Last year’s climate change conference, COP21, has widely been heralded a success. But the burning question: is it enough?
The Conference of Parties (COP) is the result of a global treaty signed in 1992 – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which outlines how future international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions should be negotiated. Although representatives from signatory countries have met on an annual basis since 1995, they have largely failed to produce a true plan to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
In the midst of past failures, last year’s COP21 was heavily weighted with expectations of the necessary ‘turning point’. As a show, 161 countries submitted plans to reduce GHG emissions (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)) in the conference’s lead-up, and the conference was attended by representatives from 195 countries. These plans revolved around limiting warming to a 1.5°C increase relative to pre-industrial times.
The conference was widely considered a success due to a number of reasons:
- Greatly improved dialogue between developed and developing nations;
- Commitments to emissions reductions plans by almost all of the top polluters – China; India and the US – also likely to drive down prices in renewable energy markets;
- The shift in conversation towards the funding of adaptation solutions, in favour of poor developing nations at greater risk.
But is it enough?
Praise for the agreement seems to be on shaky foundations – the plans appear to be nowhere near sufficient to curb warming below the targeted 1.5°C increase. One analysis by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) “suggests current proposals would more likely lead to a rise of 3.5°C” (National Geographic 2015). There is a big difference between 2° C and 3.5° C, especially considering the uncertainty around positive feedback mechanisms – when and how they might kick in.
In addition, many of these commitments appear to be merely economically self-serving. China’s commitments are in line with reducing air pollution levels and occupying pole position in renewable energy markets. India “still has plans to double coal output by 2020 and rely on the resource for decades afterwards” (The Guardian 2015).
To limit warming below the projected 2°C, this places a lot of weight on the proposed improvement ‘ratchet mechanisms’ – “regular, recurring cycles of assessment and a schedule for revisiting country commitments” (The Road Through Paris 2015). But, as has long been demonstrated by behavioural scientists, social ratchet mechanisms based on voluntary commitments are typically characterised by fast-diminishing ambition in subsequent rounds (Carmton and Stoft, 2015).
As outlined by Carmton and Stoft (2015), the solution lies rather in rules that inspire ‘positive reciprocity’ – “we will do more than our narrow self-interest if you will”.
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