What should we expect from the Paris Climate Summit?

25 November 2015

What should we expect from the Paris Climate Summit?

Foto: inACtion

At last the moment has arrived. Previous gatherings were no more than the prelude to this final summit in Paris. At least that’s what the environmentally aware world citizen expects. He or she realises only too well that a drastic change of course is needed in the extremely short term if the worst is to be prevented.

By Stefaan Onghena

The catalogue of disastrous consequences which climate change has already created for people and for nature is growing visibly. Notwithstanding all of the arguments from private citizens, environmental organisations, scientists, some leading politicians and even from a limited number of corporate bigwigs, the concentration of greenhouse gases is steadily growing.

Previous summits have produced very few results, other than a lot of quarrelling and above all the consumption of a great deal of kerosene. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands will now descend on Paris, a city that for a brief period will become the centre of attraction for all who believe in, and work for, a sustainable world. The total number of hours spent in meetings and discussions in Kyoto, Copenhagen, Lima and the many gatherings between is astronomical. The essentials of the debate require at most a few sheets of A4, rather than repeated mass meetings for the umpteenth attempt to arrive at a modest consensus. On the home front, however, there are mountains of work to be done. Mountains of work which can’t be done in front of a computer screen. Throwing in the towel in your own country and pushing the blame as much as possible on to other nations is unfortunately the objective of many of the delegates during this summit meeting as it has been in those which preceded it. The result: years and years of delay and postponement that flirt with the critical two or more degrees Celsius of warming.

What criteria?

If you tracked the average global level of comfort over the last century on a graph, the line representing it would run almost parallel to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere during the same period. The two lines would, however, deviate from each other considerably if they were presented by country or continent. What happens when you put climate change on such a graphic is a whole other story. The nations or continents responsible for these developments are not necessarily those which are hardest hit by extreme weather events, failed harvests, desertification or flood. Climate change knows no frontiers. Standards of living and of comfort often change drastically, literally at the border. Industrialised countries are therefore all too happy to use their economic activities rather than the level of their population as criteria for measuring their greenhouse gas emission rights. So if you listen to the European Commission, the European Union is proud of its achievement, beating its chest at having emitted ‘only’ 10% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Europe contains more than 10% of the global economy, so Europe is very good. This one-sided economistic approach is also popular, needless to say, amongst countries such as the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and a few oil-rich states. Europeans form some 7% of the world’s population, Americans less than 5%. Together they make, therefore, scarcely 12% of the total, yet emit no less than a quarter of all greenhouse gases. If the calculation were done on the basis that every person, wherever in the world he or she is located, has the right to a certain comfort – and thus, linked to this, the right to emit a certain level of greenhouse gases – the frame of reference would be completely different. A country such as China, at which the West points the finger as in absolute terms having become the world’s biggest polluter, should be able to retain this status without suffering any reprimand. It is, after all, one of the biggest nations in the world and according to the principle of proportionality it is logical - counting as it does a sixth of the world’s population, making it Number 1 in the global demographic league table - the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The same goes for a giant such as India. All the more because western countries have delocalised a large slice of their polluting and/or energy-intensive productive units to places like China, India, and Bangladesh. They have become, as it were, overseas industrial estates for the west.

Does the world citizen, wherever he or she lives, have the same rights? If so, so does the nation. After all it isn’t the citizen, but the government, which has the capacity to effect major infrastructure projects. Access to potable tap water, rail connections or trade infrastructure, are all matters which in the western world today are widespread and ought to be realised elsewhere. The fact that creating a network of high-speed trains demands a great deal of energy and raw materials and therefore in the short term will increase greenhouse gas emissions (for example through steel production) is obvious. Windmills too, to take another example, consume large amounts of ferrous metals. This should give developing countries, and those whose economies are growing, the right temporarily to emit more CO2 than the global average per capita. Not to acknowledge this implicitly puts a break on the further development of these countries.

Technological progress

Only if and when the industrialised countries produce on average fewer CO2 emissions than the percentage of the world’s population which lives in them can our climate be turned in the right direction. Industrialised countries are often home to inventors and developers of the most progressive technologies and these technologies ought to be applied in their own economies as well as exported. Emissions of CO2 per tonne of steel produced in Europe, for instance, are significantly lower than they are in India or China. And in industrialised countries more resources are available for insulating and ventilating buildings. These are just a couple of examples of things which lead to a reduction of emissions per capita. Arguments exist, therefore, that Europe should come under 7% of global emissions and the US below 5%. Still more because they, in addition to the consumption of fossil fuels, have available the greatest nuclear capacity.

The day after

That the summit will, after many additional hours and days, arrive at a final declaration, can already be stated with a reasonable amount of certainty. As far as the content goes, the question remains as to whether a strong final declaration is at all possible. Contrasts and often conflicts of interests in this globalised world are after all enormous. Many participating countries will therefore sign a declaration with which they agree only in part, or one which isn’t binding. So the question arises as to whether every nation will accomplish what it has stated it will, or whether it will do so without pushing back the time for doing so. Will some countries be tempted to polish up their stats? To what extent will countries allow neighbouring states or the UN to look into whether or not they have fulfilled their commitments? Will economic obstacles be used as a pretext for deferring goals?

It’s already striking how various states are revealing their good intentions in the runup to the summit. Invariably what you find are future plans with horizons of 2030 or 2050, but what is to happen between now and 2025? Year on year global demand for oil, coal and gas increases. In the case of oil, for example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects to see an increase of around 1.5 million barrels per day for 2016 (in comparison to 2015), with world consumption reaching or exceeding 96 million barrels as a result. In recent years the production of a range of biofuels has also grown enormously, to burst through the 100 million barrel barrier. The goal remains unchanged: keep meeting growing demand. Enforced and efficient cuts in consumption turn out not to be on the agenda.


  1. A one-sided focus on the reduction of greenhouse gases can lead to the neglect of many other environmental problems with which the earth is currently having to contend, such as the loss of biodiversity, air pollution, the entire problem of waste and the growing scarcity of raw materials.
  2. Geopolitical tensions could be created as a result of unjust accusations against the biggest polluters when measured, at least, in absolute figures, because in this no account is taken of their total population. There are micro-states and small nations which are pretty lavish with their energy use per capita, but as things stand slip completely under the radar, given that they are responsible for ‘only’ 0.1% or 0.5% of global emissions, even though their own emissions per capita may be fifty or a hundred times greater than those of China or India.
  3. Continuing to meet demand is a finite story, one which will lead increasingly to the unbridled stripping bare of the earth and all of its natural resources. Fracking is a striking example of this. Taking care to manage the earth and its natural resources would provide at least as much employment as would its brutal dismantling. There is no longer time for a slow and gradual transition to a carbon-free economy, unless we are prepared to see untold human suffering and to sacrifice people’s lives. In Paris the world’s leaders will either say yes or no to the enormous ecocide to come, to genocide by environmental destruction, but in reality this process is well under way. In recent years across the world the number of people dying as a result of climate change has grown to upwards of 400,000 per annum.


The European Union can serve as a fully-fledged example if it first and foremost achieves its 20/20/20 goals: by 2020 all member states would reduce energy use by 20%, emit 20% less CO2 and produce 20% renewable energy in relation to an agreed reference year; next should come a halving of energy consumption, raw material use and waste, as well as at least a doubling of renewable energy production by 2030, when compared to the results achieved in 2020. This must, however, be on condition that it is not an administrative matter, but real, statistically correct progress. Pseudo- green electrical power, such as subsidised waste incineration with energy recycling or dubious biomass power stations, must be excluded. Energy consumption and emissions from transport via air, sea and outer space should be taken wholly into account to the extent that these serve the European Union or its inhabitants. The European share in pollution of the international waters must be calculated, as well as Europe’s contribution to cleaning them up.

Will Europe go in Paris for an economy which serves humanity or will people continue to form part of, and to be subordinated to, an economic system that imposes upon the earth a severe and irretrievable mortgage?

Stefaan Onghena is an interior designer and eco-designer. In addition, he is a member of the environmental council of Gent. This article is translated from the Dutch text in the SP monthly magazine Spanning, November 2015, from which it has been slightly shortened. It was written before the terrorist actions in Paris, and the subsequent restrictions on activities during the climate summit, which begins next Monday, 30th November.

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