In Paris We Have An Appointment With History

By Kathleen Van Brempt, Vice-President of the S&D Group in the European Parliament
Winter 2015

The importance of the Paris climate summit can hardly be underestimated. It will be one of the last opportunities to avoid dramatic climate change. To counter self-reinforcing global warming, we must limit temperature rise to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. To reach that goal, global carbon emission cuts of 40 to 70 percent - preferably at the upper end of that target - are needed by 2050 and we should stop using fossil fuels altogether by the end of the century.

If we fail, we should expect a cascade of environmental disasters, eroding biodiversity, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, desertification, more intense floods and hurricanes, crop failures... Such catastrophes will trigger massive migrations which will dwarf the current refugee crisis. In a few decades Europe could be faced with up to 200 million climate refugees. The ecological, economical and social disruptions will affect not only our societies but even life on our planet.

Can the Paris Summit reverse this trend? Previous controversial climate conferences often turned out to be disappointing. Think of Copenhagen. The Kyoto Protocol and some of the implementing agreements were admittedly called diplomatic successes, but they never became the crucial turning point to stop carbon pollution. Since 1990 global CO2 emissions have increased by 58 percent.

But things are different now. The Kyoto Protocol still bears the indelible stamp of the economic order of the nineties, in which the world was sharply divided into developing and industrialized countries. Only the latter committed themselves to binding agreements. Today, this dichotomy has faded. More than half of the emissions come from emerging economies such as China, India, South Africa or Brazil. The Paris summit will outline the blueprint for a new climate policy in which all countries engage in climate efforts, according to their own capabilities and responsibilities. All countries were invited to deliver national commitments at the UN.

More than three quarters of them - accounting for more than 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions - have done that. Emerging economies retained the right to ‘dirty’ growth for a long period of time, just as the Western world did before them. But now we see a shift in policy and thinking. Cheaper clean technologies and local problems with air pollution have caused countries like China and India to leapfrog towards sustainable solutions. Rural areas are instantly provided with local renewable sources of power, without using the intermediate step of centralized energy production based on polluting coal.

The ‘old’ industrial world still has a historical debt to pay off. In Copenhagen we therefore agreed that developed countries would set aside up to $100 billion annually to finance climate actions in developing countries. That will be quite a challenge. European social-democrats have insisted on using alternative means of financing. This would include a financial transaction tax, a share of the proceeds from the auctioning of emission rights in a reformed emissions trading system or a tax on emissions from international aviation and shipping. Taxing emissions from aviation and shipping can help greening the transport sector as well. This is necessary because they emit as much as Germany and South Korea together and will keep on growing in the coming decades.

Europe should not be ashamed at the Paris negotiating table. On the contrary. The EU will reach the 20 percent emission reduction target by 2020 easily. At the moment European emissions are already 23 percent lower, while our economy has grown by 50 percent since 1990. The 20-20-20-policy has been the driving force behind the development of the European Clean Tech industry, which employs more than 4.2 million people and continued to grow during the crisis years. But European world leadership in clean technology has still not yet been achieved. In 2013, for example, China invested more in renewable energy than the EU. To secure our leading position in Clean Tech and reach an ambitious agreement in Paris, Europe should strengthen its climate ambitions and energy policy even more. A more ambitious European policy must ensure that the enormous pool of underutilised talents and the enourmous surplus in savings can shape a new economy in a wave of innovative and sustainable investments, which will finally end our coal-, gas- and oil addiction.

Investing in research and development, renewable energy and energy efficiency, rather than spending money on the imports of fossil fuels, will not only benefit trade, climate and air quality. It will create additional jobs and develop new technologies that can be exported. New technologies will make it possible to permanently end the carbon era. Not because we would run out of coal, natural gas or oil, but because there are cleaner and cheaper alternatives. After all, the Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones.

A hearing in the European Parliament with UN climate chief Christiana Figueres showed that the current pledges committed to will lead to a temperature rise of 3°C, which is still far from the 2°C science is asking us. The Paris Agreement would solve this with a periodic strengthening of national efforts. Whether this will work is still questionable. Our Westphalian nation-state system, which acknowledges the nation state as the highest sovereign authority, is tested to its limits. If national realpolitik – with its freebooting tendencies – continues to force us into a global "tragedy of the atmospheric commons", we can only conclude that the system is bankrupt. That leaves us with only one institutional revolution of “biosphere politics” based on the sovereignty of the earth. It's time to wake up. Paris s’éveille.