A Sting Exclusive: Paris Climate Change Summit, a defining moment for humanity, by Ulf Björnholm Head of UNEP Brussels

COP21 Logo Paris UN

Written by Mr Ulf Björnholm, Head of the UNEP Brussels Liaison Office

With world leaders and governments struggling to find solutions to immediate problems such as extreme poverty, terrorism, economic crisis, unemployment and migration, we now also need to collectively rise to the challenge to simultaneously counter a more long term, but equally serious, threat to human wellbeing and survival: climate change. In fact, avoiding climate change is not only a goal in itself, but will also address many of our short-term challenges.

The Climate Summit in Paris in December must be a success, and by this I mean that it must provide the overall direction, inspiration and resolve to fundamentally change society’s course. This is no small objective and it will not be easy to achieve – but if we fail in Paris we risk passing a point of no return, resulting in escalating climate change with very serious and unpredictable consequences.

Let us take a step back and reflect on where we stand, 23 years after the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio, 1992.

On one hand, there is no room for complacency. The Kyoto Protocol was an important step forward but its commitments only cover a limited number of countries and a fraction of total world emissions. The Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009 agreed on the overall objective to limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius, but fell short of creating the compact and consensus needed for real change. And while there are some positive signs of a major shift from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy, and from overconsumption to resource efficiency, we are still very far from reaching a low carbon society.

On the other hand, we have to accept that profound societal change is not achieved overnight. In order to come to grips with climate change, we must challenge the way we think, the way we make our income, the way we live our daily lives. And we will have to step out of our comfort zones. This is a tall order.

What makes it even more challenging is that we already know that even a successful outcome in Paris will not provide all the answers. The recent UNEP Emission Gap Report shows that even if we implement all the countries’ commitments tabled for the Conference, we are still unlikely to reach the 2 degree target.

The good news, however, is that we in are better placed than ever to reach a good outcome in Paris.

First of all, nobody who wants to be taken seriously will challenge the scientific consensus (as confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report) that climate change is happening, that it is mainly caused by human activities, and that we have to act urgently to avoid its worst consequences. Never before have we seen such a high level of awareness, interest and engagement on this issue.

Secondly, more than 160 countries to date have submitted national climate action commitments, covering more than 90% of global emissions. We are getting closer to a truly global agreement, where all countries contribute to the solution, while taking into account different starting points and capacities.

Thirdly, key stakeholders such as CEOs, city mayors and civil society organisations are engaging more than ever before. Collectively, they contribute to making the transformation to a low carbon society a possibility, through renewable energy investments, sustainable consumption and production initiatives, and awareness-raising. The role of the private sector and the financial system is particularly important. After all, action on the ground is what actually makes a difference in reality.

The Climate Summit in Paris will need to bring all of this together, and set out a clear direction for the future. I believe that four key issues will determine whether the Paris Conference is considered a successful milestone in addressing climate change:

  1. We need an unambiguous formal outcome in the form of a strong and ambitious political consensus document, to which all countries will sign up to and that addresses both mitigation and adaptation, backed by adequate financial resources.
  2. Countries must actually implement their climate commitments – the so-called INDCs; climate change will not be averted by empty promises. UNEP and other UN organisations will provide advice and support to countries’ efforts.
  3. A process needs to be put in place to ramp up ambition levels into the future, with a goal of eventually reaching the 2-degree target; even a highly successful Paris accord will have gaps which need to be addressed later on.
  4. All non-state actors should showcase, and receive recognition of, climate action undertaken and in the pipeline, to inject new hope and creativity for everyone.

If these requirements are met, I believe the world will get the message, and that we will maximise the possibility of getting to grips with global climate change.

In the end, transformation and change is driven by either fear or inspiration, and the dominating driving force often determines the manner in which we try to solve the problem at hand. The Paris Summit must certainly underscore the seriousness of the threat of climate change and the risks of inaction. But perhaps even more importantly, it must manifest that it is possible to keep climate change under control in a way that creates wealth and prosperity without continued reliance on fossil fuels and overexploitation of our natural resources and the environment.

About the writer

Ulf Björnholm is the Head of the UNEP Brussels Liaison Office

Ulf Björnholm is the Head of the UNEP Brussels Liaison Office

Ulf Björnholm, a national of Sweden, is an expert in European and international policy on sustainable development and environmental policy. 

Prior to joining UNEP, he served in the European Commission where he had a leading role in developing a proposal for a new EU Clean Air Policy, presented in 2013. Linked to this, he participated actively in international UN negotiations relating to air pollution.

Mr. Björnholm has also held several positions as a representative and diplomat for the Swedish Government, both in Stockholm and abroad. In his role as a political advisor and negotiator on international environmental affairs for Sweden, he chaired and represented the EU at several UN/EU environmental negotiations during two EU Presidencies – in New York (2001) and in Brussels (2009). For more than seven years, he served as Environment and Climate Counsellor at the Swedish Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels. Before joining the Swedish Government, he worked for local municipalities and for a youth network under the Swedish UN Association to promote the implementation of Agenda 21 in Sweden. 

Ulf Björnholm has a Master of Science from the University of Lund. In addition to being fluent in Swedish, Norwegian and English, he also speaks French and Portuguese. He took up his duties as Head of UNEP’s Liaison Office to the EU in Brussels on 22 April 2014. 

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