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2015 is a crucial year for climate. Although climate conferences are held every year, this December’s meeting in Paris is especially important. Why? Because this time the United States and China are on board.

The Paris conference will take things forward from the Kyoto Protocol agreed upon in 1997 – after negotiations in which Angela Merkel, then environment minister, led Germany’s team. I myself steered Kyoto towards ratification by the German parliament in 2001 and it entered into force in 2005.

The agreement reached in Kyoto established CO2 reduction commitments for developed nations, but without the U.S. In Paris, the U.S. will be on board, along with transition economies like China, India and Brazil, whose emissions are increasingly contributing to climate change. There is a well-founded hope that both the U.S. and China will finally abandon their decades-long aversion to binding emissions reductions, and perhaps even position themselves at the forefront of the movement against climate change.

“Paris must become the starting point for a fossil phase-out”

However, the Paris agreement will be less legally-binding than Kyoto. Despite having what I hope will be a legally-binding core, it will to a large extent consist of individual reduction contributions subject to international monitoring. There is a crucial political difference as well. Kyoto was made possible because Germany and Europe took the lead. It was enforced with the tacit consent of China but against the wishes of the U.S. and India. Today the tables have turned. Paris may well prove to be a success even though Europe and Germany are now stepping on the brakes. This time, it is Washington and Beijing pushing the agenda.

This is a historic window of opportunity that must be exploited. The message of Paris has to be a clear and legally-binding commitment to the target of keeping global warming below 2°C. This must be credibly underpinned by national or regional decarbonisation roadmaps and national mitigation targets. A new NASA model shows that sea levels could rise by as much as two metres on average over the next 100-200 years. There are currently 150m people worldwide whose homes are less than one metre above sea level. For them, the consequences of this human-induced climate crisis are already abundantly clear.

The U.S., China and the EU have already unveiled their reduction targets. In all, 58 countries have submitted their contributions, accounting for around 70% of global emissions. The pledges made to date are not sufficient to keep global warming within the 2°C limit; on the contrary, we can expect a rise of at least 2.9°C. A monitoring regime needs to be put in place to continuously verify the credibility of the goals. A review in 2030, as demanded by some countries, is too late. It runs the risk that no real, tangible action will be taken to back up the lofty promises.

“The energy transition is a German invention that is gaining ground worldwide”

The gap between words and deeds can be wide, as Chancellor Merkel recently demonstrated. She barely drew breath between endorsing the ambitious G7 statements on climate and then taking the red pen to Germany’s own national targets. The proposed national climate levy for Germany’s oldest and most-polluting coal-fired power plants was scrapped due to opposition from her own party. Germany is no longer able to meet its reduction targets. Without minimum legal commitments and effective monitoring, pledges made in Paris face a similar fate.

Paris must become the starting point for a fossil phase-out. More than two-thirds of today’s known fossil resources must stay where they belong – in the ground. Otherwise, the climate crisis will be unstoppable. Sadly, the EU is in denial. Its Energy Union continues to rely mainly on fossil fuels. Its focus on connecting to new gas fields in places like Azerbaijan and a growing reliance on liquefied natural gas (LNG) – much of which comes from fracking – could do much to replace our filthiest coal-fired power plants. But it ties up billions of euros in fossil infrastructure investments, instead of exploiting the potential of renewable energies, energy saving and efficiency.

The energy transition is a German invention that is gaining ground worldwide. But Germany and Europe, with Chancellor Merkel serving as the champion of coal, are now holding back progress. In 2014, China invested 30bn more in renewable energies than all European countries combined – almost as much as the total from Europe and the U.S.

In Germany, investment has been falling steadily since 2010. First Solar, the solar panel maker Chancellor Merkel forced out of Brandenburg, is now working with Apple in Cupertino in California to build the world’s largest solar project.

The global energy transition has probably already passed the point of no return. If Europe isn’t careful, it will find itself standing on the sidelines, watching other regions reap the benefits of billions of dollars of investment and innovation.

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