Can a phrase change the world? Some diplomats here hope so

Source: Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, October 30, 2015

BONN, Germany — As countries skirmish here over money and carbon emission cuts, a seemingly abstract debate is shaping up with real-world implications for investors and governments alike.

Dubbed the “long-term goal,” it is wording in a burgeoning international climate change accord that defines how 194 countries want the world to look by the century’s end. The hope of many here is that the phrase will go beyond current calls to keep temperatures below the 2-degrees-Celsius threshold that will avoid the worst impacts of climate change to defining what that means.

The options range from “decarbonization of the global economy” or “carbon neutrality” by a certain date to calls for specific percentages of emissions reductions. And while the effort might not seem as concrete as national plans to slash emissions, business leaders say it matters.

“These particular words on the page are special,” said David Wei, associate director for climate change at Business for Social Responsibility.

“What businesses need the most is certainty and clarity. Clear words that lie around the 2-degree trajectory will help to drive investment,” he said. “A long-term goal from this particular body obviously doesn’t change the global economy by itself. But it’s a signal and arguably the key political signals that countries will ask.”

And yet clear words have not always been the specialty of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. As with most things in this body, every new definition inserted into the deal to be signed in Paris in December can be emotionally and politically fraught.

Take “decarbonization of the global economy over the course of the century.” That is the U.S. language, mirroring what the Group of Seven major economies called for in their May communiqué.

Getting it in was a chore in itself, activists said. The European nations of Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom helped design that wording as part of the G-7. But because the European Union negotiates in the United Nations as a bloc and coal-heavy Poland was not in favor of inserting it, they couldn’t act. Canada and Japan unsuccessfully fought against the G-7 language and so had no interest in raising it again.

That left the United States, which inserted the decarbonization language as an option Monday, earning praise from environmental groups. Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations, on the other hand, object to a long-term goal that emphasizes carbon. They note that cutting forests, methane and black soot also cause global warming, so fossil-fuel-based carbon shouldn’t be singled out.

Within the Group of 77 developing nations and China, views on the long-term goal are all over the map.

Small island nations and African countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change want as strong a goal as possible. But emerging energy powers like India worry it will lock their countries in to emissions cuts without securing a promise of finance from the West.

A fight that may be the final round in Paris

“We cannot look at the long-term goal in isolation,” said Harjeet Singh, international climate change manager for ActionAid. “If we are all agreeing to a common goal, we must consider equity. Countries are standing at different locations. … Who is going to give them a helping hand?”

But Farhana Yamin, founder of Track 0 — which is pushing for a goal of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — said despite the disagreements she is optimistic.

“What we are gradually seeing is an acknowledgement that a mission statement that translates the 2-degree goal is a good idea. The fight is in the details,” Yamin said.

She and others argue that a concrete goal will be the thing to signal to boardrooms whether fossil fuels or renewable energy should be the focus of industry investments. Wei said his group’s “We Mean Business” coalition would like to see a goal of “net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century,” which he said represents a likely chance of keeping below the 2C threshold.

Dirk Forrister, president of the International Emissions Trading Association, said investors are paying attention to what nations do in Paris and take the long-term goal seriously. He noted that when the European Union was devising its 2030 emissions targets, businesses were pressing for clarity on plans out to 2050.

“It gives a sense of trajectories,” Forrister said. “It may change your valuations about how long you think a fossil asset might be valuable. It tells the guys who do the spreadsheets of what an investment is really going to be worth.”

While very little is expected to be resolved by the end of today at this final negotiating session before Paris, advocates said the long-term goal could be one of the final issues on the table.

“This is an end-of-week-two issue. It’s almost a leader’s issue, because this is about vision,” Yamin said.