For those of us interested in climate change, next week marks a big occasion: the start of the international climate change COP21 logonegotiations in Paris that are due to deliver a new international climate change agreement.

This agreement has been a long time coming (see our previous commentary for some background), with a previous attempt at a new international agreement being made in 2009 in Copenhagen. Those climate talks were widely deemed a failure – a combination of sky high expectations without the groundwork to deliver them. So what will success or failure look like for the Paris negotiations?

Two degrees?

“If anyone comes to Paris and has a eureka moment—‘Oh, my God, the I.N.D.C.s do not take us to two degrees!’—I will chop the head off whoever publishes that. Because I’ve been saying this for a year and a half.”

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Much of what will come out of the negotiations in a couple of weeks’ time is already set – countries have been submitting their own pledges (or ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ in climate negotiator speak) over the last few months.

Those pledges have been added up and analysed by a number of different groups to predict how close they take countries to the goal of limiting climate change to below 2°C. This is a difficult job as the pledges only take us to 2030, so some assumptions have to be made about what happens after that point. Many of them are also conditional or partially conditional, for example, on sufficient commitments from other countries or financial and technical support.

The latest assessment from Climate Action Tracker estimates that the current submissions, if fully implemented, will bring warming down to 2.7˚C. Climate Action Tracker have been monitoring country pledges since 2009 and this marks the first time that they have projected warming below the 3°C mark. The same analysis from this time last year put us at 3.1°C.

Progress. But still, at best only one third to half way to reaching the 2°C that is the aim of the negotiations. And further still from the 1.5°C that developing countries say is needed for their survival.

Scaling up ambition

“The climate change conference in Paris is not the end point. It must mark the floor, not the ceiling of our ambition. It must be the turning point towards a low-emission, climate-resilient future.”

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations

It’s established then, that we’re not there yet. If Paris is to help deliver the goals of the negotiations, it therefore needs to set up a framework to help countries scale up their ambition over time – for example through regular progress reviews and opportunities for countries to submit new pledges. Means of delivery, including finance for both mitigating climate change and adapting to it (which is still one of the trickier issues at the negotiations), need to be put in place.

From a Royal Society perspective, our Resilience to extreme weather report highlights that the new framework (and its implementation) should be informed by the best available evidence. There are also significant overlaps between the climate negotiations, the Sustainable Development Goals (more on these here) and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction (agreed in March this year). In a statement released earlier this year, we emphasised that the agreements will be more successful if they are consistent and implemented in a joined-up manner.

Part of a bigger picture

Most seem confident that there will be an agreement made in Paris. The wider context has changed since 2009 in a few important ways. At a national level, many more countries have climate policies in place. Renewable energy costs have fallen at a much faster rate than predicted – the gap in cost between renewables-generated electricity and fossil fuels is narrowing and in some countries renewables are already competitive. There is increasing recognition of the risks posed by climate change, not only to the most vulnerable but to the wider financial system. The idea that tackling climate change can have additional benefits is also gaining momentum.

Setting out the path from Paris

In July this year, the Royal Society, along with 23 of the UK’s other learned societies, released a communiqué highlighting what science indicates is needed if we are to have a reasonable chance of limiting global warming in this century to the 2°C goal: we must transition to a zero-carbon world by early in the second half of the century. The agreement that is to be delivered in Paris only covers the 2020 to 2030 period. Many say that, if Paris is to be successful, it needs to set out a longer term goal to really send a signal to the wider world – particularly the energy sector and investors – about the direction of travel.

Getting an agreement in Paris clearly does not mean the job is done. As highlighted by the UN Secretary General, what comes after Paris will be as, if not more, important for how we deal with climate change.

Attending the climate change negotiations in Paris? Stop by our joint exhibit with the Met Office to chat to some of our climate science experts. Follow @sdoowamme and @sallytyldesley for updates. 

  • The correlation between regions taking action on climate change and having very recent extreme climate experience seems very high.
    Because of El Nino western states of the USA have been very responsive. The UK by contrast has seemingly lost interest following a very average summer.
    If sea level rises can be proved to be rising at an accelerating and predictable level then international alarm should rise since half the world lives a few metres above sea level. In Britain we have London, Glasgow, Bristol, Swansea, Edinburgh and more plus nuclear power.
    Perhaps we should be asking what natural conditions lead to the mass entrapment of carbon in the first place. Because whatever it was clearly continued without artificial help until levels of carbon reached pre industrial revolution levels.