Changing the rhythm of Al Gore or changing the algorithm in Paris?

Never before in the history of the planet have 150 heads of state sat in a single conference hall on a single day. Never before in the previous 20 conferences of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convention have heads of state arrived at the start of the two-week meeting rather than at the end. But this is what has happened today at the 21st conference. So something serious must be happening in Paris.


Ten years ago, former US vice-president Al Gore made the fascinating and shocking film, An Inconvenient Truth. His drum beat of global warning against global warming has been continuous and increasing in volume. Indeed, the sound volume has been exponentially proportionate to the volume of greenhouse gases we emit.

But this has not been sufficient to trigger the consensual commitment from nations to do more to tackle climate change. So how can we up the tempo without upping the temperature of both negotiations and of our atmosphere?

The rhythm of Al Gore’s drum beat needs a new score: the draft text of this Paris climate-change conference. The world needs a new formula, or al-gor-ithm, for solving the wicked problem of global warming.

The world needs clarity to emerge in Paris to see how to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Photo:

The world needs clarity on the way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Photo:

In 10 days’ time, we will see if the Parisian formula is a turning or a tipping point for the climate-change problématique. Ambition is high for something next week to replace the Kyoto Agreement and make up for some of the missed chances at previous conferences. Indeed, at the opening today the French president, François Hollande, said that for action on climate change it was better to aim high and miss the target than to aim low and achieve it.

With the parallel momentum generated by the newly-signed agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals, some things are already accepted: the universality of the forthcoming agreement (that is, not just for OECD countries); and the ‘bottom–up’ foundation of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

But other things are not accepted and cannot be assumed given all the normal uncertainties, vested interests, cynicism and filibustering that accompany many UN meetings.

That said, the four biggest issues we need to deal with in Paris are 1) the nature of the agreement itself; 2) the balance between adaptation and mitigation; 3) the future price of carbon; and 4) the traditional sticking point of ‘finance’ and its related dimensions.

Today, the main plenary room, La Seine, seemed divided on how binding the new agreement should be. Or, to put it another way, heads of state were using vocabularies about which parts should be legally binding.

Pragmatists argued it would be better not to suffer an impasse on the legally-binding nature of the agreement since although Kyoto was legally binding there were no penalties for those nations that failed to meet their commitments. Several speakers associated the binding nature of any agreement to issues of equity, justice, fairness and inclusion. But, in short, even if not legally binding, any agreement should be morally binding and effectively monitored. If developed countries can fulfill their Durban promise of USD 100 billion per year, that will go a long way towards releasing the many other sticking points.

Some futurists have said that if the start of the post-human era is brought forward in time it may, in retrospect, be attributed to the dichotomy introduced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that divided responses to climate change into either adaptation or mitigation actions. A view that is perhaps not widely supported, but more logical, is that adaptation and mitigation are two sides of the same coin. Surprising then, that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently revealed that, since Kyoto, less than 20% of the action has gone to adaptation compared to the more than 80% targeted at mitigation.

With the looming new agreement, G77 and China fear that developed countries might try and share their mitigation obligations with developing countries and not pay sufficient attention to coping with the effects of climate change as it is being experienced, that is, adaptation. This remains a potential sticking point for the ‘brink cognoscenti’.

Central to all of this is carbon. It has always been a marketable commodity and for a long time now it has been the most variable commodity on world markets. At the low end, it could be seen traded at USD 50 per tonne for firewood and, at the high end, for a staggering USD 100 billion per tonne for diamonds. Not satisfied with such a differential, the markets sought to establish a new minimum as low as USD 2 per tonne for a novel commodity called ‘atmospheric carbon’. But the carbon market is highly imperfect. The largest emissions-trading market and many voluntary schemes are offering less then EUR 5 per tonne but the social cost of carbon (that is, with all externalities factored in) runs as high as USD 200 per tonne. In essence, the situation reflects the difference between the price, cost and value of carbon. The re-insurance industries already picked up the vibe decades ago but clearer signals to business are needed for change to occur. A global carbon price will not be agreed in Paris but commitments to pursue it are desperately needed.

The UNFCCC conferences are dominated by square-bracketed texts and numbers. Hopefully, the skilful diplomacy of the Secretariat and the French hosts will usher the world past textual disconnects but that still leaves a huge array of numbers, such as those reflecting emission levels, degrees of temperature rise and size of financial resources. Some people want to use numbers to look backwards and some want to use numbers to look forward and both are legitimate points of view. There was optimism in the main plenary today that developed countries would ramp up financial disbursements as well as pledges, even if they did not want to be tied to historical responsibilities. The dilemma that Uganda faces is a striking example: spend USD 100 million per year to fund better adaptation from 2015 to 2020 or spend USD 3 billion a year from 2025 to cope with the effects of climate change. Maybe that seems like a ‘no brainer’ but where does a small and relatively impoverished country like Uganda find that extra USD 100 million?

And what does all this mean for land use, agriculture and agroforestry? Already, the World Agroforestry Centre is supporting national governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia to develop the tools and information necessary to successfully engage with national and international climate policies, for instance through the INDCs, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus Conservation (REDD+), Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and the Climate Technology Centre and Network. Specifically, the World Agroforestry Centre would like to see more attention paid to trees in agricultural landscapes because they

  • enhance and diversify income for sustainable agricultural production;
  • provide many products essential for livelihoods and human well-being, including fruits, nuts, leaves, oils, fodder, fuel and timber;
  • perform important environmental services, such as improving soil fertility, preventing wind and water erosion, protecting watersheds and providing habitats for biodiversity;
  • help countries achieve their mitigation targets because of their ability to store carbon;
  • help countries achieve their adaptation goals because they are more resilient to climate variability than annual crops and therefore reduce climate risk;
  • restore degraded land into productive farm- and grasslands; and
  • reduce pressure on forests by improving productivity of existing farmland.

Therefore, the World Agroforestry Centre’s contribution to a changed al-gor-ithm is to call for

  • agriculture to feature prominently on the agenda of future UNFCCC negotiations and be integrated into the convention text;
  • countries to include sustainable agricultural targets in their INDCs, NAMAs and NAPs; and
  • the international community to invest heavily in research for development to expand sustainable agricultural practices, such as agroforestry.

With tangible measures achieved in Paris we can confound the cynics who are pessimistic about a new climate deal. Together with Al Gore and his rhythm it is up to all of us to transform Paris from the City of Light to the City of Delight.

Nous sommes Paris.'

Tony Simons

Tony Simons is the Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). He has worked 27 years on issues at the tropical agriculture/forestry interface, within the private sector (Shell Forestry); academia (University of Oxford); official development assistance (ODA/DFID); and research (CGIAR). He holds degrees from Massey University and Cambridge University, and an Honorary Professorship in Tropical Forestry at the University of Copenhagen, and has published over 100 research papers. Tony is passionate about the transformative change that the private sector can bring to development.

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