A first tango in Paris

The success came in the absolute nick of time. For many activists in the climate movement, Paris was going to be a “last tango” event, with the implication being that if we don’t get it done in Paris, that’s it. They’re giving up and going fishing. It’s Arnie in Terminator 2, saying “HASTA LA VISTA, BABY!” before pulling the trigger. It’s the fat lady singing at the end of the opera, it’s John Cleese saying emphatically: “This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.”

When looking at what is at stake, the task of a climate practitioner can often seem daunting in the extreme. Everything to lose and so many moving parts to co-ordinate. All the human defence mechanisms of denial, rationalisation, and others to navigate every day. All the trappings of human fallibility and human hubris getting in the way. And for those with their finger on the pulse of the natural world, something akin to working in a terminal cancer ward – the news just gets a little worse every day.  

Thus, good news from the French capital at just the right time: Warming to be capped at 2 degrees maximum, and 1.5 degrees as a target. A strong focus on renewable energy. Reassessment every five years. Best of all, it looks like just about everyone will be in: developed and developing, rich and poor, dirty and clean.

That is the good news. Then there is human nature and politics.

The ambitious target described above has to be juxtaposed with the sum total of promises (pledges) made by the countries going to Paris. The agreement sets out what the pledges should add up to. It’s like a climate christmas tree. We all arrive and hang our pledge on the tree, then we do the math to see where it gets us. The present pledges combine to limit warming to 2.7 – 3.7 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial times - and the ultimate deal won’t be legally binding in any strong sense of the word.

We are thus left with the equivalent 0.7 – 1.7 degrees of “unintended warming”, where our joint ambition and the demands of science are not met by what governments have promised to do. Perhaps it can also be likened to an auction with a reserve price. But in this case, the bidders don’t bid to buy for themselves but for the collective. They all chip in, throw money into the hat. The more they pay, the better our future climate regime will be, the more stable, the more friendly. But unless the reserve price is met, the climate solution is not “bought”. It waits, tantalisingly displayed to all in the room.   

The lack of ambition from governments largely reflect outdated beliefs and assumptions. When the climate debate started more than twenty years ago, the possible solutions were expensive and often unproven. Renewable Energy was one such solution. Climate activists asked us to change our way of life and pointed out that any economic cost would be low when compared to partial or total extinction of our species. But it was never going to happen spontaneously, from the ground up – it wasn’t proven enough or cheap enough. Any answer was going to have to come from Governments in a top-down, command-and-control fashion. Therefore also the drive to create a legally binding, international instrument – The Kyoto Protocol with its First Commitment Period that spawned the very successful Clean Development Mechanism. Or the EU Emissions Trading Scheme that at one point drove the cost of carbon to near € 30/tonne.

These top-down mechanisms largely collapsed as politicians prioritised medium and short term objectives in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis. The belief that this is the only way has not kept track with technological advances.

Twenty years is a long time in the world of technology. In South Africa, both wind and solar Photovoltaic power are now up to 40% cheaper than new coal power. This excludes the significant externalities of coal (climate impacts, water, health impacts, other). These wind and solar plants are commissioned within 18 months after starting construction, are modular and are all financed from private funds, not government funds – with Government only paying for the electricity. A solar rooftop revolution is already under way, with up 5 Gigawatts of installed capacity predicted by 2025. Renewable Energy has become mature and is now happening almost spontaneously, bottom up, in many parts of the world.   Similar developments are taking place in electric vehicles, energy storage and several other fields.

Governments balance so many divergent interests and vested interests – we shouldn’t really ever have expected them to lead us towards rapidly transforming the very fabric of our lives. They have acknowledged what we need to achieve and given us pledges that are outside of scientific bounds - but not completely open-ended. What they have done is create a framework within which we can start to improve on what they have promised and thus claw the predicted warming back down towards two degrees. Given how conservative the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (“INDC’s”)” generally are in terms of committing countries to measurable pledges, it should be really easy to do.

The future of climate protection lies in a combination of top-down and bottom up initiatives. The international climate community will improve on the collective pledges over time, but the focus of NGO’s and activists should now shift towards the local implementation of readily-available interventions: energy efficiency, renewable energy, improved local policies, behaviour change.  In South Africa, there is no doubt whatsoever that we can greatly improve on what our INDC promises, probably at negative cost and in a “no regrets” fashion.  We have to re-envision the role of the international climate negotiations. It isn’t the be all and end all, it is the mechanism that from time to time sets out what the worst case scenario looks like if all governments perform on their (conservative) pledges. But it only tells us about the likely future outcomes in a broad and pessimistic way, while leaving much room for improvement at local level - that can add up to significant improvement at global level.

The paradigm has changed, the door is ajar, there is space to change houses and neighbourhoods now, rather than countries and continents.

The tango in Paris is not the last, but the first. The first of many more in our delicate dance towards sustainability.


Note: An earlier version of this blog first appeared in Business Day

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