When world leaders met in Paris to launch the latest UN climate conference, much of the talk behind closed doors did not focus on global warming. Instead, the Paris conference has been overshadowed by more pressing and less contentious security concerns: the war in Syria, Europe’s refugee crisis and the growing threat of Islamist terrorism in the wake of the Paris massacre. The Copenhagen summit six years ago was a massive event; this year’s climate conference barely merits a mention of the front pages.
The Paris meeting is not even attempting to achieve what the 2009 Copenhagen summit failed to do: reach a legally binding treaty on cutting CO2 emissions. Instead, the aim is to replace the legally binding targets of the Kyoto Protocol (which runs out in 2020) with voluntary pledges tailored to the national considerations of individual countries.
In short, the Paris climate deal will mean abandoning the notion of making decarbonisation legally binding — at least for the time being. Even so, governments from around the world are keen to sign an agreement that will allow political leaders to declare a victory, and to move on. At the same time, officials readily accept that painful decisions will be kicked into the long grass. Thus, the Paris accord is likely to be a ‘wait and see’ arrangement which, for the next decade at least, suspends any attempt of reaching a binding decarbonisation treaty. Such an outcome will almost certainly trigger a fundamental reassessment of Europe’s go-it-alone-no-matter-what-the-costs decarbonisation policies.
Why has it proven impossible for such summits to make the kind of progress that was, until recently, billed as a matter of saving the world? Firstly, policies that commit western governments to unilateral decarbonisation have turned out to be more costly and politically toxic than conventional wisdom proclaimed. Rather than running out of fossil fuels — and thereby making renewable energy more competitive — the US shale revolution and the prospect of its global proliferation has triggered a glut of cheap oil and gas. Fuel prices have fallen and look set to remain low for the foreseeable future. As a result, the bridge to a world powered by renewable energy has become longer rather than shorter.
Also, poor countries remain categorically opposed to signing any agreement that would impede economic growth by limiting the use of cheap fossil fuels. Rather than decarbonising, most Asian and African countries are banking on cheap coal. In Asia, more than 500 coal-fired power plants have been built in the first nine months of this year alone, while an estimated 1,000 new coal plants are set to power up in coming years.
To counterbalance western pressure, developing countries are demanding sizable funding for adaptation and the transition to renewable energy. Once, President Obama promised developing nations an annual climate fund of $100 billion, by 2020, in return for their signatures on a global climate deal. That was six years ago; most developing nations have since realised that his pledge will never materialise. Neither the US Senate nor debt-addled European governments are willing to commit to such an astronomical annual wealth transfer.
Global surface temperatures have failed to adhere to the predictions of climate modellers. Rather than rapid warming, as the IPCC has predicted, the temperature rise has been barely discernible, standing nearly still for most of the last 20 years. The global warming slowdown has enabled a number of governments to downgrade the climate agenda in favour of energy security (or affordable energy) and to take a more gradual approach. Most world leaders are aware of the controversy surrounding the warming hiatus which has given them valuable time to keep prevaricating.
The warming pause has significantly weakened public concern — giving ministers the opportunity to delay, water down or even get rid of what David Cameron famously called ‘green crap’. Cameron’s Conservative government has certainly set a new tone in recent months. It has announced that energy security and affordability of energy will henceforth be prioritised over the climate agenda. Britain’s new climate secretary, Amber Rudd, has said she 'will travel in step with what is happening in the rest of the world' so that energy bills remain affordable for households, business remains competitive, and the economy remains secure.
For Europe and the UK, whose heavy industries are struggling to remain competitive under the weight of unilateral climate taxes and CO2 obligations, a voluntary Paris deal would deliver a real chance to change course. The EU’s own Paris offer, pledging to cut CO2 by 40 per cent below the 1990 level by 2030, is conditional on the UN agreement being legally binding for all major emitters. But if Europe’s key demand for a level playing field is not met, poor EU member states from Eastern and Central Europe will almost certainly refuse to make the EU’s own pledges legally binding. After Paris, the battle for a return to realistic climate policy will begin in earnest.