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COMMENTARY

Upcoming summit marks critical stage in climate debate

WORLD leaders are making final preparations for the annual UN climate summit which starts in Poland on Sunday. The meeting, on the three-year anniversary of the inception of the landmark Paris deal, is as urgent as it is important with two areas of crucial business to transact.

Firstly, leaders need to deliver a clear political signal of the need for ratcheting up collective climate ambition into the 2020s. And secondly, they must agree the so-called "Paris Rulebook" which is key to giving full effect to the 2015 deal agreed in France.

This rulebook is the framework of operating procedures for how countries should fulfil their obligations under Paris. The deadline set for this is the end of the Polish summit and there is still much work to do after an emergency meeting in Thailand on this issue in September made only limited progress.

While this rulebook will require great technical and negotiating skill to resolve in coming days, the issue of the need to send a political signal for ratcheting up collective climate ambition requires genuine global statesmanship by the leaders present. This is because the summit comes in the context of release of a UN Environment report on Wednesday that showed the largest gap yet between where global efforts to tackle climate change are today and where we need to be.

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This so-called emissions gap report says that, in 2017, economic growth helped drive the first rise in CO2 emissions for four years as global efforts to cut carbon faltered. To meet the goals of Paris, the study says it's crucial that global emissions peak by 2020, but the analysis says that this is now not likely even by 2030.

Moreover, last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change launched a hard-hitting report which asserted there may be only a dozen years to prevent the worst impact of so-called "runaway" global warming. This argued that only urgent, unprecedented action can avoid worsening risks of global warming.

CLEANER ENERGY

Take the example of the Middle East and North Africa, which the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry forecasts will see summer temperatures rising twice as fast as the global average. It forecasts that extreme temperatures of 46 deg C (115 Fahrenheit) or more will be around five times more likely by 2050 than at the beginning of the millennium. In this context, it is not just hotter temperatures, but also increased dust storms and longer droughts that will unfortunately greet the region.

In these circumstances, pessimism may yet grow about the future of global efforts to combat climate change. Yet, while the scale of the challenge is huge and growing, action can still be taken collectively by governments, businesses and individuals that are affordable and feasible to potentially turn this situation around under the flexible Paris treaty which has potential to be ratcheted up.

Paris came after many years of painstaking negotiations and, crucially, a new post-Kyoto framework was put in place. The deal agreed to see greenhouse gas emissions peak "as soon as possible", and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.

In the three years since, critics of the deal - from different parts of the political spectrum - have already sought to diminish its significance. However, the agreement deserves to be defended robustly for as then-US President Barack Obama asserted in 2015, it may prove to be "the best chance we have to save the planet we have".

For those who argue that Paris is not ambitious enough, it needs to be remembered that the long-running UN-brokered talks nearly collapsed several times over the years, and that this was one of the most complex set of international negotiations ever. While the agreement is far from perfect, it nonetheless has kept the process "alive", the importance of which cannot potentially be underestimated.

Moreover, the review framework means that countries can in the future potentially toughen their response to climate change. So, rather than viewing the Paris agreement as the end of the process, it must be seen as a very important stepping stone in a longer journey that countries must now make.

Other critics of the deal, such as US President Donald Trump, have also lambasted the agreement albeit for different reasons. Despite the now-overwhelming scientific evidence about the risks of global warming, Mr Trump and many others argue that climate change is at worst a grand hoax, or at best an unwelcome distraction from other key issues.

While there is always uncertainty with science, these critics are misguided. Even if, remarkably, it turns out that the vast majority of scientists in the world are wrong about global warming, what the Paris deal will help achieve is moving more towards gradually cleaner energies, making the world a less polluted and more sustainable place.

Here, it appears that Mr Trump is losing this argument even within the United States itself, as the private sector and many state and city governments push for decarbonisation. Indeed, in 2017 - his first year in office - the US Environmental Protection Agency asserted that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the United States dropped by 2.7 per cent. This reflects a broader fall-off since 2007 driven largely by market forces inasmuch as power plants have been transitioning to natural gas which is a cleaner, cheaper energy than coal.

WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

Regarding Paris, specifically, what is now important is that the political "window of opportunity" provided by the treaty is now leveraged. Three years on from its agreement, this includes the need for implementation as fast as possible, hence the need to approve the Paris Rulebook.

Taken overall, tackling the challenges posed by global warming remains a massively ambitious agenda that will require comprehensive and swift action from governments and corporates if it is to have any prospect of being achieved. While this is uncertain, the fact remains that Paris created a window of opportunity, and what is now needed is political, business and civic leadership to help ensure effective implementation, and holding the public and private sectors to account so that the treaty truly delivers.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.