“A significant drop in worldwide emissions would be a success”
Prof. Anita Engels is a social scientist and speaker of the Cluster of Excellence CliSAP. In an interview with the Magazine Perspektiefe she is talking about her expectations regearding the upcoming global climate conference in Paris.
What do you hope the Climate Change Conference in Paris will accomplish?
To be honest, my expectations aren’t particularly high when it comes to any individual conference, because each can only represent a brief moment in the course of an extremely long-term negotiation process. This is due in part to the truly difficult situation we now find ourselves in with regard to climate change. The fact that we produce greenhouse gases is unfortunately not something we can change overnight. To date, our CO2 emissions have always been very closely linked with the ways and means we use to pursue our livelihoods, and we still live in a world where fossil fuels are the most important energy sources. That’s true for electricity production, heating and transportation. In the social sciences, this is referred to as institutional lock-in, namely, when we become trapped in ossified structures that simply aren’t suitable for overcoming new challenges.
In addition to that situation, the negotiations themselves are extremely difficult, since we don’t of course have a single world government that can use political majorities to create new laws applicable to all countries. The climate negotiations will be held in the context of the United Nations, where every country has a vote and a global consensus is needed in order to create binding climate protection agreements. But it’s often hard enough to find consensus in small groups.
“The negotiations remain difficult, since we don’t of course have a single world government.”
How can we expect to see a real breakthrough when states with very different agendas, and which may even be hostile towards one another in other regards, have to come to an agreement? The various parties involved differ dramatically in terms of their own contributions to climate change, and in terms of the negative impacts that climate change will likely mean for them. Moreover, they differ with regard to their willingness and ability to reduce their high CO2 emissions, depending on whether they are economically weak developing countries, newly industrialized countries, or prosperous industrialized countries. Accordingly, we’re not likely to see rapid, pioneering successes in global climate policy. That being said, the specific constellation of the global community changes every year; I feel this year’s mix is conducive to making headway in the negotiations.
Regarding the preparations for the conference, which points did you find promising? Where do you see the greatest challenges?
It’s certainly promising that they’re now employing a different logic in the negotiations. In the past, there were major gaps between the different groups of countries. In particular, the major newly industrialized countries China and India categorically refused to help reduce emissions, arguing that the rich industrialized countries had been free to produce as much CO2 as they liked back when they were establishing their own prosperity.
“Switching our energy supply to renewable sources without sacrificing our prosperity - that will have a major influence on other countries.”
Though that argument is justified historically speaking, it has also often led to a mutual hardening of positions. Thanks to its explosive growth, over the past several years China has become the world’s largest polluter, at least in absolute national emissions. And many other developing and newly industrialized countries have also “caught up.” Consequently, we’ll only see a meaningful drop in emissions if all of the larger countries commit to producing fewer emissions in the future. This year all member states were called upon to declare their readiness to do their part, and 146 of them have already done so. That’s a very positive signal and will help avoid the deadlocks we’ve seen in the past. Nevertheless, all of these efforts taken together won’t be enough to achieve the UN’s goal of limiting global warming to a maximum 2-degree increase, so as to avert dangerous consequences for society.
What part can Germany play in the negotiations?
Germany won’t be speaking for itself in the negotiations, but as part of the European Union. But since Germany’s vote carries a great deal of weight in the EU, if our commitment to farther-reaching climate goals is credible, it should have an effect. But Germany is also interesting for the other players in global climate policy for another reason: we’re the first country to take the plunge with the energy transition, which makes us the subject of international scrutiny. If we actually succeed in switching our energy supply to renewable sources in just a few decades and without sacrificing our prosperity, it will have a major influence on many other countries. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Germany should position itself as a “climate guru” so that everyone else can learn from us. That wouldn’t be appropriate, for one thing because we haven’t even succeeded in completing the energy transition yet. But what we certainly can do during the negotiations is to report on which steps are easy to implement, and where major obstacles have yet to be overcome.
“It’s imperative that we learn to assist and support one another within the international community.”
The commitment we’ve put into our efforts has attracted considerable interest. Many countries would find an energy transition highly desirable, as it would minimize their dependence on imported energy and serve to reduce not just greenhouse gases, but many other harmful emissions. Yet most of them remain skeptical about how realistically the transition to a regenerative energy mix can be achieved without tremendous social costs. If we succeed with the energy transition, it will be an incredibly compelling achievement.
What would make the Paris talks a success in your eyes, and why is success so important?
I’d call the talks a success if the commitments already made by individual countries could become a bit more ambitious. Right now I’m less concerned about reaching the goal quickly; it’s more about taking steps in the right direction, in other words, a significant drop in global emissions. So far, despite all the negotiations, we still haven’t achieved it. It would also be important to encourage financial compensation mechanisms to safeguard countries threatened by climate change from damage. Lastly, it’s imperative that we learn to assist and support one another within the international community – and not just when it comes to climate policy, as the current refugee situation clearly shows.
Source: ZGV · Perspektiefe 38, November 2015