a wide margin. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows climate change science better on those numbers in the comments section below). Another major aim is to limit the amount of greenhouses gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and the oceans can absorb naturally by 2100. French foreign minister Mr Fabius has been credited as having held his position as chair of the negotiations admirably and worked in a clear and concise manner to build trust between all 195 participating nations. Whether it was the wording of Mr MacDonald in the Irish Times, or the wording of Mr Fabius himself, the fact that the draft acknowledges the “notion” of climate justice, I find personally concerning. Climate justice isn’t just a vague notion or new term, it is a real and immediate danger to any agreement on climate change. The reason we in the 1st world have the lifestyle and luxuries we take for granted is because of our dirty, polluting, exploiting, environmentally ignorant past. These may sound like severe terms but it is a fact. I’m not saying anyone in the first world or any nation for that matter should be punished for the sins of our ancestors. Of course not, that wouldn’t be fair either. What I am saying is that if we want our colleagues in the developing world to join us in protecting the planet for future generations, we must accept that they are entitled to the same standard of living as we are. Although they are entitled to aim for the same standard of living as ourselves, if they are to mimic us in how we achieved it previously they are putting the planet in immediate danger. So it is the responsibility of the developed nations, top universities, scientists, engineers and green energy specialists to make available their advances and technology at affordable and reasonable terms for all nations to have access to. With this in mind the international trade union confederation has called for “zero carbon, zero poverty”. This kind of stance will hopefully emphasis and make clear to all industry and business worldwide that being environmentally sustainable will not be profit draining but profit increasing when done correctly. Climate justice had a victory of sorts with the stipulation in the agreement of “climate finance” for developing countries. This will begin again in 2020 and will be financed by the most developed nations to the tune of $100 billion a year, the money will be used to help developing nations “leapfrog” past the fossil fuel stage of development straight into green and renewable technologies. Dr Bill Hare, CEO of climate analytics, believes the objectives set out in the summit to be “remarkable” and a “victory” for the most vulnerable countries and island nations. Although this $100 billion a year sounds impressive, when compared to how developed countries choose to spend their money in other areas/sectors it isn’t much.  For example, it is less than 8% of the global declared military expenditure per year (bearing in mind the word declared here) and the military of most nations is extremely reliant on fossil fuels in order to function.

90% of France’s electricity is generated by non-carbon producing sources (Image courtesy of Tamlyn Rhodes)

Dr Ilan Kelman of UCL believes the lack of exact timescales is worrying, and I’d have to agree with him. In particular, the summit agreement states “To reach peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the 2nd half of the century”. To me that is too vague for comfort.

Completely unrelated to the summit but a scientific advance that could potentially stop human induced climate change very rapidly is the advances in nuclear fusion technology. Nuclear fusion is more or less trying to replicate the same environment as the core of the sun safely in order to harness the energy. Scientists have been working on this for 50+ years but to try heat nuclei to 100 million degrees safely is no easy task. Very recently a nuclear fusion experiment by the Max Planck institute in Germany has come that bit closer to making such groundbreaking clean energy production a reality. The institutes team has recently produced a helium plasma cloud of loose charged particles at 1 million degrees Celsius for one tenth of a second. This may sound like only a small step but it is still a step in the right direction and it is very worthwhile remaining on this path. Once fusion is eventually achieved safely it has the ability to make nearly all other forms of energy and fuel production redundant almost instantly.

Back at home the way the government has acted and responded to the summit hasn’t been very encouraging. It seems the government is keen to say all the right things but implementing the action is a different story. When you consider Ireland is one of the most fossil fuel dependent states within in the EU, with a let’s be honest inferior public transport system, it seems the gap between talk and action in Ireland is only increasing unfortunately. Or as Oisín Coughlan from Friends of the Earth more blatantly put it “Minister Kelly is putting agri-business ahead of Irish flood victims”. As mentioned earlier France now gets 90% of its energy from carbon-zero sources. If we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees energy must be 95% fossil fuel free. This isn’t going to frighten a French government too much, whereas back home 85% of our energy derives from fossil fuels (nearly the exact opposite!). Action in Ireland has to be taken and I strongly encourage people during the next election to please consider before voting parties that are committed to do the most on this issue. The targets of food harvest 2020 and how they are in direct contradiction to this summit would be several articles alone, but I would strongly encourage people to read up on the issue.

Shows the top 40 C02 emitting countries and related in the world in 1990 and 2013, including per capita figures. Graph courtsey of the EU Edgar database.

A lot of observers, specialists and commentators have come out and said that the summit is a mix of wins and losses, winners and losers. It was comforting to hear the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi take a different line and state “There were no winners or losers, climate justice has won and we are all working towards a greener future”. Unlike Kyoto and Copenhagen the pressure from this summit doesn’t come differently on different nations, it comes on equally with climate justice taken into account. So let’s hope for everyone’s sake and the future that it stands the test of time. Nothing this ambitious has been tried before on climate change but we no longer have the luxury of time on our side, so it is definitely better to try rather than do nothing in my opinion.

About Dr. Cormac Price 15 Articles
Editor, contributor and content curator at BioWeb.ie. Post-doctoral researcher in herpetology at University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Cormac's research focuses on the ecology of urban snakes in Durban specifically the black mamba, Mozambique spitting cobra and southern African python populations, he works in conjunction with Nick Evans of KZN Amphibian and Reptile Conservation on this research. Cormac completed his PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, his PhD research focused on aspects of the ecology of two species of freshwater turtle in KwaZulu-Natal. With a BSc in Zoology from University College Dublin and an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from Trinity College Dublin, Cormac has also previously worked as a Conservation Field Coordinator in the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA), Nepal.

3 Comments on Hopefully more than a lot of hot air: COP21 Climate Summit

  1. Thanks for the stats Karl! I find them very encouraging for the EU as well! I believe Ireland has a unwarranted stigma towards nuclear energy unfortunately ( course I am open to changing my mind on the issue if I see sufficient data, but to date that is my opinion). To a degree I believe it is warranted with tragedies like Chernobyl of course. I believe though that with the quick evolution of technology and especially technology in relation to the safety aspects this kind of tragedy can hopefully be a thing of a past. Flying is statistically one of the safest forms of travel based on the number of people who use it because all the safety precautions are taken extremely seriously. As we know though when accidents happen inflight there normally fatal and devastating, but nobody is seriously looking for a ban on large scale flying rather the safety procedures and technology for flying are constantly being improved and I believe this is the way nuclear energy should go. First and foremost I would like to see the debate for nuclear energy in Ireland more open and better broadcast to hopefully shake of some old stigmas. A article in the Irish Times only today states with the government’s new white paper the country plans to be fossil fuel free by the end of the century. I believe this transition can be done far more cost effectively and smoothly with Ireland accepting a commit to produce nuclear energy. The climate is telling us we need to act fast and nuclear I believe is a option we can no longer ignore.

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