Not many people get to bet the world’s future, but Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN climate circus (UNFCC), has just done that.

The key decisions of the Lima COP 29 were these – my emphases.

The Conference of the Parties

3. Underscores its commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances;

9. Reiterates its invitation to each Party to communicate to the secretariat its intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;
10. Agrees that each Party’s intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 will represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party;

13. Reiterates its invitation to all Parties to communicate their intended nationally
determined contributions well in advance of the twenty first session of the Conference of
the Parties (by the first quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so) in a manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended nationally determined contributions; [Note: the 21st session will be held in Paris from 30 November – 11 December]

16. Requests the secretariat to:
(a) Publish on the UNFCCC website the intended nationally determined contributions as communicated;
(b) Prepare by 1 November 2015 a synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the
intended nationally determined contributions communicated by Parties by 1 October 2015…

This procedure marks a radical break with the top-down thinking that has stymied discussions for a decade. Ideally you set a carbon budget, then divvy it up. On what basis? Developing countries say “it’s our turn now”, so claim all the pie, and rich countries have to go carbon-negative tomorrow. Cutting everybody’s emissions proportionately is more acceptable to rich countries, but not to poor ones. It’s the zero-sum negotiation from hell, and has failed. Add in the free-rider problem, giving an effective veto to laggards and denialists, and you can see why nothing has happened. Even supposing you could get a hard agreement, within an inevitably inadequate total it would be worse than useless.

Technological progress, and in particular the falling cost of wind and solar power, has transformed the negotiating assumptions. The transition to sustainable energy, according to the IPCC and a host of studies, will have negligible net cost: 0.06% off the annual growth rate of GDP (pdf page 16), well within the margin of measurement error of the latter. Incredibly, that excludes health costs and benefits (ibid. page 15 and footnote), so the true GDP cost is clearly negative. (These estimates are conservative: future post.) The proposition holds for many individual countries, surely including the big three: China, the USA, and the EU. The free rider problem has gone away – there is typically no significant benefit to be gained by a holdout country from sticking to fossil fuels when everybody else is changing.

Figueres’ logic, followed by the Lima conference, is that a coalition of the willing, motivated only by enlightened self-interest, will do the job. Forget about justice, just head for the lifeboats.

There remain of course large political obstacles to a rational transition policy: the vested interests of fossil fuel companies, workers, and investors. The policy hysteresis has primarily to be overcome within each country, in the domestic political and economic arena. Domestic forces can get an assist from diplomacy: most countries are more sensitive about their alliances and reputation than the USA or China.

Figueres’ scenario is I think roughly this.

1. A critical mass of important countries publish their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) before June. (The first quarter is an optimistic marker). I bet she is lobbying them now.

2. Reputable scholars track and assemble these as soon as they hit the website, and conclude they are collectively insufficient to stay within 2 degrees of warming.

3. NGOs raise a huge fuss in laggard countries to tighten the targets. Some do. Meanwhile:

4. Countries that have delayed filing INDCs out of indecision or embarrassment come under pressure to set strong ones.

5. The revised set of INDCs are added up in Paris. They represent considerable progress from current trends, but not enough to stay within 2 degrees.

6. The Paris agreement locks in the INDCs, but as a provisional step only, and calls for more in a later round. It states clear objectives of global carbon neutrality and a full energy transition.

7. The agreement strengthens reporting, information exchange and peer monitoring, to support compliance and further progress.

To me this looks like a good outcome. It kicks a part of the can down the road, but that’s OK. In four or five years’ time the numbers (both the damage and the free-lunch negative costs) will be even clearer, and the parallelogram of political forces will have moved away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. (See the poor scoring of ALEC’s war on renewables in the USA). Meanwhile action will have sped up in many places. Further, I don’t see any path to a better outcome. Figueres’ bet is the right one.

What can go wrong?

  • The timetable is too loose. The hard deadline for INDCs is October 1. The official synthesis report has a deadline of November 1, far too late to allow any domestic political feedback. A lot is riding on the independent analysts doing the job much earlier: Stern’s Grantham centre, Potsdam, etc. I think we can have high confidence in their professionalism and sense of urgency.
  • A greater risk is strategic delay, for instance by India. The only way of generating pressure here is for other countries to file early and set a benchmark for domestic lobbies to latch on to. The EU and the USA can presumably lead, as they have already set targets. China may join them.
  •  It is still possible for holdouts to try to block a second-best agreement in Paris. Canada and Australia are still officially denialist; but Tony Abbott’s government is crumbling, with the dramatic loss of the Queensland state government  by his coal-first ally Campbell Newman. Either country would look ridiculous grandstanding. A low profile and abstention or bad-faith acquiescence are more likely.
  • India may seek to maintain the alliance of developing countries insisting that rich countries make all the emissions cuts, because colonialism, our turn on the swing now, etc. There are large problems with this strategy. China has spectacularly defected. Its falling coal consumption means that it can offer an INDC lower than the November agreement with Obama, at no cost. If China can cap coal, why not India? The coalition is fraying. Algeria, usually reliably tiersmondiste in rhetoric but pragmatic in action, has quietly doubled its renewable energy target. Mexico will support Figueres, on paper.  India’s new broom Modi has embarked on a rush to solar and wind, Coal India has never met a target it hasn’t failed to meet, and India badly wants that seat on the Security Council. There is a good chance – no more – that it will come round.

Neither complete success nor complete failure is at all likely. Figueres seems to adhere to the Watson-Watt  school of “second best tomorrow”. That saved civilisation once, and may do so again.

Footnote: in 1945 Sir Robert Watson-Watt was invited to give the famous annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures to schoolchildren. Forget the Nobel Prize: only fine scientists get asked, only those who are also warm human beings like their founder Faraday accept the alarming challenge.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]