Johannesburg - Professor Bob Scholes may have served as a convening lead author for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but even he knows there is a degree of “global fatigue” and “cynicism” around the global climate negotiations.
This he largely attributes to the dismal failure of the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen and the “glacial pace” of climate negotiations ever since.
Still, Scholes believes that “significant outcomes” are possible from the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in December, which is expected to achieve a long-awaited legally binding and universal agreement from the world’s nations.
“Disenchantment with the treaty negotiation process is not the same thing as unconcern about the climate,” says Scholes. “I think more people are more concerned now than ever before. Professional negotiators are by nature and training quite cynical. The expectations of ordinary people are much higher than that.”
Climate campaigners argue that not enough progress is being made towards reaching a fair and adequate climate treaty, which is supposed to be finalised in Paris.
Scholes argues that the climate negotiations are not the only place where climate action takes place. “Some of the biggest changes on the ground are happening in corporates and at local government level, all around the world, including South Africa and especially the US.
“The drivers are not solely philanthropic; it turns out to make good business and development sense. For instance, the last round of wind energy development tenders were awarded at about half the price than Medupi will cost us.”
The world’s top three emitter groupings have already indicated a willingness to set targets significantly more ambitious than the Kyoto Protocol’s targets: the US, China and the EU.
Scholes welcomes the “moral authority” of Pope Francis, who this week urged the world’s leaders to act to stop “extraordinary” climate change from destroying the planet, reminding wealthy countries that they bear responsibility for causing climate change.
But Dr Tristen Taylor, the project co-ordinator of Earthlife Africa Joburg, fears that any agreement that will emerge from Paris will be a “symbolic, though empty” gesture.
“Very few countries are engaging in real mitigation (many the opposite) and it’s hard to see a deal coming out of Paris that will keep emissions below two degrees.
“The result of previous failed Conference of the Parties (COPs) is to make future mitigation even harder.
“Drastic action is required (like never building a new coal plant anywhere from today, drastically reducing aviation and shipping emissions from today and halting deforestation in the world’s tropical forests) and a failure to take action now just means even harder actions in the future.
“The world’s ‘leaders’ are likely to avoid drastic actions, and kick such actions down the road for when they are out of power.
“What is likely to be achieved is some sort of political deal that will have the effect of locking us into at least three degrees temperature rise this century and little, if no meaningful support, for developing nations.”
In South Africa, the government has not shown its commitment to slashing greenhouse gas emissions. “Middle-income countries have to reduce their emissions if we are to keep below two degrees and (South Africa) is, in fact, seeking to increase those emissions with additional coal-fired power generation through Medupi and Kusile, plus the upcoming rounds of the coal Independent Power Producer procurement programme and shale gas.”
Melita Steele, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, agrees.
“If the government was serious about avoiding catastrophic climate change, this country would be urgently transitioning away from coal (and false solutions like nuclear) and embracing a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
On the Paris climate talks, she says: “There is no doubt that there is always a risk that the COP negotiations will not deliver what is required by science to avoid catastrophic climate change. However, the negotiations are still one of the best hopes for delivering a deal that is focused on a renewable future and incorporates binding emissions reductions.”
Ferrial Adam, the Africa and Arab world team leader of 350africa, agrees that the real work to combat climate change is happening outside of the climate negotiations.
“The (fossil fuel) divestment movement is growing significantly, and people around the world are demanding change. I don’t think we’ll get that from the negotiations. We should have had a binding agreement years ago, and we still don’t.”