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OPINION: Reflecting on Our Common Future Under Climate Change

CDKN’s Helen Picot and Sam Bickersteth reflect on the pre-COP 21 science conference held in Paris last week; Our Common Future Under Climate Change.

A bridge between science and policy

Last week saw the largest ever international gathering of climate scientists and practitioners in the halls of UNESCO, Paris, with 2000 participants from over 100 countries. The Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference was a four day pre-COP21 conference, five months ahead of the UN climate summit in Paris.

While most attendees were climate scientists (including many esteemed co-authors of sections of IPCC reports), the very diverse programme ensured that the week really felt like a bridging of science and policy. Political barriers to action on climate change, as much as the technological challenges, were a recurring theme. In fact there were many calls for climate scientists to have a role beyond that of facts alone, or for the IPCC potentially to make policy recommendations, rather than its current ‘policy-neutral’ stance. With frequent calls for bottom up social change in order to make politicians act, perhaps climate scientists should be leading the way.

Themes emerging among a cacophony of knowledge

Sessions covered a range of cross-cutting themes, including urbanisation and infrastructure, INDCs and ways to assess them, and the challenges of fossil fuel lock-in.

Several talks dealt with the mega-trend of urbanisation, predominantly in a developing context. We were reminded that cities are likely to comprise one third to one half of the carbon budget in the future. Relfecting  on urbanisation in climate change projects, Prof. Nebojsa Nakicenovic  highlighted that half the uncertainty stems from lack of knowledge about physical earth systems, and half is not knowing what development path societies will take. Choosing the right development path now can therefore halve the uncertainty.

Dr Shobhakar Dhakal raised the concept of infrastructure as the elephant in the room, and at the core of potential development/climate trade-offs. Possible emissions from future infrastructure growth are 350 Gt CO2 (about a third of the 1000 Gt CO2 budget to the year 2030). Therefore avoiding lock-in, given the decades-long lifespan of infrastructure, is a must. He reminded us that we cannot generalise for all cities, but that context is key, as developing country city-dwellers also tend to have higher per person emissions than the national average, while in developed countries the reverse is true.

What do INDCs mean for a global goal?

Unsurprisingly, given the direction of the programme towards the Paris COP21, INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) were considered in many sessions. These are commitments on climate action which countries have been invited to submit by October this year, in order to build momentum before the Paris COP. So far, 45 countries have submitted INDCs.

Several countries provided case studies of their INDCs. South Africa considered the development challenges to producing an ambitious INDC, including coal dependency and lock-in, and inequality and youth unemployment. Systemic issues require systemic solutions which can be harder to implement – for example to reimagine South Africa’s economy as a high skills one requires a high standard of education system. Speakers recognised that decarbonisation needs to be embedded in social, economic and political contexts. Energy needs, poverty reduction, economic growth and jobs come first.   For India the focus is on sectoral co-benefits. Brazilian speakers noted that structural change can come from a combination of targets, carbon pricing and sectoral policies.

Youba Sokona from the South Centre also the raised the importance of a development-first approach and aligning climate change action to SDGs; an approach which CDKN also endorses and promotes.

The climate justice and ethics issues came together in a session on equity which remains a central and challenging issue for the Paris negotiations. The academic panel were unequivocal about the importance of taking an ethical perspective to tackling climate change, and the need to go beyond a narrow, short term economic perspective. But we need to think well beyond the time frame of INDCs to consider equity in the large scale transformations that will occur in the move to a low carbon economy. What will happen to the least well-off with these changes? The World Bank presented research that is improving our understanding of the transitory poor (i.e. the vulnerable near poor who are close to the line of falling in or out of poverty) and the need for targeted policies such as conditional cash transfers that can reduce impacts of climate change.

Assessment of INDCs was the topic of one session – how to aggregate the submissions which use a wide range of methods and units, and how to assess what outcome they would produce against a 2C goal? Methods combining equity (taking into account starting points of different countries), and the technical requirements to reach 2C were suggested. The initial diagnosis was that while we are not on track towards a 2 degree target with INDCs, they are promising. Fatih Birol of the IEA (International Energy Agency) said the proposed five year commitment cycle on INDCs would hopefully encourage constant ratcheting up of ambition. Perhaps this is the best we can hope for, given developing countries must put development first, while developed countries consider economic competitiveness to be a priority over mitigation ambition.

Stranded assets in developing countries

A rather sobering recurring topic was that of coal industry growth and lock-in. Fatih Birol told us that the rate of global carbonisation is increasing, driven by the coal renaissance (predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa, but with other countries driving export demand). He positioned African countries at a bifurcation point – and suggested carbon pricing as a way to help reduce inequality and fight poverty while closing the infrastructure gap.

We heard the issue of stranded assets raised for the first time in a developing context – if countries keep building coal plants that must shut down early (i.e. be decommissioned before the end of their say 50 year lifespan), then there will be unprecedented stranded capital, which may amount to billions of dollars in China and India. The economics of this is at the heart of why lock-in is such a pernicious problem, and that short termism in development decisions now may have repercussions into the second half of the century. In fact, China’s environmental regulatory drive is already impacting coal plant owners, as reported by China Daily (3 July 2015).

Expanding the climate links – gender and the SDGs

CDKN presented papers at sessions on climate change and gender, and on SDGs. CDKN’s Virginie le Masson’s paper is referred to in Laurie Goering’s blog on gender and climate.

We also presented at a parallel session on the Sustainable Development Goals. There was welcome consensus from the panel that these two tracks are mutually reinforcing. Refreshing angles included considering a reconsideration of SDGs after the 15 year window is up, in order to carry on momentum and improve the framework using lessons learned.

A display of commitment from the French COP21 Presidency

The closing panel reminded us that low carbon economies are inevitable and that we have a limited period of no more than 30 years with the remaining global carbon space. Hearing leading scientists and policy makers call for a global social movement that could lead to an “induced implosion of the carbon economy” indicated a potential step change in how science engages with policy. In this way the conference successfully contributed to building momentum with the science community towards a good outcome in Paris.

France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, as incoming President of the COP21, spoke of the complex challenge ahead. He will need to technically guide the two weeks of negotiations towards a concrete and useful outcome which is recognised by all parties, while still maintaining trust and a spirit of cooperation. Fabius’ lengthy speech did not shy away from getting into the substance of the climate deal, and he seemed to hold developing countries’ needs front and centre, citing differentiation and climate finance as must-haves in the final agreement. The outcome statement from the organisers can be found here.

The takeaway message seemed to broadly be one of urging action and reiterating that we can still remain within a 2C limit, if political will ensures urgent changes at a transformational scale. There is no silver bullet, but a suite of solutions and approaches depending on context could get us there.

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