Anything can happen in Paris

Things are heating up in the environmentalist community. The imminent threat of climate change is once again on the discussion table. Officials from all over the world are meeting in Paris this December, trying to reach a legally binding agreement to finally get to grips with the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.Today, the environmental issue is not what gets you votes. However, researchers and activist hope the meeting might have an impact.

The debate on whether climate change is real can be considered as played out. The skeptics have a hard time getting their point across, especially with the Pope admitting that “climate change is a global problem with grave implications” earlier this year.

In the end of November, representatives from 195 countries will meet in Paris. It’s the twenty-first annual meeting of the conference of parties (COP). The COP3 in 1997 saw the birth of the famous Kyoto protocol which committed countries worldwide to reducing greenhouse gases under the agreement that climate change is real, and man made. Unfortunately it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the COP, with COP15 in Copenhagen being the black mark on its record. Onlookers had high hopes for the meeting to produce a resemblance of the Kyoto protocol. Instead the talks amounted to little more than good intentions.

Since the Copenhagen meeting didn’t turn out as expected, it’s important that this one will. The ambition is to have a legally binding agreement signed at the end of the meeting. The goal: to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 450 ppm (parts per million) in order to make sure the average temperature of Earth doesn’t increase by more than two degrees.

Regardless of the outcome at the conference, massive protests are planned on December 12th in Paris and around the world. Thousands are expected to flood the streets to send a message to the world and its leaders that “they are not the only people with a voice, this matter affects everyone, we need a change and want to see change happening”, as Kim Uddh of environmental organisation PUSH Sweden, explained it. Organisations such as PUSH and 350 (named after the concentration of CO2 they deem as “acceptable”, 350 ppm) – lead by environmentalist celebrity Bill McKibben, say that two degrees is too high. 1.5 degrees would be better. The European Union have expressed the same view.  Markus Wråke, IVL Swedish Institute of Environment, explained:

“This is not an exact science. Even increasing the temperature by two degrees is very risky.” He emphasised this is about median temperature. “If you look at the poles, for example, the changes in temperature are a lot bigger. Each step might not be very dramatic but in the long run it will have consequences”, he said over phone from his native Gothenburg. “Even if they reach an agreement, there is still a significant chance that we will go over the 2 degrees.”

The outspoken goal of signing a legally binding contract isn’t the only way the meeting would be a success. Markus Wråke argues that “it’s both easier and cheaper than one might think to reach the emission goals. He suggests the Kyoto agreement as an example of this. The United States ended up not signing the agreement, but they reached the goals anyway. It’s about “raising the level of ambitiousness” so the politicians in charge can make the environment a hot political issue, something it hasn’t been for a long time. In that way the issue “gains a political momentum”, he said. “I don’t hesitate for a bit that replacing coal as fuel is possible. It’s just a question of time and money. In 40 years I think we could have an energy production that’s clean enough to reach the environmental goals without totally changing our economic standards.” The price tag for replacing fossil fuels is around 36 trillion dollars. However, one should not look too deep into absolute figures. We spend more money on cars than it will cost to replace fossil fuels in 40 years.

The meeting in Paris takes place between November 30 and December 11.

Bianca Benjamin and David Helander

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