The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris later this month is set to become the last opportunity for meaningful global action. The stars have aligned in ways that bear optimism.
The lead-up to the conference provides textbook material for propelling change. But in order to better understand these variables — and appreciate the difference that a few years can make — it is worth revisiting why Copenhagen was such a disaster.
The Copenhagen Accord was a non-legally binding backroom deal drafted by five nations (United States, China, India, South Africa and Brazil), which struck no real targets for emissions reduction. During negotiations, a previously agreed target of 80 per cent cuts by 2050 was dropped, and the 1.5 Celsius ceiling favoured by island-states and low-lying nations was also removed. There were no formal preparations for a post-Kyoto Protocol mandate.
In the immediate aftermath, much was made about the machinations by the Chinese delegation to dilute the language of the deal. China didn't need the deal. Its key interest at the time was protecting its coal-based economy. Copenhagen demonstrated, perhaps for the first time anywhere, that China was not afraid to test its muscularity against other global powers.
There were other elements at play, much of it involving domestic politics rather than international. Not all members of the European Union regard climate change as a priority in the way Germany and France do. The EU also prefers a US-friendly position, which means that it could only acquiesce to the Accord.
Barack Obama himself did not have much leverage, having only been a year in office, facing an economic recession and a Congress that was hostile to his healthcare reforms. Without a robust signal from the United States regarding targets, other countries become reticent about theirs.
In the six years since, however, the impetus for a binding international agreement to tackle the severity and effects of climate change has taken a turn.
The stark visual aftermath of recent events like Typhoon Haiyan present their own case, and do so more compellingly than decades of peer-reviewed scientific research. In fact there is evidence that public attitudes to climate change can be affected by extreme weather. It is getting more difficult for people to insist that there is nothing at all wrong.
The non-cynical view of such malleability is that the humanitarian cost of catastrophe appeals to values around life and prosperity. Even those who may not care about poor people in other countries might consider the generational impact of doing nothing; that is, whether their own children and grandchildren would be able to thrive in future environments.
The outcome of such ruminations is a sentimental one, but it impels and shapes engagement with issues more than earnest lectures from activists and experts.
The interim between Copenhagen and Paris has also featured a significant uptake in renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal. Global investment spiked to $355 billion in 2014, nearly 17 per cent higher than the previous year and despite the remnant aftershocks of the global financial crisis.
The inclination to conform to advances in technology — FOMO or fear of missing out — is driving consumption of renewables, even in the absence of emissions reduction targets. Demand for coal and oil has slipped, making the infrastructure around them less cost-effective.
In other words, the large-scale normalisation of what once were 'alternatives' to fossil fuels is a significant backdrop to the Paris summit.
The most meaningful difference between Copenhagen and Paris, however, involves leaders. Obama will arrive in France with far more political capital than he did in 2009, having put the financial crisis behind him and passed his healthcare reforms. Last week, his administration refused a permit for construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, arguing it would have undercut emissions reduction goals.
Chinese president Xi Jinping, who assumed office in 2013, is also showing signs of emboldened leadership on climate change. He conducted high-level talks with Obama in Beijing last year and Washington DC this year, which produced joint presidential statements setting out concrete reduction targets for 2030.
Pope Francis, who started his papacy in 2013, has also provided significant leadership, intentionally adding to the momentum with his encyclical in June. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the Dalai Lama, and rabbis and imams around the world have reinforced his call for action.
The stage is well set this time around. The political, economic, technological and sociocultural conditions that would enable an ambitious international agreement are all there. It is now only a matter for the players to play their part. If the Paris Summit still turns out to be a failure like Copenhagen in 2009, it would be fair to conclude nothing else can be done.
Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.