Canute in reverse: Macron’s climate summit

Today thousands of the great and the good will gather in Paris for the latest in a long line of climate summits. Initiated in July by French President Emmanuel Macron, it falls on the two year anniversary of the Paris Agreement.  With three goals –  “Take tangible and collective action, innovate, support one another”  – it is part of his efforts to maintain France’s status as the pace-setter on climate change, in ever-growing contrast to the Trump administration’s enthusiastic environmental vandalism.  Trump was explicitly not invited, in fact.

The event is the latest in a much longer line of climate summits which try to focus attention and generate momentum. However, while most previous summits have been involved mitigation policies, motherhood statements and unmemorable memos about more meetings, this one may be different..

Summits going on

While ‘summits to solve problems’ are time-honoured, and can lead to new organisations (the 1975 Rambouillet talks to discuss economic problems led to the formation of the G7) political gatherings on climate change date back to the early 1980s.

Climate scientists and switched on politicians (including a young Al Gore) attempted to sustain momentum that had been building under Carter and was fading under the new Reagan administration.

Eight years later, George HW Bush promised on the 1988 Presidential campaign trail to use the White house effect against the greenhouse effect’ and to hold an international conference within a year of taking office. However’ once in office he dragged his feet.” When the event finally happened in April 1990 it emerged that the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change, Bert Bolin, had not been invited.

The climate summits have come thicker and faster since then, either through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) , alongside it (eg. The UK effort at the UN security council,) or in a spoiler role – the efforts of George Bush Jnr and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, both who refused to enact the Kyoto Protocol to create an ‘Asia Pacific Forum on Clean Development and Climate.

The motives of the summit-callers vary. It might be to highlight intent and bask in a contrast (as Macron is doing here). It might be to regain lost ground – in 2007 Kevin Rudd, who would soon become Australian Prime Minister after ‘the first climate change election’, called a National Climate Summit to wrest back the climate agenda, after John Howard u-turned on his climate policy intransigence and asked a senior public servant, Peter Shergold, to investigate an emissions trading scheme.

(Malcolm Turnbull, now Prime Minister and then the new environment minister, dismissed it; “I’m afraid to say that the people who are going, however well intentioned, are being used by Kevin Rudd as props to promote himself.”)

Turning the tide

canuteSo far so normal. The climate debate has always been about managing the politics; political summits have always been about the signalling of virtue and/or holding back the tide as best as possible. This one though, has Macron as Canute commanding the tide to come in.

There are two interrelated reasons why this is one to watch. Firstly, the unity of the fossil fuel industry is splintering. The coal industry fear after the Paris conference that hey would “be hated like slave traders” is coming true, despite Trump’s ‘coal is back’ efforts. The Bonn climate conference saw the announce of a ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance”. Michael Bloomberg is funding a global ‘beyond coal’ effort. Coal is being thrown under the bus.

Secondly, and perhaps not unrelated, is the technological and economic developments which see “clean energy approaching a tipping point.”  The price of solar panels collapsing, new interest in concentrated solar thermal and great enthusiasm (the upswing of the hype cycle ) around energy storage. Investors are shifting to renewables, and doubtless there will be more announcements of new renewables being made. The summit will be not so much virtue signalling as venture (capital) signalling.

There will be trouble ahead

The danger then is not that Macron’s summit will extend a policy stalemate, but that it will entrench the notion – pushed aggressively and slickly by Shell – of gas as a ‘transition’ fuel (it is not) and reinforce the comforting belief that the techno-cavalry with arrive to save us.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s commitment of keeping global warming to less than two degrees (let alone the probably impossible 1.5), we are going to have to accelerate not just the growth of renewables, but also understand that incumbents will fight in clever determined and diverse ways to defend their interests. For those geeks who have pay-wall privileges, here is new academic work on overcoming policy resistance,

For those who continue to need to believe that we can get out of this mess, the real danger is no longer intransigence, but that summits like this will be used to reinforce a business as usual with a green lick of paint.

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