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200 days to Paris

Irene Quaile
May 20, 2015

Negotiators have just 200 days left to prepare for the key UN climate conference in Paris, tasked with a new global agreement to reduce CO2 emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. A tall order?

UN Flag (Photo: Oliver Berg dpa/lnw)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When the international community meets in Paris at the end of November, the pressure to succeed will be stronger than ever. Time is running short to come up with a new global agreement to halt climate change. In March, the global monthly average carbon dioxide concentration surpassed 400 parts per million. It was the first time in recorded history with such a high.

CO2, released into the atmosphere through the burning of coal, oil and gas, is one of the chief factors responsible for the rise in global temperature. As one of the chief greenhouse gases, countries have to reduce such emissions dramatically in order to achieve the goal set by the international community of keeping global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius, a benchmark seen as triggering potentially dangerous consequences.

Too big for one meeting

The United Nations Climate Secretariat UNFCCC - based in Bonn, Germany - is working around the clock to prepare for the key Paris meeting and ensure that governments put firm pledges on the table. The next round of preparatory talks will take place in Bonn early in June.

But climate change has become an issue on the agenda of other key international meetings. This week, Germany's Chancellor Merkel hosted the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin. The annual round of informal talks was launched in 2010, after the failed climate summit in Copenhagen the year prior.

Among the representatives of 35 countries attending were the president and foreign minister of France, which will host the key talks at the end of the year. Paris is also currently staging a Climate Week, which will include a high-level business summit to mark the "200 days" to Paris talks.

High-level talks at the Petersberg Dialogue (Photo: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz/Pool)
High-level talks took place at the Petersberg Climate DialogueImage: Reuters/T. Schwarz

Decarbonization: a long-term goal

In a joint statement, Merkel and Hollande said they would strive, with all partners in the UN, "to decarbonize fully the global economy over the course of this century." That would mean a complete turn away from burning oil, gas and coal.

Merkel also expressed tentative support for a contentious coal levy, proposed by her cabinet to slash emissions from the most-polluting, soft-coal-burning plants in Germany. "We need credible fulfillment of our 40 percent goal, and I believe that the levy mechanism is one possibility," Merkel said Tuesday in Berlin.

Merkel stressed that the fight against climate change may not come at the expense of competitiveness and prosperity. "We cannot do without growth - we just have to generate it in a different way."

Hollande also stressed the need for low-emission technologies and "innovative ways to attract investment."

Both Merkel and Hollande emphasized that incentives for business were essential to "reach an ambitious, comprehensive and binding UN climate agreement by the end of this year."

Merkel and Hollande smile at each other during the Petersberg Climate Dialogue (Photo: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz/Pool)
Merkel and Hollande pushed for climate actionImage: Reuters/T. Schwarz

Jennifer Morgan, Global Director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), told DW that companies have a massive role to play. "Companies are the ones that can bring in innovation, out-compete each other to find the solutions," Morgan said. "They're the ones that can engage their consumers in the solution, as some companies are now doing."

Falling short for 2-degree target

And while there is no shortage of high-profile meetings with politicians stressing the need for rapid climate action, the pledges on the table so far are not sufficient to cut emissions to the level necessary to keep to the 2-degree target. Countries have been asked to put their figures on the table by October. So far, 38 countries have done so.

Morgan told DW there is still a gap between what has been promised and what is necessary. She said available solutions are not yet being deployed at the scale or speed required to accomplish an orderly transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy.

"What Paris can help do is close that gap, both by getting stronger targets and commitments from countries," Morgan said. She added that the agreement itself should include a mechanism that will strengthen targets every five years, and aim toward a long-term goal of phasing out emissions by mid-century. "That type of ambition can send signals that can accelerate the pace of change - which is very much needed," Morgan concluded.

Jennifer Morgan, World Resources Institute (Photo: Irene Quaile)
WRI's Jennifer Morgan is upbeat about the Paris talksImage: DW/I. Quaile

Positive signs

On the road to a new world climate agreement, there have been positive signals from the world's biggest emitters - China and the USA - with both agreeing to new limits on carbon emissions starting in 2025. China said its emissions would peak by 2030.

India, which is the world's number-three emitter of greenhouse gases, has been under pressure to come up with its own commitments. During a recent visit to China by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two largest developing nations issued a rare joint statement calling on rich countries to increase their efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

China and India also urged wealthy countries to provide finance and technology to emerging countries to help them reduce their own emissions. They called on the developed world to honor its commitment to provide $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries already struggling with the impacts of climate change.

Historical debt?

Developing countries point out that the industrialized world is responsible for the rise of past emissions, and argue that it should therefore be primarily responsible for reducing emissions and funding climate adaptation in developing countries.

India, for instance, says it will focus on increased use of clean energy to fight the adverse effects of climate change - but cannot commit to emissions cuts as it still needs to industrialize to lift millions of people out of poverty.

A man in Nepal wades through a flooded street with an umbrella (Photo: REUTERS/Jayanta Dey)
Flooding is on the increase in many developing countriesImage: Reuters

The Paris conference aims to bring significant progress not only on cutting emissions, but also on financing adaptation to climate change and compensating developing nations for loss and damage as a result of climate change.

At the Berlin climate dialogue this week, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that she would use the next G7 summit - to be hosted by Germany in June, and with an emphasis on several environmental issues - to remind her western partners of that funding pledge. She stressed the need to involve and support developing nations in the fight against climate change, saying global action taken in the next 15 years would be crucial.

Growing recognition of fossil-fuel costs

Experts agree that putting a global price on CO2, making it expensive to emit climate-harming gases, is a key instrument in the decarbonization process. Merkel has called for a reformed version of the European Union's Emissions Trading System (ETS), to be adopted globally. Earlier this month, the European Union agreed on a deal to start reforming the ETS from 2019, such as to raise the price of carbon pollution to a more restrictive level.

This week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a new estimate on the "true cost of fossil fuels." It calculates that fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3 trillion (4.8 trillion euros) a year - equivalent to $10 million for every minute of every day.

The IMF calculated the sum by including the costs incurred by governments through the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution, as well as to people around the globe affected by floods, droughts and storms driven by climate change.

The IMF - one of the world's most respected financial institutions - said that ending subsidies to fossil fuels would cut global carbon emissions by 20 percent.

Infographic, global subsidies for fossil fuels

No alternative

France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who will chair the key Paris summit, told the Petersberg Dialogue in Berlin that more countries were coming out in support of a long-term decarbonization goal, as part of the proposed UN climate pact.

The goal of Paris would be to limit warming to between 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius more than pre-industrial levels, said Fabius: "We must commit ourselves very resolutely, because there isn't an alternative solution - for the simple reason that there isn't an alternative planet."

German environment minister Barbara Hendricks spoke of a moral obligation to fight climate change, but stressed the need to take a long-term approach to "terminate the age of fossil fuels."

With just 200 days to go until the start of the two-week Paris meeting, the sobering assumption seems to be that the conference itself will not come up with enough pledges to keep to the 2-degree target, let alone the 1.5-degree target that many experts say would be a preferable goal.

Yet there is also widespread acknowledgement that there is no alternative to a world climate agreement. Mechanisms must somehow be put into place to steadily increase momentum in a transition to a low-carbon economy by the second half of this century.

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