100 days before the UN climate talks. Reasons to be cheerful. And reasons not to.

It’s 100 days before the big UN climate talks in Paris. How does that feel? Concerned, excited, or just a bit meh?

Are we kneeling at the seat of history? Are we finally about to save the planet? Or is it all the same business as usual which we know is already hurtling us to six degree warming? Here’s four reasons to feel good about the Paris climate talks, and four reasons for concern.

1. Politicians are starting to see the advantages of ambitious words on climate change. There’s something slightly weird happening in US politics. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump. Democrats, at least, are seeing the value of talking up climate. It’s an established way to build political capital in parts of Europe too – notably in France at the moment, as they build towards hosting the UN talks – as well as Asia, Africa and South America. Could it grow? 

2. Coal is dying. As the “keep it in the ground” mantra as grown in volume, coal’s been put firmly in the spotlight. It’s the dirtiest of fuels, highly polluting even without bringing issues of climate change, and hard to defend. The coal industry has put up a spirited PR campaign in defense, putting the World Bank in the arguably odd position of having to publicly state that no, coal was no cure for global poverty. But the end of the coal age does seem to be in sight.

3. Record breaking renewables. News stories about record breaking renewable energy have been coming thick and fast. It’s almost passé. It’s partly just editors realising these stories get clicks (though that’s a good sign in itself). It’s partly just that we’re starting from reasonably little. Even if we didn’t build that many more, we’d still break records. But it’s certainly heartening to read stories like the weekend when renewables briefly covered 78 percent of German electricity, or that, so far in 2015, the US have installed more than twice as much solar and wind as fossil fuel electricity. We are building the capacity to decarbonise.

4. Climate scepticism is dying. Climate sceptics still may hold disproportionate quantities of political power if compared to the number of people who actually hold such views. But the climate sceptic identity is increasingly toxic. Back in March, BP publicly left ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council, well-known for lobbying on climate change – following a swathe of tech companies at the end of 2014. Then, earlier this month, so did Shell, explicitly stating that their stance on climate change was “clearly inconsistent with our own.”

… and four reasons to roll your eyes about Paris

 1. We’re not seeing nearly enough ambition. Obama’s Clean Power Plan might have felt bold. It was sold as such and greeted with a fair few cries that this was just too much. But as Eric Holthaus speedily pointed out, it’s not too much at all, not by a long way. Or at least it’s not the level of boldness we need. It’ll shave 6% from US carbon emissions by 2030. But it probably needs to be nearer 80% by then. As James Hansen put it: “Conservatives pretend it’s all a hoax, and liberals propose solutions that are non-solutions.” Beware the non-solutions and lack of sufficient ambition in all the rhetoric leading up to Paris. They could well be the end of us.

2. Coal’s not dead yet. And it’s still full steam ahead for oil and gas. Before you click that share button of the latest “end of coal!” headline, here’s one exclaiming global oil supplies’ “breakneck speed” growth. Plus, coal’s not dead yet. Not by a long way. As Damian Carrington recently reported from the Black Sea coast, there’s a coal boom in Turkey. And then there’s Germany, for all their wind turbines… Quartz has a handy chart if you want to compare different country’s use. Plus, demonising coal offers a fair bit of cover for other fossil fuels, especially gas, who brand themselves as a compromise ‘cleaner’ fossil fuel. We should be wary of this.  

3. What’s the road through Paris going to look like exactly? Between well-timed diplomacy, a series of high profile policy reports and an expertly orchestrated global network of citizen actions, momentum towards the 2015 climate talks has been thoroughly established. If “four months to save the world” banners are your sort of thing, Avaaz have a climate clock counting the seconds to the summit. But where do we go after that? A fair number of people are spinning on this already, and have been for a while. Worried about a repeat of the slump after the Copenhagen talks, it’s all about lowering expectations and highlighting the process, not the event. But it’s all well very well saying it’s the Road Through Paris, not the Road to Paris, or, as co-chair Dan Reifsnyder told Megan Darby earlier this month “It is not at all a failure if it doesn’t meet the 2°C target”. But what will that look like? Lost in all these 2030 projections, I’m worried not enough obvious attention is being paid to 2016.

4. Climate scepticism is dying, what next? The far end of climate skepticism may be increasingly left out in the cold, but arguably this allows greater space for a much larger and slippery group – those who simply want to delay action on climate change. The flip side of Shell and BP et al disassociating themselves from the ALECs of the world is that they get to build their brand as science-friendly, a responsible and forward-thinking voice on climate change. Paul Barrett argues Shell simply wants to drop ALEC to because they want to promote carbon pricing, and environmentalists should be pleased about this. But Tom Burke warns this is simply another delaying tactic. Oil companies, he argues, know well how politically toxic a policy based on rising taxes will be, and they’re banking on this toxicity to clog the steady flow of action.

  1. David Walker

    The only thing that will be decided in Paris is which five star resort the AGW glitterati with their limousines and private jets will descend on in their thousands next year, creating in a fortnight the equivalent annual carbon footprint of a small industrial nation. Nice work if you can get it!

    As to the demise of coal – in your dreams, ever heard of in-situ gasification? Or how about ocean floor methane hydrate extraction, last year the Japanese completed a successful pilot and are now working on industrial level extraction, as are other nations.

    Nor is catastrophic anthropogenic climate change scepticism on the way out, just go and admire the United Nations My World survey, currently covering over seven and a half million respondents. Of causes for concern, action on climate change comes flat last, sixteenth of sixteen categories.

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