When the dust settles in Paris

COP21 produced a historic deal to tackle climate change, but not before Denmark's green reputation wavered on the world stage. On the home front, the battle against global warming has only just begun

Last month’s COP21 climate conference in Paris marked a now-or-never point for climate diplomacy. With nearly 200 countries participating, the chance for success seemed low, while stakes had never been higher. Ahead of the talks, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected catastrophic consequences should the conference fail to reach a working agreement that would stop global temperatures from exceeding two degrees Celsius.

Since the first COP conference in 1995, countries have failed to introduce meaningful restrictions on carbon emissions, prioritising the financial benefits of fossil fuel-driven economies above climate concerns. It was with an eye on this political reality that Liberal Party (Venstre) prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen toned down expectations for the UN conference, predicting that a “useable”, but ultimately “insufficient” agreement would emerge.

However, Paris delivered the world’s most significant climate deal yet, with 196 nations pledging to cut carbon emissions and agreeing to a third-party review every five years.

“This is the biggest event of my time as minister. I don’t recall anything like this in my time in politics,” climate minister Lars Christian Lilleholt who represented Denmark at the climate talks, told Ritzau.

But without binding emission targets, the success of the Paris agreement hinges on the willingness and ambition of each of the signature countries.

Key measures
“A major leap for mankind” was how French President François Hollande described the agreement after the deal was adopted on December 12.

An ambitious upper limit on temperature increases certainly outstripped expectations. The deal calls on countries to keep global temperature increases “well below” two degrees, striving for 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Achieving the ambitious target, however, will require countries to reach peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible – with larger timeframes for developing countries – and introduce rapid reductions thereafter.

However, without the binding reductions targets supported by the EU, the deal risks becoming more symbolic than a definitive end to the fossil-fuel era. It will therefore rely heavily on international pressure to maintain momentum in tackling climate change.

Critics in Denmark see this as an incomplete roadmap for pollution reduction. While pleased, Liberal Alliance’s (LA) leader Anders Samuelsen took to Twitter to add realism to the post-accord euphoria:

“Is it binding? No. Is there financing? No. Are these mere declarations of intent? Yes.”

On the other hand, Katherine Richardson, climate professor at the University of Copenhagen, welcomed the agreement as a fundamental building block for the global climate effort.

“To achieve clean air, our neighbours also have to act. This agreement lays the foundation we can build up from,” Richardson told Politiken newspaper.

Former EU climate minister Connie Hedegaard agreed that the agreement was a “huge step”, but added that there were still many things to resolve.

What helped secure the agreement global support was the flexibility it afforded signatory nations. Reviews every five years will revisit and re-evaluate national efforts at curbing emissions, an approach that takes into account both the unique situation of every nation and potential changes in predictions.

The climate adaptation funding promised to the developing world remains vague, however. The preamble, which is not legally binding, promises 100 billion dollars per year in climate finance for developing nations by 2020. The amount has been criticised as insufficient, particularly because the developing world hasn’t enjoyed the same economic benefits from fossil fuel production, but will still face enormous costs as they decrease consumption and extraction.

“There is little in this agreement to give the poorest communities around the world comfort that they will see an increase in funds to cope with climate change in the years ahead,” Tim Gore, Oxfam’s head of climate policy told Bloomberg.

Denmark losing the lead
During COP21, Denmark’s climate minister Lilleholt complained that the agreement lacked bite, despite the fact that his own Venstre-led government backtracked on former climate goals after ascending to power last year. Pleading fiscal grounds and the extra burdens on business, the government reduced its carbon reduction target from 40 percent to 37 percent by 2020. Denmark’s specific climate funding pool was also scrapped in favour of administration under foreign aid, which is being cut by 4.8 billion kroner.

Jens Mattias Clausen, a climate politics advisor from Greenpeace Denmark, accused the Danish government of double standards.

“The Prime Minister and Climate Minister drastically cut climate initiatives and then come to Paris boasting about being global leaders,” Clausen told Ritzau.

The government’s diminishing climate ambitions didn’t escape international notice. The country was awarded “Fossil of the Day” during the conference, a mock award given out by activist organisation Climate Action Network (CAN), designed to name-and-shame countries performing badly on climate issues.

“The new, minority, Liberal government of Denmark got into power in July and clearly thought there was too much climate leadership going on. So they decided to dial it down, right down,” said CAN.

The policy changes have affect Denmark’s status as a green leader and, in the latest World Energy Council (WEC) ranking of sustainable countries, Denmark fell from fifth to sixth place. President of WEC Denmark Hans Hvidtfeldt Larsen was quick to point out that the figures are relative and could reflect advances made by other countries rather than setbacks at home.

Despite the cuts to foreign aid, the Prime Minister has pledged 580 million kroner for Mission Innovation, a new investment program where parties pledge to double their clean technology commitments by 2020.  Lilleholt also argues that Denmark remains a green pioneer, pointing to The Climate Change Performance Index, which rates Denmark as the world’s most climate-friendly country.

“Back in 2012 we took on a climate policy, which indicates – with the figures we know today – that we will reduce carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 by 37 percent. That places Denmark among the countries in the world which reduce the most emissions,” he told Ritzau.

Clean energy boost
The Confederation of Danish Industry (Dansk Industri) also maintains that Denmark is still a clean energy pioneer despite the target reductions. Director Tine Roed is optimistic the deal will prove enormously financially beneficial to Denmark, provided its industry can rise to the challenge.

“Denmark is currently the market leader in Europe. But if we are to hold the position, we must constantly develop new technologies and build on what we have. But we have a fantastic departure point,” she said to Ritzau.

Assuming the US, China, EU and Mexico follow up on their pledges, Dansk Industri esimates that Denmark can double its clean energy exports to around 125 billion kroner by 2030.

Lars Aagard, CEO of the Danish Energy Association (Dansk Energi), agrees that the deal could be a huge boon for the renewable energy market, where Denmark holds a strong position. But adds that those opportunities won’t materialise for Denmark unless politicians reframe the national climate agenda and make the transition to cleaner energy more attractive.

“We can’t carry on with a tax policy, where taxes on green power are far, far higher than taxes on oil. It makes no sense,” says Aagard.

Domestic policies catch up

In a post-accord editorial, Michael Liebrich, Chairman of the Advisory Board for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, wrote that the legacy of Paris now hinges on how domestic politics play out in the near future.

“The real acid test will be whether, over the next 10 years, countries are prepared to make significant additional commitments, in particular in the areas of decarbonising transportation and improving energy efficiency.”

And it is in this context that Denmark’s faltering climate ambitions are a concern.  John Nordbo, head of climate at WWF Denmark, claims the landmark 1.5-degree target demands an immediate revision of Danish climate goals.

“To give the Paris agreement the best possible start, the Danish government must eliminate any doubt about Danish climate targets. It makes no sense that Denmark is one of the few countries in the world to weaken its climate ambitions, when the rest of the world is doing the opposite,” says Nordbo.

The fear remains that Denmark’s weakening initiative could spread to other countries at future negotiations, setting a poor example to countries with a weaker financial foothold to help ease them off fossil fuels.

“Now it’s critical for all countries to deliver, Denmark as well,” former climate minister Martin Lidegaard (Radikale) wrote on Facebook.

“It is up to us to make the difference. We need more than the government’s green mediocrity. The battle has only just begun.” M

Features, News

By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. @Lenarutski

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