Paris climate talks — deal or no deal?

The optimism showed by politicians and officials at the St Petersburg climate dialogue this week was real — some form of binding successor to the Kyoto protocol is almost certain to be agreed in Paris in December.

Why can the Paris talks succeed in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when a series of similar meetings over the past 20 years have failed?

The reasons are threefold.

The first is a new format for the deal. Dismayed by a failure to reach a significant deal at Copenhagen in 2009, and aware that Paris represents the absolute last chance to reach a binding successor to the Kyoto protocol — which expires in 2020 — the Conference of Parties (Cop) has agreed to change the framework of the talks.

Instead of starting with the goal and working backwards towards individual commitments, all parties are now asked first what they can contribute. These “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) are then totted up to a total that, it is hoped, is enough to reach the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C. No country can claim the agreement is too tough on them because they have already said what they are capable of.

The second reason is that renewables are now much cheaper, helping to circumnavigate one of the main historical obstacles to the talks — how developing countries should pay to decarbonise their economies. This is down to wide deployment of renewables in developed countries over the past few years. Most of the credit for that phenomenon should go to subsidy schemes in Europe, mandated at the EU level. But, now that costs have reduced, progress is being made worldwide. The scale of renewables deployment in China and India is now outpacing most developed countries, and this without either country having GHG cuts enshrined in law.

The third reason is that the EU, the US and China — the three major GHG emitting regions, responsible for around 50pc of global emissions — have already indicated what their contributions to a Paris deal will be. In the case of the US and the EU, these contributions are now official. China announced its commitment as part of a bilateral deal with the US in 2014. The EU has pledged a 40pc cut against 1990 levels by 2030, broadly similar in ambition to the US INDC of a 26-28pc reduction on 2005 levels by 2025. China has pledged to peak its emissions in 2030.

So a deal will be reached. But will it be ambitious enough to stay within the 2°C target? Almost certainly not, according to a recent study by climate economist Nicholas Stern.

If current submissions were adhered to, global GHG emissions would reach 57bn-59bn t CO2e by 2030, well above the 35bn-50bn t CO2e maximum consistent with a trajectory that would limit global warming to below 2°C, Stern’s report said.

Even if all other countries submitted targets with similar levels of ambition to the EU, China and the US, the best that can realistically be hoped for is a number that would still be over 50bn t CO2e, according to Stern.

That is why the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will return to the issue every five years to ensure individual commitments can be ratcheted up until the global cap is consistent with the 2°C trajectory.

The UNFCCC is banking on the fact that new technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and demand-side management will develop in order to make more ambitious cuts in five years’ time easier for parties to make — just as renewables have over the past five years — while also making the important call that some form of deal is better than none.

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