Reasons for Optimism at COP21?

Professor Chris France is attending the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) on behalf of CES. He gives his impressions so far:

When new students join the Centre for Environmental Strategy I get them to consider whether they approach the implementation of sustainability with optimism or pessimism.

The more extreme “optimists” put great store by both technological advances and the ability of governments to take a long-term and ‘extra-territorial’ view of what their countries should do. At the other end of the spectrum the pessimists can’t see that technology (along with its financing and implementation) will be brought to use before irreversible change will have happened. They also consider that the tendency of powerful governments is to be parochial and too interested in maintaining the status quo.

If pressed, after a lecture and discussion that endeavours to explore some of the international agreements that could be marshalled to support views at either end of the spectrum, I sometimes share my (changing!) view with them.

I start from the thought that humankind already has sufficient technological knowledge and financial capacity to let, even an expanded, population live adequately (comfortably?) on the planet (if this were not so I am not sure that I could comfortably draw a salary as a Professor researching and teaching sustainability). Of course the world’s political systems are far from allowing that to happen.  Despite the political problems however, under the auspices of the UN, some significant progress has been made.  Perhaps the best example is that of the Montreal Protocol: the science showed that it was pretty much beyond doubt that human-made chemicals were creating an ozone hole. The chemicals were really rather good as refrigerants, at putting out fires, for fumigating agricultural land etc.  Replacing them took investment in research, in building plant, replacing infrastructures etc – in short it ‘cost’.  Yet, the world came together and largely took the chemicals out of use; the science shows that ozone depletion is reducing and humans living at high latitudes have improved health as a result.  This shows that it is possible for ‘world’ governance structures to work in making the planet more sustainable.  Contrast that with the rather slower progress on action over climate change……

I’m sitting at COP21 in Paris just now listening to the most intricate debate about the document that will form the basis of the overall agreement that will be signed at the end of next week.  It’s a 20 pages or so document that the 196 parties to the process will be invited to endorse. In 90mins a total of 6 paragraphs have been debated, 3 of them amended and agreed, the other 3 reached stalemate and will be discussed outside of the plenary session in the hope that the opposite views can be reconciled. At that pace it would be Christmas before any conclusion is reached: clearly the process will gather pace as the arrival of the political masters, who will engage in the final negotiations, approaches.

Setting side the fascinating diplomatic dynamics in the room and the elegant co-chairing, where would I put myself on the optimist-pessimist scale that give to my students?  Despite the arcane debate and distinct political camps I am more optimistic than I have been for some time.  What comes out will not likely be as much as we ‘should’ do but the fact that there will be an agreement that will change behaviour is a positive move which can be built upon in the future.

I would be less optimistic if I did not also see a gathering cast of non-governmental actors making change, most notably for me, multinational companies. I am hoping to see some representatives of those companies at COP with a view to CES working with them to address not only their move away from fossil carbon based supply chains but their wider sustainability challenges.