As the Paris climate summit reaches its climax, all attention is focused on the level of ambition that the final text will reveal. While this is important, it can also be argued that the very intense momentum built up over the past two weeks, and the attention of the media and the public on the issues of climate change like never before, has marked a decisive breakthrough even before the text of the treaty is finalised.
It is also very important to keep a focus on the bigger picture that can be lost sight of in poring over the details of the text. For, whether the high ambition or the lower ambition target makes it into the final treaty, what is certain is that all the world’s countries enter into a completely new situation when this treaty comes into force in 2020. The huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that will be required will dwarf anything we have so far seen and challenge countries in ways they cannot now anticipate.
The momentum generated at Paris cannot be swept away. Most notable has been the level of ambition expressed by some countries, particularly the surprising emergence of the goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than the 2 degrees which has been widely accepted over the past six years, with only some scientists arguing for the tighter target. Even if it finds its way into the final text as a weak aspiration, the fact that major countries such as France, Germany and, most surprisingly, Canada backed this energetically at the CoP is a major breakthrough. Be assured that the environmental lobby will never allow them forget it.
The issue of five-year reviews, though resisted by some laggards, now seems to have unstoppable momentum behind it. This emerged from an agreement between the French and Chinese presidents some weeks ago and again has greatly helped raise the level of ambition for this treaty. No matter what way it finds expression in the text, there is enough political will at a global level to ensure it becomes a key plank of global environmental politics. And five-yearly reviews will undoubtedly strengthen ambition over time in line with the ever more insistent findings of climate scientists.
Paris is therefore a start on a long journey. That the start may come too late is a real question but at this moment in history what is important is that a start has been made, and that this may galvanise states and civil society to begin the difficult road to a low-carbon society. Yet, amid the noise of Paris, the real options now facing society worldwide were kept very much in the background. For, in place of the much discussed division between developed and developing countries (a division that remains important but is no longer decisive now that most developing countries have realised that climate change is a real problem they have to deal with), the division between corporate society and civil society was deliberately hidden.
This was not the fault by and large of civil society but of the many corporations which turned up to Paris intent on using it as an opportunity to market themselves, this time with a light green tinge. That Coca Cola could claim they were climate friendly because the drink is manufactured in France shows the risable level to which such marketspeak can sink. This may not be representative, but the claim that addressing climate change is good for corporate profits, a central claim of all those corporations that are seeking to jump on this bandwagon, identifies the fundamental division that is going to mark the social struggles over addressing climate change.
Rob Hopkins, the founder of Transition Towns, put it well in his blog from Paris when he wrote: ‘The idea that our “post-carbon future” will be one of more, of growth, of corporations allowed to function as they please, was the overwhelming worldview on display’ at the Solutions CoP21 exhibition he attended. He found little discussion of degrowth, or of the possibility that a low-carbon future has to be a low-growth future, namely moving into a different type of economy and society where wellbeing is no longer based on more and more quantitative growth.
These, then, are the big questions raised by Paris, questions likely to be drowned out in the detailed debates about ambitious targets and the means to hold countries to account. What emerges in the final text tomorrow is important but what is more important is the political will to transition to a low-carbon society by 2050. The importance of Paris may well lie not so much in the much debated text that is going to keep delegates awake for yet another long night of negotiations, but rather the political will that has been manifested at CoP21. This is what will mark a turning point, if indeed this is what is happening.