Last week, more than 2000 climate change researchers gathered in Paris for the ‘Our Common Future under Climate Change’ conference, an enormous and prestigious event as part of the preparations for the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris later this year. The talks and conversations were hugely diverse, but a key message was summed up by Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA: “Is it enough? No. But is it a good step? Yes”.
The Our Common Future conference involved scientists from a huge range of disciplines and nationalities, all gathered in the gorgeous surroundings of the UNESCO building in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, during a (somewhat appropriate) major heatwave. This was by far the largest conference I have ever attended, and the sense of gravitas (and ironically, the level of air conditioning) was magnified by the stunning building complete with UN-style meeting rooms. Highlights included:
- The special event on the Guardian divestment campaign, which looked at whether journalists should act as ‘advocates’ or whether they should stick to disengaged reporting of the facts. At the end of the session, the chair asked for a show of hands of those in support of the Guardian’s divestment campaign; I had a warm fuzzy glow when almost every person in the 400-capacity room raised their hands.
- A truly inspiring speech from Hans Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute on the final day of the conference, which called for an ‘induced implosion’ of the fossil industry and asked the room: “We need to make a decision – do we want to be part of the generation which finally screwed up the planet for the next 1000 years?”
- A parallel session on fossil fuels and lock-in, which incorporated some impressive modelling work from David McCollum, Peter Erickson, Steven Davis and Jerome Hilaire, as well as a really interesting political economy approach from Jesse Burton and some very salient comments from the big cheese himself Rob Socolow. The chair noted that despite rather low attendance for this session, the issue of lock-in to fossil fuels is in many ways the defining challenge of a low-carbon transition.
Unfortunately, the organisation of the parallel sessions meant that many of the most relevant sessions to people’s topic areas were running simultaneously. It’s a shame that the plenary sessions were so long – it meant that there was less time for parallel sessions, and that tough choices had to be made over which talks to attend, whilst also sitting through long and sometimes rather dull plenary speeches. In general, the week was highly enjoyable; however, there was a distinct lack of opportunities for audience involvement during many of the sessions, with panel discussions often becoming a conversation between the people on stage, and little chance to hear from the enormously diverse perspectives of the audience. For this reason, the exemplary poster sessions offered a welcome chance to discuss some world-class research on a staggering breadth of topics.
Prospects for the COP21 in Paris are uncertain; the voluntary carbon commitments (INDCs) submitted by countries are a step in the right direction, but they are nowhere near enough to get us to a safe 2°C limit on warming. A major new report by the IEA argues that the Paris talks need to deliver concrete messages for the energy sector, if it is to avoid making investments now which will lock it into dangerous levels of emissions. But at the same time, everyone is aware of the need to manage expectations, and every attendee of the conference had uneasy memories of the failure in Copenhagen in 2009. The challenge for the negotiators at COP21 will therefore be to somehow simultaneously aim for the most whilst expecting the least.
Meanwhile, the conference really illustrated that the challenges for researchers are enormous. We need to understand and engage with multiple disciplines, as well as maintaining an in-depth understanding of a diversity of national and regional contexts and engaging with policy and communications. However, based on the Our Common Future conference, scientists are more than ready to embrace these challenges. I felt utterly privileged to be a tiny, insignificant part of such a gathering of international and interdisciplinary research. We have an awfully long way to go, and none amongst us still subscribes to the ‘Copenhagen delusion’. But we are hoping for a strong narrative from COP21, and a recognition that this year is just one small step on a long road, but one which could hopefully form part of a global transition of a scale never before experienced.