COP21 – Final thoughts and the road ahead

Thanks to our blog contributors over the last 10 days, and to you all for engaging with us. Below are some final thoughts on the conference and its outcomes:

Simon Price:

So now we know the outcome from COP 21. Twenty-three years on from the Earth Summit where it might be said to have all started, and 21 conferences later, the world nations have agreed a text of enormous implications; a turning point in the battle to save our planet

For the first time we have an agreement that contains a truly global approach to addressing man’s contribution to global warming. An agreement that sees 196 nations, not divided by state of development, but united in a common cause – against which they accept differentiated responsibilities and to which they bring their own respective capabilities. In short, the world playing as a team, which is quite extraordinary.

So, what does this turning point represent? Although from a different time and for a different situation, a quote from history perhaps captures what has been achieved in Paris: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill.

Twenty-three years to reach the end of the beginning. Ratification could be the beginning of the end. Rigorous implementation and the courage and determination to push through difficult moments will be key to ultimate success. Can we be successful? We have to be but every one of us needs to be a part of the solution. Paris has given us a process and hope but to coin another famous quote: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama.


Matt Davies

The question now, after the weekend’s historic agreement, is how these aspirations can be met. Significant changes to the way we consume energy is key. Government policy and legislation has done much to decarbonize power generation and reduce energy consumption by industry. The focus on demand-side energy management in recent years has advanced the case for load management and smart metering, for example, but there remains plenty of scope for fresh thinking on how we design, build and manage how we live and work.  

Designing communities to maximise efficiencies in the use of construction materials, community heat and power, and in commuting is not new [in the rest of] Europe, but is not yet commonplace in the UK. The national government wants to see a million new homes by 2020 but so far development has been mostly on a small scale. This is an opportunity to scale up and apply different approaches to design and construction, not only to individual buildings but to whole communities, bringing energy and resource efficient design and construction, district heating and low impact commuting into the mainstream. The Nordics have been applying this thinking for decades with significant results that are workable in both the public and private sector. Let’s make a difference by sharing and using this learning over here.


Bram Miller:

Thinking about and preparing blog entries has certainly made those of us involved follow COP21 and its coverage more than we might have done. However, my feelings are that it is mostly those of us who are already interested who are doing this. Whilst climate change and COP21 have received a lot of coverage on LinkedIn, company websites and in the trade press, there doesn’t seem to be have been as much coverage in the mainstream media as with COPs gone by. This isn’t based on any science, but just my impression from reading, listening and watching the normal mainstream media sources that I normally do. Last week (10th December) I looked at the BBC website front page and the Guardian website front page. COP21 coverage was non-existent. I’m sure this wasn’t the case with, say, COP15 in Copenhagen. Whilst coverage of the final agreement was widespread, it has since dropped off quite quickly. It seems that climate change is moving down rather than up the agenda of the media and probably the everyday person who doesn’t work in this area. This may be because of the very pressing global matters at this time, including the recent tragic events in Paris and the ongoing crisis in Syria, which are quite rightly the focus of media attention. However, I am concerned that climate change just isn’t interesting to the media anymore. Maybe there is COP fatigue and the media and others just feel that the same lack of progress happens every year? Regardless of the reason, climate change isn’t going away.


Martin Broderick:

I still felt genuine uncertainty going into Saturday as to whether there would be a positive outcome to COP21, so to have finally reached an agreement after over twenty years of negotiation is a huge achievement, particularly considering the vast differences between nations. By all accounts, the French were instrumental in overcoming the challenges. But there now must be acceptance that the main challenge still lays ahead. Once the representatives have returned to their respective countries and initial optimism and enthusiasm has faded, there must be recognition that the hard work must begin. International agreements set the foundations, it now is up to countries to choose their own path to ensuring that COP21 was a key milestone to mankind living more harmoniously with their surroundings.


Mike Pantling:

Over the last few years it has seemed to me that the world is breaking apart. The news is filled with so much anger and suffering: the increasing strength of terrorist organisations, the mass movement of people across Europe and Africa fleeing conflict, and the Russian-Nato tensions that seem to be rearing their ugly head are just a few that spring to mind. Yet amongst this misery and anger that seems to dominate our world, we have COP. Almost 200 nations sitting around the table together, shaking hands and agreeing. For me the real progress made at COP21 was the sense of unity; the coming together of past and present adversaries to put aside differences that pale into insignificance in comparison to climate change, to agree action and a way forward. Time will tell if the agreement is strong enough and enforceable, but if we are united, I believe we can do what is necessary.


Stuart Divall:

Whilst it’s encouraging to hear that an agreement has been reached following a frantic overrun of events in Paris, one can’t help feel dubious when pictures of delegates, negotiators and leaders with heads in hands emerge. There are indeed positives to take from what many are saying is an historic conclusion, however, we mustn’t forget that any agreement made in the past two weeks comes into force in 2020. This past week our news has been dominated by the floods in the north of England, however these ‘unprecedented’ events have been occurring across the world. On the day of the COP21 agreement, headlines of flooding appeared in India, Japan, Brazil and the US as well as the UK. Coincidence? It seems there may be justice for the small island nations with the consensus that the average global temperature rise should not exceed 1.5C, as opposed to 2C. However, we currently sit at 1C and the effects are all around us. I sincerely hope this won’t be a case of too little, too late. A controversial question: is democracy the biggest threat to fighting climate change? However, crucially, a personal question: what am I going to do about it?


Emma Green:

“By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” – George Monbiot.

For me this statement summarises the majority of the media coverage following two frantic weeks of negotiation and diplomatic effort in Paris.

The consensus among nearly 200 countries to keep global temperature rise below 2C and aim to limit it even lower at 1.5C, is an achievement itself. It can be seen as a victory for developing countries, small island states and the most vulnerable countries who arrived in Paris for action. However, as progressive as the agreement is in comparison to those that have come before, there is still a long way to go in shifting to a lower carbon world.

Critics note that the aspirational target of limiting warming to 1.5C could have been achieved had it been agreed 20 years ago at COP1 in Berlin and the main failure of the Paris climate pact is that only certain elements are legally binding. Only time will tell if COP21 has truly been a miracle or if it has in fact been another disaster.

Following the progress of the climate talks over the past two weeks has really illustrated the numerous challenges that face the world we live in. We need to understand and be able to communicate and engage with multiple disciplines and policy areas whilst maintaining the diversity of national and regional contexts.

Is it enough? No. Is it a good step in the right direction? Yes.


Luke Strickland:

It’s got to be perfect?

So a deal has been reached, but time will tell whether this really is a turning point or whether it’s another false dawn. So far the signs look promising, but with so many parties involved the document is far from perfect. It has already been pointed out by commentators that much of the deal is voluntary, leading to speculation that it may be empty promises.

But does the deal have to be perfect to be effective? Arguably not. The fact that so many countries submitted climate action plans, turned up and played ball can only be a good sign. The presence of so many more business and city leaders compared to previous talks is also a good indicator that practical change may result.

Time will tell, but we don’t need to wait to take action in the projects, decisions and environments we work in.


Negotiating the climate change science maze

As COP21 has progressed it is clear that one of the most contentious issues to be resolved is associated with setting an agreed global temperature limit to which all nations must limit emissions to remain below. The current target for policy makers is to focus efforts on keeping global temperatures below 2°C of warming, although some nations argue that to avoid the worst extremes of climate change a 1.5°C limit is required. But is measuring temperature the most appropriate means of assessing anthropogenic climate change? The history of the 2°C limit stretches back to the 1970s and could be considered an arbitrary figure. It was first introduced by an economist, William Nordhaus, who warned that such a rise would “take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years”. Further work in the 1990s by the Swedish Environment Institute (SEI) suggested that “temperature increases beyond 1.0°C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage”.

But the SEI also suggested a number of other indicators to measure climate change including sea level rise and the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. Last week Dr James Hansen, a NASA climatologist, suggested that assessing the concentration of carbon dioxide in terms of parts per million (ppm) was a more appropriate means of measurement. NASA and the NOAA have both reported that global average CO2 concentrations are now above 400ppm (350ppm is thought to be the safe limit). This represents a 24% increase since records began in 1958 and the highest concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere for more than a million years, a time when sea levels were significantly higher and modern humans hadn’t even evolved. Yet research by the University of East Anglia recently reported that global carbon emissions are projected to stall for the second year in a row. The fact of the matter is that regardless of whether emissions have stalled, the most we can hope for is a stabilisation of CO2 concentrations; a reduction would take far longer and would rely on a reduction of global emissions.

If this leaves you slightly confused then you’re not alone. Like others, I have struggled to get to grips with the vast amounts of data, the arguments and counter-arguments, what is evidence-based and what is opinion-based. I think the ‘general public’ can be forgiven for being blinded by science. We only have to look at the mixed messages from food-related research: food which was once bad for us is now considered good, or vice versa; and herein lies the problem. Scientists have an inherent responsibility to ensure that any published work is credible and avoids sensationalism. Recently, Berkeley Earth produced a study stating that spending a day outdoors in Beijing was equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day, but in fact the peer-reviewed study made no mention of this. Whilst air pollution in the city far exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) limits, the only reference to this statistic was in a press release, which they later admitted was based on rough estimations completed on the flight to Beijing; in fact 40 cigarettes a day would be far worse for your health. The problem is that sensationalist and at times alarmist findings will receive far more media attention than solid research that may not quite have the same wow factor.

So perhaps a pinch of salt is required when making up our own minds on research findings. It is inevitable that nations, organisations and lobby groups will utilise the scientific data that best serves their agenda and supports their own arguments. But ultimately we can have great confidence that the estimates of observed global and regional warming in the IPCC 4AR produced using a wide range of scientific research show that observed warming far outstrips any uncertainties in datasets. There is no doubt that an evidence-based system is necessary to ensure each nation’s success in reducing emissions can be measured, but perhaps ministers need to focus less on negotiating what that limit should be and concentrate more on what needs to be done to reduce our carbon emissions. Regardless of whether it is a 1.5°C or 2.0°C limit to warming, the reality is it is the mechanisms to achieve a reduction that should receive the greater focus and priority; prevarication and argument will only serve to increase the challenge at hand.

Authored by Martin Broderick and Luke Strickland