As the festive lights are strung up across Europe - Rudolph flashing merrily alongside slightly wizened pumpkin lanterns - it is a timely reminder that there are only 42 shopping days 'til Christmas. What gifts will lie below the tree this year, I wonder? Will there be a Climate Change agreement nestled alongside the discarded knitwear and unexpected hedge trimmer? The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convenes in Paris on the 1st December, and concludes some 14 short days later. Will the nations assembled pull the chestnuts from the fire or will it be another hard candy Christmas?
There is little doubting that President Hollande is facing challenges, not least coping with the aftermath of the tragic events in Paris. Mr Hollande has shown leadership and will need to do so again if the most challenging negotiations in two decade are to be a success. Negotiators remember Copenhagen with a shudder. There, the discussions ended in abject failure when last minute talks between China and the US collapsed. It was a bitter Christmas, the chill of which is only now thawing.
China has been much in the thoughts of President Hollande. This month he hosted Chinese Premier Xi Jingping in Paris and managed to secure an important concession: China will allow its Climate Change commitments to be measured and reviewed every five years. It has also declared that it will aim to improve its carbon reduction ambitions in the future. A modest success, perhaps, but worth remembering that the Copenhagen talks fell apart because China was unwilling to concede the basic reality of climate change. Très bien fait, M. Hollande!
Measuring China’s commitments will be vital. Just how vital was demonstrated recently by a New York Times expose revealing that China’s coal emissions were in fact 17% higher than previously reported. To put it in context, that discrepancy is equivalent to all of Germany’s annual emissions from every type of fossil fuel combined. Paris negotiators must now spend considerable time recalibrating the math. Setting aside the reasons for the ‘error’, one thing is clear – you can’t fib your way to an end of global warming.
As Hollande does his diplomatic dance, the UN’s chief negotiator Christiana Figueres remains at the coal face. She addressed the European Parliament’s Environment Committee in September where I lead for my party on climatic matters. An eternal optimist (you’d have to be) she is painfully aware that on the balance of probabilities, the two degree target will not be met. When the UN published its synthesis document tallying the climate reduction contributions of the 140 nations, the findings were stark: global emissions will continue to rise by 22 Gigatonnes by 2030, delivering at best a 3oC rise in global temperature.
The painful lesson from Copenhagen is that there can be no global deal on emissions without China and the USA. Combined, they emit each year 40% of the world’s CO2. The next biggest emitter is the EU, whose combined emissions represent only 10% of the global total. China and the US are not only the biggest emitters, but with a combined GDP of $28 trillion, they also have the cash to do something about the consequences of climate change. So are they doing enough?
China has agreed to peak its emissions in 2030 and ensure that non-fossil fuels represent at least a fifth of primary energy consumption. China has also committed to reduce the ‘carbon intensity’ of its industries (the amount of carbon consumed in the creation of goods and services) and to double the acreage of its forests from 124 to 247 million acres – the equivalent of foresting the entire UK twice over.
For the first time - and this is worth trumpeting - China has conceded that economic growth does not depend upon emission growth. You don’t need to burn to grow. This is a big realisation for a country which relies upon coal for nearly three-quarters of its primary energy production. Remember, half the world’s coal is burned in China. Last year Chinese coal production fell by 3%. This might not sound like much, but it is the first time in recent history that it has declined at all.
Much of China’s slowdown in production and consumption of coal is the result of efficiency savings and fuel switching. As coal use drops gently, hydro power for example is growing at 16% a year, whilst China builds a nuclear power plant every month (an activity that will continue for the next two decades).
As for the USA, President Obama has a ‘Clean Power Plan’ to reduce emissions by almost a third by 2025 (against a 2005 baseline). Like China, these emissions emanate primarily from its power sector. The reduction targets are set on a state-by-state basis. Unlike China, the US has an ambitious long-term goal of reducing emissions by 83% by 2050.
However, it is one thing to have an ambition and another to realise it. The USA’s commitment to binding targets has always been linked to political complexion of its Congress. Under its constitution US law makers must approve any international treaty before it comes into force. The admission this from Secretary of State John Kerry that the US will not seek a legally binding deal in Paris has troubled the EU and laid bare the precarious nature of America’s commitment to tackling Climate Change.
One year ago in Lima the world still believed that it may just, just, be on track to arresting global warming at 2oC. Today, with China’s errant reporting methods and America’s reluctance to concede binding emission targets that certainty is wavering. For M. Hollande, who has steadily built expectations ahead of the Paris COP21 summit, it may yet prove to be a long, cold winter.
Ian Duncan is an MEP and a member of the European Parliaments 's Environment, Public Health and Food Committee. He is also the ECR Group's UK Spokesman for Energy.
Newsletter, latest research and events