It may be another year, or three, or five, before we know whether the global agreement reached at Paris at the weekend is truly a turning point in the world's response to climate change. Getting so many nations, including "developing" nations such as China, to sign on to emissions reductions certainly makes the agreement historic. But historic means nothing unless worthy aims result in real practical change in the way we live. People have to seriously believe it is worth switching to electric cars and other environmentally friendly options. (And such options do, indeed, have to be kinder on the environment across their lifespan. That is not always the case.) Business has to believe it is worth replacing oil or gas-fuelled equipment with electrical equivalents. Energy companies need to invest much more in renewable sources of power. Governments may need to regulate or incentivise a transition to a low-carbon economy and, if that is to happen, voters will need to reward political parties that promise these things.
The Paris conference agreed to emissions reduction targets for the decade starting 2020, but it is generally acknowledged steps will need to be taken over the next five years if the next reduction period is to start with a prospect of meeting the pledges. Each country's Paris target will need to become as politically forceful as the Kyoto protocol was in its first few years. It produced some momentum on measures to combat climate change - mainly through a market in emissions permits - but the momentum stalled when the global financial crisis brought more immediate concerns to the fore. Paris has restarted progress but experience suggests sustained attention to greenhouse emissions reductions will depend on benign economic conditions over the next few years.
Global warming may be the greatest threat to life as we know it but the scale of the problem and the limits of the suggested solutions make it seem remote from most people. Even now, we are told that if everyone meets the rules, standards and goals agreed at Paris, it may still not be enough to prevent the cataclysmic predictions by the climate science consensus. What, then, is the point, people may ask? If a rise in global average temperatures over the next century is going to happen anyway, with the consequent melting of polar ice shelves and rising sea levels, would it be just as easy to evacuate low-lying coastal strips and Pacific atolls when the time arrives?
Climate science says the changes will be calamitous. The scientific consensus says its word has to be accepted and remedial steps taken. Most people are past the point of arguing about it. But it is possible for people, business and governments to bow to the experts without feeling urgently moved to spend money on remedies. If Paris has moved investors and taxpayers to put money into alternative fuels, the age of oil, coal and gas could really be passing. But if that is to happen, the delegates to Paris need to go home with a programme to promote to the nations that sent them. We need reasonable, practical, achievable things to do that would make a difference.
Debate on this article is now closed.