A successful agreement is within the grasp of negotiators gathering in Paris - but in one important respect they have already delivered
Hundreds of thousands of words will be written over the next month about the Paris Climate Summit, but only one question matters: will the resulting Paris Agreement constitute a success?
The only honest answers are likely to be 'yes and no', 'perhaps', or, most accurate of all 'it is too early to tell'. But nuance and uncertainty are not going to excite the talking heads on the evening news, so from the moment the final late night cup of coffee is drunk and the stale croissants are packed away the pressure will be on to declare the summit a success or failure.
This question is so important the battle for interpretation is already well underway and it is likely to rage for months and years to come. A Paris Agreement that is deemed a success will put rocket boosters under the global green economy, mobilising billions, if not trillions, of dollars in investment and putting the world onto a path where dangerous climate change is averted. A deal (or worst still a complete collapse of the negotiating process) that is widely seen as a failure would represent the biggest blow to the low carbon economy since it first began to take shape a decade or so ago.
Inevitably, different constituencies will reach very different conclusions as to whether or not the eventual agreement should be celebrated or condemned.
The states most vulnerable to potentially catastrophic climate impacts will find it understandably difficult (but not necessarily impossible) to hail an agreement that is unlikely to limit warming to 2C as a success when credible projections suggest even 1.5C of warming would leave them facing inundation and disaster. Equally, Bolivia and its socialist cousins are unlikely to see its demands for an agreement that 'destroys' capitalism prove successful.
Green campaigners will be tempted to take their lead from those nations facing the worst climate impacts and argue anything short of a legally-binding treaty that delivers steep emissions cuts in line with significantly less than 2C of warming constitutes a failure - a failure that will be compounded if governments prove unable to deliver detailed commitments to mobilise more than $100bn a year of climate funding for poorer nations from 2020.
It is the job of environmental campaigners to push for ever more ambitious climate action and as such it would be understandable if some of them give what is likely to be a compromise agreement a tepid welcome. However, misery makes for strange bedfellows and it should be noted that one other set of influential observers will attempt to set a similarly high bar for the talks. Climate sceptics and right wing media commentators will seek to slam the talks as an embarrassing failure if, as seems inevitable, they fail to deliver legally binding and universally adopted carbon targets in line with the 2C goal. Pollutocrats do not want the Paris Summit to be seen as a success and will likely use faux concern for the climate to declare any agreement a resounding failure.
And yet, while all of these interpretations of the likely outcome are understandable there is another set of criteria against which the summit looks increasingly likely to deliver a successful outcome, or at least something that looks a lot like success.
The primary aim for a growing number of governments and a large chunk of the business community is for an agreement that mobilises a significant increase in low carbon infrastructure investment sufficient to move the global economy a sizeable step closer towards a 2C emissions pathway. This green economy growth strategy would then be backed by a commitment to return to the negotiating table every five years or so to assess how new technologies could make it possible to make the final push towards the 2C pathway. Throw in tangible funding commitments to help vulnerable nations adapt to climate impacts that are already being felt and the basis of a deal that could justifiably be called a success is there to be banked.
The We Mean Business coalition of green business groups this week put further flesh on the bones of these basic criteria with an eight point plan that also included proposals for a long term goal to deliver net zero emissions "well before the end of this century", further action on carbon pricing, and annual events to mobilise climate action through to 2020.
Against these not unreasonable goals it is clear that the Paris Summit has success within its grasp, even if equally reasonable issues relating to climate funding, loss and damage, and the failure to put the world onto a 2C pathway remain major potential stumbling blocks.
In fact, the outlook for the talks gets better still when you consider that not every aspect of this business-led wish-list needs to be delivered for an agreement to be justifiably hailed as a success.
To understand why this is the case, we need to cast our minds back to the last time world leaders attempted to broker an international climate change deal in Copenhagen. The summit was pilloried as a failure, but as Michael Jacobs, a former advisor to Gordon Brown on climate change, explained at last week's Environmental Industries Commission it did succeed in getting governments to commit to a new wave of climate policies ahead of the summit.
Policies such as the EU's 2020 package, the Obama administration's first wave of vehicle emissions standards, and China's renewable energy investment programme were enacted. Cities and multinational businesses similarly signed up to a raft of emission reduction targets for 2020, and all these policies subsequently combined with the falling cost and growing maturity of clean technologies to deliver an historic surge in low carbon investment and a scenario where the IEA thinks we may have just decoupled global economic and emissions growth. And all that, on the back of a failed summit.
Ahead of the Paris Summit much the same thing has happened, only this time with much greater co-ordination and ambition. Over 170 nations have submitted national climate action plans or INDCs and while critics will try to argue these voluntary pledges lack any legal bite it has to be noted that many of the world's largest economies, including the US, the EU, and China, are giving their core INDC commitments legal force, be it through Obama's Clean Power Plan, Brussels 2030 energy and climate package, or the Communist Party's five year plans.
Businesses and regional governments have announced a similar wave of ambitious policies, ranging from Alberta's surprise commitment to phase out coal power to the growing band of firms signing up to sourcing 100 per cent renewable power or pledging to set 'science-based' emissions targets.
It is obviously the case that it will be easier to declare the Paris Summit a success if these national action plans are backed by a system of five year reviews, bolder commitments on climate funding, a resolution to the on-going row over climate-related loss and damage, tangible progress on the wider use of carbon pricing, and, perhaps most important of all, an explicit commitment to full decarbonisation this century. Negotiators need to strain every sinew to deliver on each of these fronts and more. Businesses and green groups must apply as much pressure as they can, while the world's most vulnerable nations must exercise their moral authority in securing as good a deal as possible as they strive to protect themselves from escalating climate risks.
Meanwhile, global political and business leaders need to recognise that if the primary goal of the summit is to make it easier to mobilise the investment and build a green economy that makes deep decarbonisation possible then the summit needs to be seen to be a success if it is to succeed. That means unequivocal signals to investors that are not compromised by high carbon apologists back home and counter-productive domestic policies (we're looking at you, UK government). Climate action must not just be done, it must be seen to be done.
However, even if progress in each of these areas remains patchy (and let's all hope it is far better than patchy) then the investment signals provided and the markets created by the network of INDCs will have already gone a very long way towards delivering the step change in low carbon investment and development that is so urgently required. Virtually every country will have already informed its entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders and regional authorities that decarbonisation is the long term goal and clean technology and sustainable economic practices are the primary mechanisms for achieving it. Barring a complete collapse of the talks, the global green economy is poised to take a significant and potentially historic step forward.
Will the Paris Summit prove a success? In at least one important respect it already has.
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