What’s changed since Copenhagen? Curtain raiser for the Paris climate talks  

November 25, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Tracy Carty, Oxfam Climate Change Policy Adviser, with an excerpt from its Paris media briefing, published todayTracy Carty mugshot

The last time leaders got together to agree a global climate deal it ended in multilateral meltdown.  Copenhagen was widely condemned as a failure – a failure that still haunts the climate negotiations, and one that governments meeting in Paris next week will not want to repeat.

Six years on, what’s changed and what are we expecting in Paris?

The first major difference is a change in expectations.  Unlike Copenhagen, COP 21 is not being hailed as the silver bullet that will save the climate. But instead, a turning point towards increased ambition over time – as part of the journey, not the final destination. Expectations for Paris are much lower than they were for Copenhagen, increasing the likelihood of a deal, but raising alarm that it will fall far short of what is needed.

Politically, the biggest shift since Copenhagen has been the new willingness to act shown by the world’s biggest emitters, the US and China. Over the past 18 months the world’s superpowers have made historic joint announcements on reducing emissions and found common cause on many key issues in the negotiations. China’s motivation is likely threefold: as an international power they are seeking to play a constructive leadership role in matters of global governance; they do not want to be blamed for failure in Paris as they were in Copenhagen; and chronic air pollution is choking China’s major cities.  Meanwhile, in the US: climate change has replaced healthcare as one of President Obama’s top three second term priorities; the shale gas revolution has helped get emissions down, creating political space for US leadership; and Chinese willingness to act has also been a catalyst for US political will.

The end of the US-China stalemate suggests that a Copenhagen-style collapse in Paris is unlikely.  But with convergence on a softer, weaker global climate framework between the US, China and other key players (including a ‘nationally-determined’ bottom-up, non-binding, non-standardised approach to domestic commitments), it risks being a deal that is not commensurate with the challenge of avoiding dangerous climate change.

climatechange_cartoonOn the ground, the low carbon transition in now well under way.  The years since Copenhagen have seen spectacular growth in solar and wind power and a huge shift in the economics of renewables, which are now the world’s second largest source of electricity (behind coal) and cost-competitive in a growing number of countries. Significantly, 2014 saw emissions in the energy sector stall for the first time even as the global economy continued to grow. But in spite of this progress, coal and other fossil fuel use continues to rise at an alarming rate.

Climate-related shocks have increased.  Since Copenhagen, the consequences of climate change are a reality for an increasing number of people: from the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, to Hurricane Sandy that struck the United States in 2012, and Typhoon Haiyan which battered the Philippines in 2013.  These events have raised the spectre of climate change, helped put a human face on the unfolding catastrophe and increased support for climate action.

Emission targets are on the table. Unlike Copenhagen, countries have tabled their emissions reductions pledges before Paris. More than 150 countries have submitted their INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), the most ambitious of which, according to a recent civil society equity review, have come from developing countries.  But even if all countries meet their commitments, the world is likely to warm by a devastating 3°C or more (see here, here, here and here for assessments).  The credibility of the Paris outcome thus rests on the strength of any mechanism to increase ambition from 2020, when INDCs and the new agreement take effect.

Finance is not on the table. In Copenhagen, the commitment to mobilize $100bn per year by 2020 (combined climate change cartoon IDSwith a Fast Start Finance pledge of $30bn) saved the summit from being a complete disaster. But over the past six years the money has been slow in coming, and adaptation finance has consistently been neglected. Oxfam estimates that public climate finance provided by developed countries was around $20bn on average in 2013–14, of which adaptation’s share was only around $3-5bn.  Everyone knows that finance will be needed to seal the deal, but going into Paris it’s the biggest known unknown.

A lot has changed since Copenhagen.  In many ways the pre-COP context is more favourable than ever before.  But we are not where we need to be.

Today Oxfam publishes Game-changers in the Paris climate deal, which sets out game-changers over the next two weeks that could make a real difference to the type of agreement reached.  Two critical questions will determine the extent to which the Paris deal helps those on the frontlines of climate impacts. The first is whether there is enough finance in the deal for poorer countries. The second is whether the deal is strong enough to keep the goal of 1.5°C, or even 2°C, within reach: crucially, whether a robust INDC review mechanism is agreed.



November 25, 2015
Duncan Green