Monday

9th Dec 2019

Analysis

Is Paris the last chance to save humankind, like Hollande said?

  • The Paris summit will show if "humankind [is] capable of deciding that we will preserve life on this planet". (Photo: Joe deSousa)

French president Francois Hollande told the United Nations on Monday (28 September) that the climate summit which will begin two months from now, is humanity's last chance to avert the catastrophic effects of global warming.

The summit, which will be held in Paris, will show if “humankind [is] capable of deciding that we will preserve life on this planet”.

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  • "If we don't make this decision in Paris, it will be too late for the world." (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

“Some will say to me that this is something that can be decided later at another conference. Well I assure you, and I'm saying this quite candidly, if we don't make this decision in Paris, it will be too late for the world”, said Hollande in his speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

But while it is understandable that Hollande, as host of the climate talks, is ratcheting up the political pressure, his comments could backfire enormously.

Because they are strictly speaking not true.

There is no Hollywood-style clock bomb ticking down to Friday 11 December 2015, the last day of the two-week Paris summit. (In any case, there are already sources saying: make sure you book your hotel until Monday in case talks stretch into a weekender).

The world will still be here after the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP), the UN forum for climate negotiations. In fact, a 22nd edition of the annual COP is already scheduled for November 2016 in Morocco.

Nothing, apart from the political repercussions that would follow a Paris failure, is prohibiting countries from trying to achieve a global climate treaty.

Hollande's remarks are a kind of gamble, which echo similar statements made by politicians in the past.

The 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, which according to the French president was “a terrible fiasco”, was also depicted as a last chance saloon.

Ahead of that summit, UK prime minister at the time Gordon Brown said “there are only one or two moments when nations come together and reach agreements that make history”, adding that Copenhagen should yield such a moment.

“If we do not reach a deal at this time, let us be in no doubt: once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement in some future period can undo that choice. By then it will be irretrievably too late”, Brown noted.

Point of (no) return

The EU's then environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, was even more direct in March 2009, saying "Copenhagen [is] the world's last chance to stop climate change before it passes the point of no return".

But Copenhagen came and went, and only a non-binding text came out of it.

Some have argued that the 'last chance' rhetoric backfired afterwards, because what can politicians say after the last chance has been missed? Will we now stop trying to save the Earth from climate change?

Or: oh hang on, we found another last chance? There is only a limited number of times politicians can cry wolf and maintain credibility.

Climate change is a political, economic and societal challenge on a scale never seen before.

As climate activist Bill McKibben recently told this website, climate change “isn't like a normal political problem, where ... you reach some kind of compromise in the middle, and it all works.”

Without a world government with a benevolent dictator, the only political option to have countries commit to changing behaviour (i.e. reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the effects of global warming) appears to be the current system of a bottom-up approach. This makes for slow progress in the climate talks, which take place continuously at a technical level.

“There are 194 countries, so at least 194 experts in the negotiating room. Everyone has their own pet subject. That makes for difficult negotiations”, an industry source who has followed climate negotiations for twenty years, told this website.

Each country decides for itself what to put in the climate pledges it sends to the UN. The pledges are called intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs.

“Anyone can put what they want to in their INDCs. There's no consistency. But I don't see that changing”, said the industry source.

While the EU had wanted INDCs to be submitted by 1 April 2015, the world's governments agreed a soft deadline for Thursday 1 October, after which the UN's climate body will begin to add up and analyse the pledges handed in by that date.

Two days before, 73 countries had submitted their pledge, with 121 still outstanding.

Optimism

However, there is reason for optimism too.

“We are miles ahead where we were at this point before Copenhagen”, said Nigel Purvis, who follows US climate change policy. He praised the bottom-up approach as yielding “unprecedented progress”.

“Almost every country in the world is doing more than they ever did before as a result of this process”, noted Purvis.

Hollande also noted “we have moved forward over the recent months”.

His 'last chance' statements are obviously meant to keep or increase political momentum, and if it helps achieve a global climate treaty, people may say afterwards it was an acceptable white lie.

And there is some justification to the French leader's remarks. Because while there will still be another chance to 'save the planet' if Paris fails, it will become increasingly difficult.

Humans have already changed the climate by their behaviour. Temperatures have risen around 0.8 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution.

The longer humans continue to emit extra greenhouse gases in the air, the more places in the world will become inhabitable because of extreme weather. Chances for global salvation will continue to exist, but they will become slimmer.

There will be a final deadline, but it will depend on how much greenhouse gas will be emitted in the near future.

Climate scientists have calculated that if emissions continue at the current rate but stop in twenty years, there is a 66 percent chance that global warming will remain limited to a rise of 2 degrees Celsius - anything above that would mark a point of no return.

But if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the same rate until after 2042, there is only a 50 percent chance.

EU agrees common position for climate summit

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