Straight talking: Multilateralism has set the train rolling

WORLDWIDE: The question I posed at end of my last column was: "Will the renewables revolution happen fast enough to save the climate?" Although the COP21 UN climate summit in Paris did not definitively answer the question, the possibility of a positive answer seems much greater now than it did before the event, even after a few weeks of sober reflection.

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As a number of pundits have pointed out, it's not so much that we really need to "save the planet"; we need to stop destabilising the climate in order that our civilisation might survive.

A key reason that the Paris Agreement generated such a sense of euphoria was that it was an all too rare display of multilateralism at work — countries coming together and, to a certain extent, looking beyond their own short-term national interests for the good of all.

It also represents a new way of doing things internationally, in the sense that the only thing up for negotiation in Paris was the actual emissions reduction pledges of the countries, which one would have thought was the major purpose of the exercise. But, partly in recognition of the reality of American Exceptionalism, whether anyone likes it or not; and partly due to the fact that China, along with other emerging economies, was not going to be seen to be held to a higher standard than the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Russia or other "laggard" OECD countries, the so-called "bottom-up" approach was adopted, and it seemed to work.

We'll be in a better position to judge in a few years. But for now, the train is rolling, and that's a good thing.

Stunning turnout

The other main thrust of my pre-Paris article was the need for private-sector engagement, politically and economically. Politically, I was stunned at the turnout and the rhetoric at the dozen or so business conferences surrounding the actual negotiations, where the message from captains of industry of all stripes was clear: "We are in the process of decarbonising the economy. It would be nice if governments would make a contribution, but we're doing it anyway."

Also, and very much at the last minute, language crept into the Paris Agreement text that leaves the door open for some form of "new" carbon markets, which may in the future become linked in one way or another. It will take years to work out if and how this is all going to work, but it's a positive sign.

Ratcheting up

The agreement is not without its naysayers, of course, who rightly point out that the pledges agreed still put us on a path towards an unacceptable level of warming. The "ratcheting-up" mechanism, while untested, looks robust, though. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change gives a sober scientific assessment of the challenges we face to meet the long-term targets, especially at the upper end of the ambition levels of 1.5 degsC, such as relying on extensive biomass energy carbon capture and storage.

Others point to the weakness of the US political commitment: since this is not an international treaty it will not need to be ratified by the Congress, and therefore will be subject to being overturned by a new US administration. That's always a risk, but it seems a small one, at least in the short term.

There is also the cry from some quarters about how we need to focus on research and development because we need "new technologies", which has been a rallying cry for naysayers for decades. But I think it is now finally understood by a critical mass of policymakers that we have the technology to at least get us most of the way there, and certainly to make a very rapid start.

Whether or not governments are prepared to live up to their commitments, and go beyond the pledges on the table in Paris, will become clear in the next several years. Regardless, the Paris outcome (along with the PTC/ITC deal in the US Congress) is great news for the wind, solar and efficiency industries for the near future, at least; and will continue to drive our technologies down the cost curve and make the economic case for renewables even more powerful than it is already.

Success already

Finally, a report in Nature magazine indicates that emissions may in fact have dropped in 2015, largely on the back of Chinese wind, solar and efficiency, and the "decoupling" of emissions from economic growth in much of the OECD. If that's not just a blip, then we have a fighting chance.

Steve Sawyer is CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council

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