It’s always darkest before the dawn.
Sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel really is the light and not an oncoming train.
COP21 in Paris is being rightfully celebrated as a success: 195 nations pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions, invest more than $100 billion a year by 2020 in clean energy technology and in boosting resilience to extreme climate events, and to achieve net greenhouse gas neutrality in the second half of the century.
That’s more or less a re-tooling of the entire lower half of the economic pyramid of Planet Earth. It’s a big job. It requires every country to move in the same direction. Cats will have to be herded.
So yes; the applause, the speeches and the – who knows? – Nobel Prizes will be merited, if only to celebrate the fact that when our backs are against the wall, we can pull together.
But what was it that pushed our backs against the wall?
Was it years and years of growing scientific evidence? Was it Chinese citizens suffering from impenetrable smog on a daily basis? Was it Pacific Islands becoming uninhabitable as the seas encroached?
It may have been all of these. But we should also consider the Danes.
Six years ago in Copenhagen we were at the same place: 195 countries trying to reach an agreement that everyone should act. The talks were urgent, the weight of public pressure just as great, the need for action no less.
And yet we failed. A shattering, ignominious failure that tarnished every one of the world leaders that flew in to scoop up a share of the glory and ended up covered in mud, huddled around a table in the Bella Center, trying to hammer out something, anything, that would let them walk away and claim a positive result.
It was awful. Chaotic, incompetent, amateurish.
In the intervening six years, nothing has really changed in terms of scientific evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent Assessment Report didn’t change direction. In fact, its statistical confidence that mankind was causing climate change increased.
But it’s outside the realms of science where there’s been a change. Since Copenhagen, since governments showed themselves of being incapable of saving themselves, society has taken over. NGOs, lobby groups, research institutes, investors and activists have all taken up the challenge.
We have analysts demonstrating that investments in fossil fuels are a bad financial risk. We have businesses demonstrating that low-carbon supply chains are just as efficient and can in fact be revenue-positive. We have citizens demanding zero-carbon power supply, often because it can be installed quicker than fossil power.
To be sure, a lot of what’s happening today has also been the fortuitous result of a severe downturn in the raw materials industries, where carbon-intensive processes dominate. Demand for energy is slowing. Crude oil is half the price it was during the Copenhagen summit, coal has fallen nearly the same extent. Only natural gas is roughly the same price as it was back then. Investors are fleeing these industries in search of something more lucrative.
In 2009, the world was reeling from the worst economic downturn in almost a century. Governments needed cheap energy to fuel their recovery, and zero-carbon just wasn’t cheap enough.
But the bounce-back from Copenhagen, the aggregate force of society’s and business’s reaction to that flop, as well as the economic evolution since the global crisis, has been strong enough to force its way into the halls of governments and help decide their policies.
During the two weeks of Paris, there were frequent references to Copenhagen, to the failure of that meeting, and to the need to commit the lessons of COP15 to heart. Nobody, but nobody came out of Copenhagen with their reputations enhanced. Confidence in the imminence of climate action fell to a new low. Paris would set that right.
And it did. Negotiations progressed amazingly smoothly. Whenever a tired old trope from COPs past raised its head, it was quashed mercilessly by a combination of criticism and impeccable French diplomacy. The refrain of “common but differentiated responsibility” all but disappeared, to be replaced by the more efficient (and less provocative) “differentiation”, which no longer implied a binary division of labour, but rather 50 shades of effort.
Every nation seemed to be willing to go as far as it could to accommodate; what was surprising was how close together these accommodations brought the whole community of nations.
Of course, we don’t have any idea what this agreement will bring us in tangible progress over the years. We don’t know whether temperatures will overshoot the 2 degree limit, or whether we can bring them back down. We don’t know whether mankind can overcome its addiction to cheap dirty energy.
But at least we will have a chance to find out. And that might just be Copenhagen’s legacy, rather than Paris’.