THE presence of an expected 147 world leaders at least at the opening of the long-awaited Paris climate summit today will represent something of a triumph for France and the world in general. That the global gathering is taking place as planned and coming so soon after the appalling terrorist attacks of Nov. 13 is a comforting expression of defiance against violent extremism.
There are fears, however, that the summit will achieve little more than that.
Officially known as the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP-21, the summit has 197 nations-signatories to the framework that was adopted in 1994. The most substantial action it has achieved to date occurred at the third meet (COP-3) in Kyoto, Japan when the emissions-reduction agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol was developed.
That agreement, however, took 11 years to come into effect at all and is almost universally regarded as a failure. Some important “parties” (such as the United States) have never actually ratified it, while others (such as Canada) later backed out of it.
Six years ago at the COP-15 meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, an attempt to salvage the intent of the Kyoto agreement collapsed. While there is a bit more optimism now that something that will lead to tangible action on a global scale may be achieved, there is a palpable sense of desperation among climate change activists that the Paris summit may very well be the world’s last chance.
Unlike the past summits, this year’s convention in Paris especially evokes hope that a significant course of action will come out of it because there is now a sense that the debate over the scientific conclusions has been settled. There is also at least universal acknowledgement that manmade gaseous emissions – a by-product of our industrial evolution – are causing the planet to grow warmer and altering the natural climate in ways that are ultimately harmful to our species. Alternative technologies such as electric vehicles and non-fossil fuel-based forms of power generation have become more economical and reliable in recent years, and present viable options for countries that would like to reduce emissions but do not because of fear that doing so would halt or reverse economic growth and development.
Although it is not something that can be tangibly measured, there is also a sense that the commitment among the participating nations to achieving some sort of positive outcome is much greater than it has ever been.
Not much has changed
Beyond that, however, it seems national self-interests are still held in higher regard than global aims, and that the widespread expressions of support for the summit’s objectives flatter to deceive.
China, currently the world’s biggest polluter, has promised no more than that its greenhouse gas emissions will peak by 2030 at the latest. The US, which has cumulatively produced more pollution than anyone else since the beginning of the industrial age, although it produces less carbon emissions now than China, has rejected the idea of a legally binding accord, or one that punishes countries that fail to live up to their emissions-cutting pledges with economic or other sanctions.
Carbon pricing, which in its various forms serves as a financial incentive to individual industries to moderate their greenhouse gas emissions, has been declared completely off the table, leaving the technocrats who will attempt to negotiate a new draft climate agreement at a bit of a loss for ideas on ways to encourage nations to follow through on their pollution-reduction pledges.
We hope that the participants in the COP-21 talks will gain more insight and develop a climate agreement with real substance, although it will no longer be a surprise if they fail again. If that turns out to be the case, it will be a tragic and shameful outcome for countries like the Philippines, which inordinately suffers the consequences of the developed world’s climate-damaging activities.
Our leaders, however, should not let the outcome of the Paris summit – whatever that may be – be wasted. Mitigating the impact of climate change does not happen by simply sitting back and resigning ourselves to a “tragic and shameful” result. Rather, the Paris summit should be taken as an opportunity by the new Administration to lead by example, encouraging us to redouble our own efforts to develop and promote environmental sustainability.