LATE this month in Paris the curtain rises on a global summit aimed at taming the prospect of damaging climate change. Over the past year, governments have been making pledges about how they will cut emissions, and one of the main outcomes from Paris will be a new agreement that codifies all those national efforts into international law.
Already the critics are sounding alarms that the outcome will be too little and too late. Even if all the individual pledges are met, the planet will keep on warming – almost certainly past the 2C rise that many scientists claim is the threshold of acceptable risk.
The critics miss the point. What’s new about Paris isn’t that it will cap the rise at 2C. That has not been feasible for years; emissions of warming gases have been rising steeply since 1990 when diplomatic talks on climate change began. No, Paris matters because it is likely to turn the corner – to set a foundation for governments to make increasingly effective efforts to coordinate policies on emissions while also helping countries adapt to the big climate changes that will be in store.
Already the Paris pledges put the world on track for a lot less warming than some feared a few years ago. Already governments in richer countries are on track to honour a commitment to free up, by 2020, about $100 billion per year to help the poorest countries.
What next? Answering that question is crucial not just for the UN system but also for Korea, which has become one of the most important emerging economies in the area of climate change. Korea has become a model for green growth; it is building an important emission trading system; and it hosts the key international financing mechanism. As Korea looks to next steps it will be important to focus on leverage. Korea, like nearly all countries on the planet, contributes only a small fraction of global emissions. What matters globally is less what happens at home and more what happens in the rest of the planet. That means that Korea’s next steps on green growth must focus on how to spread the message and the technologies essential for green growth more globally.
Much of the success that will be on display in Paris comes from the system of individual national pledges; it has given countries flexibility to focus their obligations on areas where they are willing and able to act. Korea could play a key role after Paris—in helping countries to refine their pledges and making Korea’s own foreign resources better linked to global reductions in emissions. The existing round of pledges—the intended nationally determined contributions—are a start. But the INDCs are highly uneven in quality. After Paris the key to making this new style of pledge-based diplomacy actually effective will be ratcheting tighter the INDCs.
Deep greens will call Paris a failure. But if it turns the corner it will do more to create practical ways for cooperation than any other deal since the early 1990s. It would have been better to have turned the corner long ago. As this new process unfolds Korea can help steer it to a more effective global approach.
David Victor is professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego. He chairs the Global Agenda Council on Governance for Sustainability at the World Economic Forum and is author of Global Warming Gridlock: New Strategies for Protecting the Planet