Paris Climate Conference 2015: Well done on the deal, but the real test still to come

The Arc de Triomphe roundabout painted yellow by climate change activists during the Paris conference. Photo: Greenpeace/APHistoric deal agreed in ParisParis delivers, but can Turnbull?What you need to know about the deal​UN Climate Conference: Full coverage


Is the Paris climate summit, as the French phrase goes, “the mountain that gives birth to the mouse”?

The first test was passed – the summit didn’t fail. None of the potential spoilers – such as fossil-fuel rich Saudi Arabia and Russia – stormed out or obstructed the final agreement involving 187 nations.

But the real test will take years and decades to play out, long after the congratulatory speechs are a fading memory.

“I’m totally frustrated,” a European negotiator told me after talks on the crucial climate finance section wrapped up after an all-nighter this week. “This is a minimal deal.”

Going into the conference, global greenhouse emissions were on course to rise about 10 per cent from current levels by 2030.

And they remain so after Paris, at least until a stocktake in 2018 and a review of targets agreed in five yearly intervals from 2020. By then, new leaders will have replaced the current climate champions, such as US President Barack Obama.

Research by Malte Meinshausen and his team at the University of Melbourne shows emissions must fall more than 22 per cent from current levels by 2030 to avoid dangerous climate change.

Paris has left the door open, Meinshausen says, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and the carbon reduction goals are in line with staying well below 2 degrees.

The problem is that what nations have offered as post-2020 targets “is woefully inadequate compared to the goalpost that the international community has set itself”.

But what might shift those goalposts to within range?

Will political pressure prompt Malcolm Turnbull to lift his government’s post-2020 targets, which countries such as China rank as among the least ambitious in the world?

Nations like India were wary – with reason as it turns out – about the extra funds the rich world might stump up to encourage a faster exit from fossil fuels.

After Paris, the target of $US100 billion ($139 billion) a year climate aid target by 2020 may be extended to as late as 2025. When it does get a review, the figure is supposed to rise above that floor – but by how much (and whether it will be inflation-indexed) is left for some future conference to approve.

True, China and other emerging nations are already providing funds – and these funds will be welcomed.

In the eyes of the frustrated negotiator, the blurring in Paris of the distinction between rich and poor nations – a practice since the Montreal Protocol in 1989 to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals – may be one of this conference’s biggest achievements.

While the investment world will get a signal from Paris that the world is heading for a lower-carbon future, the challenge remains huge.

The 1.5 degree temperature goal means new carbon-dioxide emissions must be phased out by 2050, while the target date would be 2070 for a 2-degree limit, says John Schellnhuber, director of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“My thinking is that 2 degrees is probably the red line for the Greenland ice sheet melting,” Schellnhuber told me in Paris. Global sea-levels would rise six metres with such a meltdown, US agencies say.

Climate talks have changed since the initial 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, where  environmentalists discussing the threats ahead with scientists.  Now, 23 years on, scientists like Schellnhuber are onlookers in what is mostly a political exercise.

Politics leads to countries taking some unlikely positions. Take Pakistan, which aligned with blocs opposed to the more aggressive climate action at Paris despite being one of the world’s 10 most vulnerable countries.

As Schellnhuber notes, Pakistan has 60 per cent of its workforce in agriculture and a population set to swell from 200 million to 350 million over the next 25 years. Its future will by uncertain if the Paris pact isn’t built upon.

‘It’s crazy. Pakistan is squeezed from all sides: glacier melt, the big floods, and the jet stream is changing,” Schellnhuber says. “This country could become unmanageable.”

Whether the leaders of countries such as Pakistan come to tackle climate change as a mountain, rather than a mouse, will determine whether the hope of a Paris dream is ultimately realised.

Fairfax Media is a partner of the UN Foundation

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