How will we measure success at the Paris climate conference?
10 Nov 2015|

How will we measure success?

Will the Paris climate change conference measure up?

The answer to that question, of course, depends on what success is measured against. And it’s important that we not only have a clear idea of the short term objectives but, more importantly, where the Paris COP (Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) meeting sits as part of longer-term global efforts to control climate change. Failure to understand these goals can paint a misguided picture of the desired outcomes.

The 2009 Copenhagen COP meeting is a case in point. Expectations for that meeting were extraordinarily high. Many expected the Copenhagen meeting to produce legally binding targets that would get emissions under control and pave the way to stabilising the climate system. When those goals weren’t met, the meeting was uniformly reported as a failure by the media and by environmental groups around the world.

But in retrospect, the Copenhagen COP meeting was a considerable success. First, despite unprecedented attempts to undermine the scientific understanding of human-caused climate change, the assembled politicians at the Copenhagen COP accepted the scientific evidence that humans are causing climate change, as assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Second, the meeting agreed to limit human-caused climate change to a maximum rise of 2oC in global average temperature compared to the pre-industrial baseline. That has now been reaffirmed and is well established as the global climate policy target.

The Copenhagen COP was also important because state leaders, prime ministers and presidents participated. This clearly elevated climate change from being ‘just’ an environmental problem to being a complex social, economic and environmental challenge that threatens the wellbeing of all humans on Earth.

So the Copenhagen COP was a landmark meeting that achieved several important milestones in meeting the challenges of climate change.

By contrast, the Paris COP meeting is already a success even before being held. The preparatory work has been outstanding and the results impressive.

Importantly, expectations of the outcome have been much better managed this time around. There’s no expectation that the Paris meeting is the ‘be-all and end-all’ of climate negotiations, nor do we expect a legally-binding agreement. In fact, it would likely be counterproductive if a legally-binding agreement emerged.

And for the first time, countries will turn up to a COP meeting with their emission reduction targets already on the table. That will avoid the sort of wrangling we saw in Copenhagen over precise details of targets and timetables. More importantly, we now have a clear picture of where we stand as a global community.

The result of this synthesis is interesting. If all countries meet their Paris commitments, the world is headed for something around a 3oC temperature rise by 2100 compared to the pre-industrial baseline. That’s still too high, but the critical point is that the ambitions of countries, especially the big emitters like the US and China, have been increasing with time.

That’s why a legally-binding agreement is not so important. The climate policy landscape is fluid and dynamic, generally moving in a positive direction as countries understand that rapid technological developments, such as renewable energy systems, are making solutions more feasible than they appeared just five years ago. And that’s why we don’t want to lock interim targets into an agreed legal framework.

With the Paris COP already a success, how should we measure the positive outcomes and progress from the meetings?

First, the conference could achieve a framework for accommodating the fluid nature of climate pledges. Such a mechanism could perhaps take the form of a formal review and re-commit process at five-year intervals. That would allow countries to increase their ambitions as low-carbon technology advances further, along with other solutions, and as the risks of climate change are better known.

Second, the Paris conference needs to make progress on the funding and operation of the so-called ‘Green Climate Fund’. That instrument aims to provide financial support to the world’s poorer countries to help them adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, which preferentially hit the world’s least developed countries. It also provides the means for poorer countries to develop along low-carbon pathways rather than follow the historical, fossil fuel-driven pathway of the industrialised world.

Implementing the Green Climate Fund is complex, and much work needs to be done before it’s operational. The Paris COP meeting won’t solve all of the contentious issues around the Fund, nor should it be expected to do so. But substantial progress towards resolving the thorny issues as well as a clear pathway for further progress on the Fund would be an outstanding outcome for the Paris conference

Significant challenges will remain after Paris. One such challenge is moving from the current targets-and-timetables approach for measuring ambition to the more scientifically sound approach of carbon budgeting. Developing detailed pathways for achieving the promised emission reductions is another.

The careful preparation that has gone into the Paris COP has already made it a success. Further progress in Paris will cement its legacy as a key milestone along the long and winding road to stabilising the climate system.