I returned from a brief trip to Paris two days before the horrific events of November 13th, which have shocked and saddened civilized people everywhere. I was in Paris for discussions regarding climate change policy at OECD headquarters. Now, I’m preparing to return to Paris in less than two weeks with my colleagues from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (I’ve inserted a list of our forthcoming “public” activities at the Paris climate talks at the end of this blog post).
My purpose today, in this essay, is to explain why I believe that the Paris talks may turn out to be a key step in the international negotiations, and more important, a significant step in efforts to address the threat of climate change.
Background on the Paris Climate Talks
The international climate change negotiations that will take place in Paris the first two weeks of December, 2015, are officially the 21stConference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It will be many years before any of us can truly assess the impact of the Paris talks, but it is clear now that they represent – at the very least – an important attempt to break with the past thrust of international climate policy and start anew with a much more promising approach.
The Kyoto Protocol, which has been the primary international agreement to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global climate change, included mandatory emissions-reduction obligations only for developed countries. Developing countries had no emissions-reduction commitments. The stark demarcation in the Kyoto Protocol between developed and developing countries was one approach to realizing a principle in the underlying United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that countries should act to “protect the climate system … on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”
The dichotomous distinction between the developed and developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol has made progress on climate change impossible, because growth in emissions since the Protocol came into force in 2005 is entirely in the large developing countries—China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. The big break came at the annual UNFCCC negotiating session in Durban, South Africa in 2011, where a decision was adopted by member countries to “develop [by December 2015, in Paris] a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” This “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” broke with the Kyoto Protocol and signaled a new opening for innovative thinking (which we, at theHarvard Project on Climate Agreements, took to heart).
The Road to Paris
In Paris next month, countries will likely adopt a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved.
The current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol covers countries (Europe and New Zealand) accounting for no more than 14% of global emissions (and 0% of global emissions growth). But as of November 9th, 156 of the 196 members of the UNFCCC had submitted INDCs, representing some 87% of global emissions (and this will likely reach 90% or 95% by the time of the Paris talks)!
Such broad scope of participation is a necessary condition for meaningful action, but it is not a sufficient condition. Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But keep in mind that this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will likely be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time. That said, even this initial set of contributions would cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 2.7-3.5 degrees Centigrade, more than the frequently-discussed aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees C, but much less than the 5-6 degrees C increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) will quite possibly shave an addition 0.5 C of warming.)
The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach being taken in the forthcoming Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change. Only time will tell.
A Paris Scorecard
I’ve been asked many times what success will look like in Paris. Here’s my scorecard and my predictions of six key elements that – if all were achieved — would constitute an exceptionally successful 21st Conference of the Parties:
- Include approximately 90% of global emissions in the set of INDCs that are submitted and part of the Paris Agreement (compared with 14% in the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol). This will definitely be achieved.
- Establish credible reporting and transparency requirements. It is likely that this will be achieved.
- Begin to set up a system to finance climate adaptation (and mitigation) — the famous $100 billion commitment. A key question is whether it includes private-sector finance, in addition to public-sector finance (that is, foreign aid). This is likely to be achieved.
- Agree to return to negotiations periodically, such as every 5 years, to revisit the ambition and structure of the INDCs. It is likely this will be achieved.
- Put aside unproductive disagreements, such as on so-called “loss and damage,” which looks to rich countries like unlimited liability for bad weather events in developing countries. Another unproductive disagreement is the insistence by some parties that the INDCs themselves be binding under international law. This would probably mean that the Paris Agreement would require Senate ratification in the United States, which means that the United States would not be a party to the Agreement. I can only hope that the delegates will realize the futility of pursuing such unproductive elements.
- Rethink and move away from the focus on the 2 degree C target. It is not based on science nor on economics. Contrary to what many have asserted, it did not come from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is important to focus on what can be accomplished. Unfortunately, the 2 degree C target has become enshrined in the UNFCCC process, and so it is very unlikely that the Conference will step away or even de-emphasize it (unless to identify an even more stringent goal).
As you can see, I anticipate that elements #1 through #4 will be achieved in the Paris Agreement, and hopefully #5 as well. So, my fundamental prediction for Paris is success.
This article was originally posted on http://www.robertstavinsblog.org/2015/11/17/paris-can-be-a-key-step/ and re-posted on The Climate Times with the author’s permission.