Paris climate talks begin with high hopes and lowered expectations

As world leaders gather in Paris for the United Nations climate conference, there is hope these talks will be different from previous international negotiations and signal a fresh start.

Experts weigh in with their scorecards on how to judge COP21

Catherine McKenna, Canada's minister of environment and climate change, speaks during a news conference in Paris on Sunday, (Canadian Press)

This article is part of a package of special coverage of climate change issues by CBC News leading up to the United Nations climate change conference (COP21) being held in Paris from today to Dec. 11.

As world leaders gather in Paris for the United Nations climate conference that opens today, there is hope these talks will be different from previous international negotiations and signal a fresh start.

Canada's environment minister is certainly trying to set a new tone for the country on the climate front, proclaiming "Canada is back" at a press conference in Paris on Sunday.

Catherine McKenna said Canada's delegation has three priorities for the 12-day conference:

  • We need an ambitious agreement.
  • We need every country to be at the table doing its fair share and improving on those targets every five years.
  • We need financing for less developed countries.

McKenna wants a new international agreement that's different from the Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in 2005.

In that agreement, developed countries pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but developing countries did not have to make any promises. That was the biggest critique of Kyoto, since the developing countries, such as Mexico, China, India, and Brazil, are responsible for the majority of emissions growth. 

"The dichotomous distinction between the developed and developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol has made progress on climate change impossible," said Harvard University professor Robert Stavins in an online essay published two weeks before the conference.

Whatever agreement emerges from the Paris talks will apply to all participating nations.

The majority of UN countries have already submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which map out each government's targets, policies and actions. Of course, every INDC is different.

The overarching goal in all of this is to cut anticipated temperature increases this century to two degrees C.

Based on the INDCs already filed, the world is on a path for temperatures to increase by an estimated 2.7 degrees, which is not ideal, but much less than the five or six degrees experts say we are headed toward without any action. 

Stéphane Dion on difference between COP11 and COP21

7 years ago
Duration 0:42
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion discusses how the Paris climate talks will be different from past meetings.

With all this in mind, Stavins came up with this scorecard to gauge success in Paris, with his assessment of the likelihood that each goal will be achieved:

  1. Include at least 90 per cent of global emissions in the INDCs, compared with 14 per cent in the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. This will definitely be achieved.
  2. Establish credible reporting and transparency requirements. It is likely that this will be achieved.
  3. Begin to set up a system to finance climate adaptation and mitigation — the famous $100 billion US commitment. A key question is whether it includes private-sector finance, in addition to public-sector foreign aid. This is likely to be achieved.
  4. Agree to return to negotiations periodically to revisit the ambition and structure of the INDCs. It is likely this will be achieved.
  5. Put aside unproductive disagreements such as the one about "loss and damage," which appears to rich countries like unlimited liability for bad weather in developing countries. Another is the insistence by some parties that the INDCs be binding under international law. This would probably mean that the Paris Agreement would require Senate ratification in the United States, which means that the U.S. would not be a party to the agreement. "I can only hope that the delegates will realize the futility of pursuing such unproductive elements," Stavins says.

The scorecard has some similarities to the one proposed by Tyler Bryant, a former Calgary and Vancouver resident who works in Paris for the International Energy Agency. Here are his expectations:

  1. Targets set for long-term emission reductions.
  2. Focus on five-year cycles.
  3. Clear long-term goal with long-term financing needs.
  4. Focus on innovation. Since the 2009 Copenhagen agreement there have been incredible technology advances such as reducing the cost of solar energy by 40 per cent and LED lighting by 90 per cent. COP21 can kickstart even more innovation.

Lowered expectations

Bryant expects Paris will be a success in large part because the bar has been set lower than when countries met in Copenhagen.

At that time, the expectation was an agreement among all parties with binding targets. It didn't materialize.

Now, with a shift of importance to action plans laid out by each country, Bryant says there is a better chance of attaining the goal of cutting the global temperature increase to two degrees.

"The way we achieve that target is through implementing policy, not necessarily by setting targets," said Bryant. "The polices declared in the INDCs is not enough," he said. "But it gets us on the trajectory."

Five years from now, said Bryant, the world could actually see global emissions absolutely peak, but only if the right steps are taken at the Paris talks.

Getting on the right path is what environmentalists want to see. "I think coming out of Paris, we will see real momentum," said Merran Smith, an executive with Clean Energy Canada and fellow with Simon Fraser University.

"Paris is just one step on the road. It's an important step but the real work begins once we get back home."


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