Reflections from week two of the Paris climate talks.

After a week at the global climate talks what has really struck me is that the most fascinating story isn’t actually the negotiations, but everything that has been swirling around them. Mayors, businesses and not-for profit organisations are driving progress. I’ve been absolutely blown away by the sheer scale and momentum of the change we are witnessing and will witness into the future. The climate debate in Australia has been bruising and protracted and the many years of domestic inaction can certainly be wearying, so it’s been enormously refreshing meeting people from around the world who are getting on with the job!

As the negotiations are in the second and final week, I wanted to share with you some reflections and to give you a flavour of what’s happening.

1. Renewable energy is front and centre.

Renewable energy has continued to be a significant focus of the events and announcements surrounding the conference. Here are five examples:

  • On Friday, 1000 mayors and local leaders from cities including Paris, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Stockholm announced that they would go 100% renewable.
  • There have been a number of big announcements from business. One of the largest ones was Google announcing they would triple their purchases of renewable energy by 2025, with the goal of powering their operations with 100% clean energy. Thinking back to Copenhagen this is one of the biggest shifts I’ve noticed - some very large businesses are now actually implementing significant change in their own operations.
  • Sunday saw the launch of the Global Solar Council- designed to unify the solar power sector and bring together stakeholders from business, politics, and civil society to accelerate the growth of global solar market developments.

    John Smirnow, Global Solar Council Secretary General; Amanda McKenzie, CEO Climate Council; Bruce Douglas, Chairman of the Global Solar Council and CEO of Solar Power Europe; Steve Blume, Chair of the Australian Solar Council.

  • Through the conference, developing countries have put renewable energy front and centre. India has created an international Solar Alliance, whereby the world’s most vulnerable countries have collectively called for 100% renewable energy and African nations have created an Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) to help Africa leapfrog into low-carbon development. The goal of the AREI is to build at least 10 GW of new and additional renewable energy generation capacity by 2020 and 300 GW by 2030. Considering that current total electricity generation in Africa is roughly 150 GW, this is a very big announcement.
  • The oft-repeated and utterly false argument that "Australian coal will bring people out of poverty” is non-existent in Paris. In fact, it is the opposite. Developing countries want renewable energy. Solar in particular has been noted as being critical for tackling poverty, as Rachel Kyte, a group vice-president and special envoy for climate change at the World Bank, said, “solar is critical to closing the access gap to energy for the poor”.

2. Fossil fuel divestment continues to gain momentum.

Last Wednesday made the incredible announcement that that more that 100 institutions controlling over $1 trillion in funds world-wide had made divestments from fossil fuels in the 10 weeks leading up to Paris. A total of 500 organisations representing over $3.4 trillion in assets have made some form of divestment commitment since the campaign started (many of these are partial divestments).

3. Environmental celebrities have all come to town.

From Leonardo DiCaprio speaking at the global mayors event and urging them to commit to 100% renewables, to Al Gore hosting business meetings and Richard Branson urging Australia to protect the Great Barrier Reef, the celebs have been out in force. This has attracted even greater global media attention and many of their speeches have been inspiring.

Al Gore made this comment on social change I thought was insightful: that at first change happens slower than you expected it to, but then, when change happens, it is faster than you can ever imagine. His view was that we are witnessing the acceleration of enormous change.

4. Greenland’s ice melts in the streets of Paris.

Art and cultural installations have surrounded the talks. One in particular caught my attention. Great blocks of ice from melting Greenland have been placed in the forecourt of the Panthéon. After the talks the other night we went to have a look. As you turn the corner into the famous square, these other-worldly glistening shapes emerge, white with a hint of blue. The ground all around is wet and water flows down the adjacent street as Greenland’s ice melts away in the centre of Paris.

Although large-scale public actions have been heavily restricted, there have still be some creative public actions urging on world leaders. One example is this beautiful human sign created yesterday:

6. So how about the actual global negotiations?

The negotiations have been progressing slowly but all indications point to an agreement being reached at the end of the week.

There are a range of contentious issues that are being negotiated as we speak, including:

  1. The long-term goal. A crucial question is what should be the long-term goal of the global agreement. There has been significant movement in Paris on the “temperature goal”, that is, the level of global warming we should be aiming to stay below. Pacific Island nations have long been arguing that anything above 1.5 degrees celsius would wipe them off the map, and is therefore unacceptable. Whereas the global community’s shared goal was previously staying below 2 degrees, it looks like it may be more ambitious and that 1.5 may be included in the text. And the scientific underpinning for the 2 degrees policy target being a “safe” level of climate change is now weaker than it was a decade ago. This is because the scientific case for a 1.5 degree limit is more consistent with our current level of understanding, bolstering the case for even more urgent action. See the Climate Council’s report on ‘Growing risks, critical choices’ and Lesley Hughes’ summary of 1.5 degrees for more info.
  2. The review period. This is often described as the “ambition mechanism” or “ratchet mechanism” because it goes to how countries increase their commitments to reduce pollution over time. Countries have different positions on when the review happens - before or after 2020 - how often it happens; what it involves and indeed if it should exist at all! But a review process is fundamental if we are to hold countries accountable to their targets and to track progress towards reaching the 1.5/2°C target.
  3. Rich country vs poor country responsibilities. This issue goes to who is responsible for climate change and who needs to act first and most significantly. For those people who have followed the negotiations this issue has been contentious for the full 21 years. Right from the onset of the Paris climate talks, powerful developing countries, such as India, have contested that developed countries (because of their historical emissions that have driven climate change over a long time) should fulfill their responsibilities towards giving climate-related assistance to developing nations, in the form of helping them to invest in clean technology to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, and to adapt their infrastructure to the likely damage from climate change. And “loss and damage” (issues of migration, displacement, and human mobility) is another area under discussion in the draft Paris agreement text.

There's a lot more detail on these issues! I’d recommend the IISD report service here.

7. What has Australia been doing?

While there has been a distinct and important change of tone in the Australian position, as I mentioned in the previous update Australia’s domestic policies have not changed.

Today the Climate Change Performance Index, which is designed to enhance transparency during international climate talks, ranked Australia last of all the OECD countries on climate action and third-last of the 58 countries analysed. We have a long way to go!

As part of a bargaining chip at the Paris climate talks, Australia has pledged to support the 1.5 degree target, but it remains to be seen how our domestic policy will help us live up to this commitment.

Australia's current targets are too weak to put Australia and the world on the path of staying below a 2 degrees rise in global temperature and won’t protect Australians from worsening extreme weather. The world recently hit an unenviable landmark of reaching 1 degree above pre-industrial levels. We must act now, there is no time to waste.

There has also been much discussion here about whether Australia has got a free ride due to the accounting rules, and you can read Tim's thoughts on that here.

8. What next?

We’re expecting there to be some disagreements over the next few days, but ultimately we are hopeful there will be a global agreement on climate change on Saturday that will further drive action forward.

However, the most exciting thing has been all the other action that is going on beyond national pledges and international agreements. So much momentum is being generated from the ground up that inevitably governments will have to catch up.

Former U.S. vice president Al Gore at the COP21 UN climate summit in Paris on Thursday. Photo by (C) Mychaylo Prystupa.