French can-do-can

Things to watch for in the Paris climate extravaganza.

In February I described the strategy of Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN framework climate convention,  as betting the world. Never mind the hyperbole, her strategy has triumphantly paid off. The COP 21 conference in Paris next week will be attended by a staggering 150 heads of state or government, starting with Xi Jinping and Barack Obama. This is unheard-of for a diplomatic conference, especially coming so soon after the Paris terrorist massacre by an undefeated Daesh.

Politicians can smell success the way sharks smell blood in the water. They flock to associate themselves with it, just as they distance themselves from failure. It is now an overwhelming probability that COP 21 will lead to the adoption of a solid climate agreement. Delegates must have been given their marching orders: make the best deal you can for our interests, but make the deal. The overwhelming show of top-level backing will also strengthen the hand of the conference chair, the tough vieux routard Laurent Fabius of France, and of Figueres and her team in the secretariat. Isolated holdouts will just find themselves steamrollered.

The architecture of the agreement will be just as I reported here in July.

It will:

  1. lay down an objective of massive decarbonisation, pursued by
  2. national mitigation and adaptation plans embodied in
  3. transparent public commitments filed with the UN, to be
  4. reviewed, revised and improved over time, for which purpose
  5. developed countries will promise lots of finance for developing countries.

This did not take any brilliant insight on my part, just paying a little attention.

So the one thing that will not emerge from Paris is emissions targets any better than the ones already included in the INDCs, let alone a global carbon tax. Everybody agrees that these INDCs are a first step, since at best they will only limit the temperature increase to 2.7 degrees C by 2100. They must therefore, goes the consensus, be tightened up in future reviews. So will it all just be a big PR event and self-congratulatory World Leader photo-op? Not quite. There are some issues still to be solved, and the tone of the forward-looking statements and aspirational texts will be important.

My personal checklist of things to watch for is below the jump, starting with the more technical ones.

1. Conditional INDCs.
The IIASA analysis says that only 9 gigatonnes of the carbon reductions in the INDCs are unconditional and 11 gigatonnes are conditional, mainly on finance. Will the financial offers be good enough to move a significant volume of emissions into the unconditional column? Especially as the economics of renewables, and private-sector financial flows on a market-return basis, have been improving steadily.

2. INDC upgrades.
As I’ve been saying, the recent data on the Chinese coal peak suggest that China could improve its offer from “peaking by 2030 and if possible before” to at least 2020, on current policies. Canada and Australia, with new leadership, may also improve. A much longer shot is India accepting an absolute emissions cap and scaling back its unrealistic as well as antisocial plan to double coal burning. A more realistic hope is that India will run into sharp and unwelcome criticism, and think again afterwards.

3. Have global emissions already peaked?
If I were Fatih Birol of the IEA, I would have my staff prepare an estimate on global GHG emissions for the first three quarters of 2015, and announce this at the start of the conference.

4. Threading the needle on the legal status of the agreement.
This is a specifically American issue, as Obama needs to be legally able to sign the text as an executive agreement or negotiated political commitment, not a treaty requiring Senate consent. IANAL but it looks as if the procedural decisions on the timetable and review mechanism could count as an executive agreement implementing the 1992 Rio Convention. The US will want the INDCs to be political commitments. I assume the Foggy Bottom and Quai d’Orsay lawyers between them will have found forms of words for this: they may not be comprehensible to us.

5. The wording of the long-term commitment to full decarbonisation.
The state of play is the G20’s “in the course of this century”. (Note to aficionados: this is a little stronger than “by the end of the century”). Look for any strengthening. The ideal is “by 2050”, but I’d be pleasantly surprised if we get it.

6. Any mention of 1.5 degrees warming or 350 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2, even in a watered-down and aspirational form. This would open the door to serious negotiations in 5 or 10 years on these lower – and much less risky – targets.

7. Any corridor talk of Christiana Figueres as the first woman SG of the United Nations.

The tone of the meeting will probably be more important than any of these details. Is there finally a real global political consensus that the time to stop global climate disruption is now?

I hope some enterprising fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaker will be following the denialist dinosaur Senator James Inhofe and his packed snowballs round the corridors, getting the polite brushoffs due to the village idiot from the delegate of Vanuatu and data packs from earnest and pretty teenagers with Danish Greenpeace.

Finally, the latest chart from Lazards of comparative US electricity generating costs that explains how success in Paris has become possible after decades of failure. (Higher resolution in the pdf).

Lazards cost chart
Unsubsidized, the cheapest wind generation in the USA is half the price of the cheapest new coal, and solar is just below. Game over. The energy transition is a giant free lunch.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

5 thoughts on “French can-do-can”

  1. So as a superior individual, you are probably immune to worrying about social networking or what-all but … just fyi, this has been "shared" on Facebook. If I twittered, it would've been tweeted too, being that rare bit of news which is actually both positive and significant.

    1. As an elderly individual, I don't understand social networking in some deep sense. But I do post links to my blog posts on my minimal Facebook timeline.

      1. Oh, I didn't even check to see. I will "follow" you. Don't worry I won't try to "friend" you yet. I spend too much time on there already.

  2. I've heard the claim that Lazard is overoptimistic on renewables pricing. I'm not saying the claim is accurate, just that I heard it. If I were less lazy I'd tried and do some comparison to other analysts to find out.

    1. Well, here's Deloitte. But the analysis is ridiculous, bordering on fraudulent. They fit a curve to data points dominated by three pessimistic predictions out to 2030. Lazards don't do predictions, so their more cheerful data are cut back to single observations for 2013, even though this is their ninth annual survey. Faugh.

      Lazards are in line with the reports on solar and wind of the NREL and anecdata in the press (Austin and Dubai contracts, say). The EIA has discredited itself on renewables with a whole series of absurdly pessimistic predictions. I doubt if anybody in the business takes them seriously as a forecaster.

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