In the run-up to the climate change demonstrations in London and Paris, Elaine Graham-Leigh looks at what’s at stake in the UN climate talks

In the run-up to the UN Climate talks in Paris this December, it is clear that substantial, immediate cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions are needed if we are to keep global warming to less than 2C and avoid the most catastrophic climate effects. While the science is clear, the likelihood of such decisive action by the assembled governments is rather less so.

The track record of previous climate talks is not an impressive one. Defenders of the process can point to the fact that we have at least progressed to a point where there is a general agreement that emissions should be reduced, beginning at Copenhagen in 2009 and culminating in Lima in 2014. This general agreement is in contrast to the 1992 Kyoto Protocol, which major greenhouse gas emitters like the US steadfastly refused to sign, and which in any case only covered the developed and not the developing world. The Lima talks went so far as to agree that the aim was decarbonisation of the world’s economies by 2050 and negative emissions by 2100, hailed as a historic step towards sustainability.

The trouble is that these talks have consistently failed to come up with the legally-binding follow up to Kyoto which was supposed to be the outcome of the Copenhagen talks. Even the 2010 Cancun talks, which came the closest, only recorded reduction pledges from various countries into official UN documentation, rather than making them law. Beyond that, the proposals which they have discussed are utterly insufficient to achieve the scale of emissions cuts required. The pledges recorded at Cancun would, even if they were achieved, be far insufficient to prevent catastrophic global warming: scientists have calculated that they would put us on course for 3.7C of warming, in contrast to 4C if no action was taken.

The aspirations recorded at the Lima talks go further, but the historic nature of the Lima statement is rather undermined by its timescales. Firstly, these are long enough to make its usefulness in avoiding serious warming limited. Secondly, they are far enough away that the signing politicians would not be the ones held to account for not turning these aims into reality. The proposals going into the Paris talks appear similar to the Cancun pledges in their unambitious scale – the EU is offering 40% reductions on 1992 levels by 2030, the US 25-28% on 2005 levels by 2025, and China is to have its emissions peak in 2030 – and we already know that these will be insufficient to keep warming to 2C.

The shadow of the fractious Copenhagen talks, which broke up in acrimony, hangs over the Paris summit, to the extent that neither President Obama nor the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao are actually planning to attend. As journalist John Vidal summed it up, “Copenhagen was just a complete nightmare, a diplomatic meltdown, I think is the fairest way to say it, where you had countries accusing each other of genocide.” We now know that the US was spying on the participants and on the Danish government throughout the talks and there is speculation that they were deliberately scuppered to stop the Chinese being able to score points by seeming to take a lead on the issue, as well as protecting interests of fossil fuel industries in US.

The potential for the Paris talks to be similarly bad-tempered, and derailed by diplomatic skulduggery, would seem to be high. At Copenhagen, the most disputed points were around the financing for developing world countries, who would be brought under any new deal for the first time. From a climate point of view, it makes no sense for significant greenhouse gas emitters like India or Brazil to be excluded, but as they argue, they and lower-emitters in need of development also require finance to help them adopt low-carbon technologies and adapt to the effects of unavoidable climate change. There is also the fair point that climate change is a problem caused by the global north but experienced most disastrously by the global south, so the most developed countries have a responsibility to pay for the costs of dealing with it.

The governments at Copenhagen managed at the last minute to stitch together a financing deal to get us to 2020, but any agreement to come out of the Paris talks has to include some sort of arrangement for it to continue. It’s likely to be one of the most contentious issues, with the potential to derail the talks entirely, as governments like the UK’s insist that any such funding should be raised from the private sector rather than coming from public-sector spending.

If this sounds like the ideology of austerity standing in the way of a deal on emissions reduction, that’s because it is. The insistence that public spending must be avoided at all costs is particularly damaging because there is no good evidence that there are large sums of private-sector finance just waiting for us to call on them to solve all our environmental problems. After all, one of the most high-profile recent attempts to leverage the finance and industrial sectors in an emissions-reducing project, the Desertec proposal for Saharan solar energy, ended in failure when the consortium split up. Countries in the global south are well aware that when David Cameron and his ilk say that they should have private rather than public-sector funding, this is likely to mean no funding at all.

With all these obstacles to a deal at the Paris talks, it’s easy to forget that even if a legally-binding agreement for emissions reductions were to be achieved, that wouldn’t be problem solved. Despite the legal status of the Kyoto agreement, without effective penalties for transgression it has proved something of a dead letter and, notably, has not prevented emissions from rising even in signatory countries. Canada, finding that they had broken their princely Kyoto commitment to cut emissions by 6% and had instead increased them by 30%, simply withdrew from Kyoto in 2011.

There is also the question of how any promised emissions cuts will be achieved. The EU’s proposed 40% cut includes a commitment to get 27% of the EU’s energy from renewable sources, which sounds impressive until you remember that those renewable sources in this definition include not only nuclear power but fracking. Beyond that, much of the 40% cut would be achieved on paper through cap and trade schemes; in other words, buying other countries’ emissions quotas so that the EU can carry on emitting greenhouse gas.

The theory behind such cap and trade schemes is that it doesn’t matter to the atmosphere whence greenhouse gases are emitted, as long as total global emissions fall. In practice, however, the effect is to encourage countries in the global south to treat their emissions quotas like a cash crop, to be sold to the global north at the cost of their own development. In the worst case, and as we’ve seen from carbon trading’s record so far, they can enable countries to appear in theory to be meeting their obligations without emissions being reduced at all.

One conclusion to be drawn from all this is that we cannot rely on our governments to come to a deal that will actually achieve the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but then we have already learnt that lesson from summits from Copenhagen on. This does not mean however that the talks are unimportant. What is often lost in the technical discussion and diplomatic wrangling around the climate summits is that climate change is not a technical problem, but a political one. We have the technology to generate all of our electricity from genuinely renewable sources, for example, just not a political framework in which to make it happen. There will be little to challenge the austerity ideology of our government and other leaders inside the talks in Paris, which is why there has to be a loud, determined mass challenge on the streets.

While the world’s media are focused on Paris and on the issue of climate change, our role has to be to point out that greenhouse gas emissions are still, more than twenty years after Kyoto, an apparently insoluble issue only because no one has found a way of profitably marketising emissions reduction.

The demonstrations in London and around the UK on 28 and 29 November will also be an important opportunity to hold our government to account for their action and inaction on climate change. As I’ll explore in the next instalment, there’s plenty there to get angry about.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.