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As UN Climate Talks Approach, a Look at What's Changed Since Copenhagen

Climate change march at the Vatican on June 28, 2015. Photo by Flickr user EcoSikh. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Climate change march at the Vatican on June 28, 2015. Photo by Flickr user EcoSikh. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

This post by Fiona Harvey was originally published on, a magazine that highlights international environmental solutions in action. It is republished on Global Voices in two parts with permission. Read part one below. 

This year will mark the most important negotiations on climate change since the 15th gathering of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP 15). Those talks ended up with progress on several crucial fronts, such as getting developed and developing countries to jointly agree on emissions targets for the first time, but were marred by scenes of chaos in the final hours and bitter recriminations among governments.

No one wants to repeat the experience of Copenhagen — least of all the French government, which, as host to this year’s gathering, is determined to wring commitments from governments well in advance of the start of the talks in order to be sure of getting a deal.

The world has changed markedly since 2009, with key developments in science, geopolitical shifts and a new focus on climate change that all put this year’s crunch conference in a far different context from the last one. As we prepare for COP 21 in Paris beginning November 30, it’s worth examining some of the most important of these changes and considering how those differences might influence the tenor of the talks and, ultimately, the outcome.

New knowledge

First is the expansion of our scientific knowledge. Thanks to ongoing work from thousands of researchers around the world, we now know even more than we did in 2009 about the workings of climate change, its probable future impacts and what we need to do to avoid the most damaging consequences.

That is the good news. The bad news is that the warnings from leading scientists are growing ever more urgent.

As ice melts, the liquid water collects in depressions on the surface and deepens them, forming melt ponds. Photo by Flickr user NASA Goddard Flight Center. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

As ice melts, the liquid water collects in depressions on the surface and deepens them, forming melt ponds. Photo by Flickr user NASA Goddard Flight Center. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body of the world’s leading climate scientists, was published in three parts in 2013 and 2014. The findings strengthened the science reported in 2007, with an elevated certainty — now 95 percent — that warming has a human cause and included refinements on projections for changes in sea level, ice melt, upper atmosphere warming and other parameters.

Two things stood out above the other findings: an examination of the so-called “pause” in global warming, so much talked about in recent years; and estimates of the world’s “carbon budget,” or the amount of greenhouse gas that can safely be released into the atmosphere if the limit of 2 °C (3.6 °F) over preindustrial levels — beyond which scientists estimate that aspects of climate change are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible — is not to be exceeded.

On the “pause,” the IPCC warned that there was still too little data to decide the cause of the slight slowdown in the upward march of global temperatures in the past 10 to 15 years. Periods of slower rise in temperatures are to be expected because of natural variations, it noted, and there may be other causes.

New science on the pause has come forward that was not in time to be included in the IPCC report. This includes studies showing that a likely cause is the increased absorption of heat by the oceans. Further studies will undoubtedly follow: This year’s temperatures are once again breaking records, indicating the pause may be ending.

The IPCC’s estimate of a carbon budget found that about half of the carbon that we can emit and stay within 2 °C has already been released into the atmosphere. This is crucial because, for the first time, it gives a clear idea of what we can safely do in producing further emissions. On current trends, we would use up the remaining budget in about three decades.

In the context of the COP talks, carbon budgets are highly controversial because they suggest that the atmosphere could be “carved up” into finite portions of carbon emissions that could be allocated to rich and poor nations. That issue is fraught with notions of equity that will be impossible to resolve before Paris, and perhaps ever. However, even if policy-makers refuse to be bound to considerations of a carbon budget, the issue — and the IPCC’s calculation — will loom over the talks.

Emissions trends

At the same time scientific warnings on the need to make urgent cuts in emissions have intensified, global emissions have continued to rise in most of the intervening years. The International Energy Agency reported a small fall in emissions from energy in 2009, after the financial crisis. Afterward, the upward trend resumed until 2013, when falling coal use in China resulted in a stalling of emissions growth. It remains to be seen whether this was a temporary blip or a more concerted “decoupling” of carbon from economic growth.

A solar energy installation in Germany. Photo by Flickr user Windwärts Energie. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

A solar energy installation in Germany. Photo by Flickr user Windwärts Energie. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Another important emissions milestone was reached recently: China’s per capita carbon emissions exceeded those of Europe for the first time. Per capita emissions are important because many in the developing world regard them as a fairer measure than gross aggregate emissions, so for China to join the rich club in this respect marks yet further divergence of its interests from many smaller developing countries.

While emissions have risen since Copenhagen, technology has also advanced. Renewable energy sources have come down rapidly in price, to make wind and solar, at least in the most favorable cases, competitive with fossil fuel electricity generation. The widespread use of fracking in the U.S. has meant the world’s second biggest emitter is on track to reducing the intensity of its emissions from energy use. However, the rise of fracking should be viewed with caution: Poorly managed fracking facilities can leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and shale oil, to which many frackers are turning, is much more emissions-intensive than shale gas. Meanwhile, on a separate energy front, the turning away from nuclear energy in Japan and Germany after the 2011 Fukushima incident is raising concerns that these countries will be forced to use more fossil fuels, chiefly coal. The full implications of this have yet to be seen.

Read part two of this post: How Popular Perceptions of Climate Change Have Changed Since the Copenhagen Talks.

Fiona Harvey is an award-winning environment journalist for the Guardian. She previously worked for the Financial Times for more than a decade. She has reported on every major environmental issue, from as far afield as the Arctic and the Amazon, and her wide range of interviewees include Ban Ki-moon, Tony Blair, Al Gore and Jeff Immelt. She tweets from @fionaharvey.

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