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The COP 23: hopeless attempt or last hope ?

22 Nov 2017

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I write this on my return from COP23 in Bonn, and just as the Global Carbon Budget 2017 is released. This reveals that in 2017 global emissions will likely increase again by ~2% - the first mentionable increase since 2014 and a harsh setback for all those who already thought we had reached peak emissions, i.e. the highest level of emissions from where on the annual levels will now decrease. Apparently, that hope was not justified.

But the news is not all bad. President Trump’s election during last year’s climate conference in Marrakech came as a shock to many of us who care about climate change but the reaction of the other parties of the UNFCCC since then has been overwhelmingly positive. So far, no other signee nation has followed the U.S. example. Instead, nations like China, France, and Germany have come forward to fill the gap in international climate leadership. In addition, the two remaining nations yet to sign the agreement, Nicaragua and Syria, have now done so. This leaves the U.S. isolated from the international joint effort.

Furthermore, 2015 was the first year in which the net additions to the global power sector came mostly from renewables. The world now builds more solar, wind, and other renewables capacity than coal, gas, and oil. In January 2017 China announced it will scrap over 120 GW in planned coal power plants. Many countries, including leading industrialized nations such as France, Canada, and the U.K. have announced an exit from coal by 2025-30, and some have even pledged to phase out the internal combustion engine in cars by the 2030s. It seems that the end of the coal era is underway and other fossil fuels might follow soon. The question seems to be ‘will it happen fast enough?’ instead of ‘will it happen ?’

So, is the COP 23 a hopeless attempt or our last hope? I would say it is neither. Over the past 23 years, one thing has been obvious – these high-level negotiations alone won’t solve the problem. For 23 years the international community has tried to limit and reduce emissions to save the climate but the few years in which emissions have actually leveled or even decreased were in times of recession (e.g. 2009) or sluggish economic growth. For 23 years agreements and protocols have been adopted, ratified, broken, and abandoned – without much mentionable effect on emissions or the climate. For 23 years participants at the COP have left the conferences with the somewhat unsettling feeling of maybe having wasted their time.

But it doesn’t do these efforts justice to call them a hopeless attempt. The biggest advances in fighting climate change we have seen over the last years were certainly the advent and scaling of renewable energy sources and advances in energy efficiency. Both are in the self-interest of the economy. Renewable energy sources reduce energy dependency on politically instable regions and have the potential to be much cheaper than fossil-fuel based energy sources. Better energy efficiency reduces cost and increases productivity. But both would most likely not have happened without the intervention of policy makers. The cost for renewables went down because of billions in subsidies for research and development or the large-scale employment of these renewables. The relative competitiveness of such energy sources could further be supported by a reduction of fossil fuel subsidies. Carbon pricing schemes, announcements to phase out coal and the internal combustion engine, and other environmental regulation – all help to promote solutions to climate change and create a credible ‘threat’ of a zero-carbon future that will gear industry and the whole economy towards preparing for such future. Government intervention is an important factor in fighting climate change and the international climate negotiations help to coordinate and increase the ambition of such interventions. So – slow pace maybe but not a hopeless effort.

The Paris Agreement combined with work on carbon disclosure, e.g. by the CDP, TCFD, and other initiatives, have created a credible scenario for a zero-carbon world in the second half of this century – more and more private sector players are preparing for such a future. Recent research suggests that we have just surpassed the threshold in which our infrastructure commits us to 2°C warming. And even more up-to-date research suggests that our carbon budgets might even be a little bit higher than we originally thought. If we act fast we might be able to stop investments into further dirty infrastructure and keep the amount of wasted capital relatively small.

An outlook to the next COPs suggests, however, that things need to speed up. The Global Stocktake, the mechanism by which countries increase their ambition levels, is scheduled to start in 2023. By then hundreds of Gigawatts of additional coal and gas infrastructure could be built and millions of additional barrels of oil reserves developed. Each year we wait for meaningful and consistent climate action, despite the more polluting infrastructure is developed and the more climate change is locked-in. The next COPs must see continued good progress on all its technical points but also some meaningful action on its climate ambitions.

Find a longer version of this article on the INET website.

Alexander (@alexjlpfeiffer) is a delegate in Young European Leadership’s delegation to the COP and a DPhil student at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School. His research focusses on stranded carbon assets and their effects on climate and energy policy. 

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.