In Paris climate summit, a beginning not an end

No single agreement should be expected to be the final solution to the climate crisis, writes Heather Zichal, a former climate adviser to President Obama. 

Christian Hartmann/Reuters/File
A power-generating windmill turbine is seen in front of the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris.

Today marks the final week of COP 21 in Paris, the latest UN brokered negotiation to address the global climate crisis, and with it comes high expectations that world leaders will finally come up with a historic and binding global agreement that can prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. While the talks in Paris are likely to culminate in a significant agreement, we should remember that global climate change negotiations have long been an incremental process and the Paris talks are not likely to be far different.

From Kyoto, to Bali, to Copenhagen, and now Paris, UN climate talks have always provided a foundation for new progress and progress to come. However, no single agreement has ever been nor should it be expected to be the final solution to the climate crisis. It is through that prism that we should examine Paris and our expectations of outcomes from the talks. We need to manage expectations so that perfect doesn't become the enemy of good.  

That said, we can expect one key difference in any agreement coming out of Paris as compared to previous climate talks. Developed and developing nations alike will have committed to emissions targets and other measures that reduce their respective contributions to global climate change. Several developing nations, with encouragement from the US and its own commitments, submitted significant Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) ahead of the Paris talks.  

In recent weeks in fact, China, the world’s biggest carbon pollution emitter, has reiterated the commitment it made in June to a peak in its emissions by 2030, an increase in the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix by about 20 percent by 2030, and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels. It has also committed to a national cap and trade system. India, Mexico and other developing nations also made significant INDCs ahead of Paris, ensuring that developing and developed nations alike will be walking together down the same path towards a global climate solution, and in so doing, will be taking a key argument away from climate deniers opposed to climate action.  

Even with these commitments from developing and developed nations, however, it will take efforts beyond the Paris talks to significantly lower the trajectory of rising global temperatures. We are not likely to see measures coming out of Paris alone that will cap temperatures below 2 degrees C, the so-called tipping point, the point beyond which we can’t avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.      

What this agreement will do, however, is to create new certainty and incentives for private industry to self-regulate and adopt measures of its own that can augment targets agreed to in Paris. In fact, there are already rumors of major businesses and business leaders coming to Paris with their own proposed commitments. Such private and other non-national government efforts and clean energy investments can be aggregated to enhance whatever international commitments are made by nations in Paris.        

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Here in the US, 365 businesses and investors have pledged their support for the President’s and EPA’s signature climate initiative, the Clean Power Plan, and major US banks including Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan have called for a strong global agreement.  

Local government entities around the world are also offering up their own separate climate actions. C40, a network of the world’s largest cities in Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America, have committed to collaborate on uniquely metropolitan climate actions in cities where most of the world’s populations and intellectual capital reside. Marshaling their collective resources, they can contribute significantly to innovations and local measures that enhance the national commitments of their respective countries.  

In short, Paris will be a significant start but certainly shouldn’t be expected to be the finish line for solutions to the climate crisis. This will be a foundation upon which we can create further collective and innovative actions that get us to a broader solution. And we should keep that in mind in the aftermath and postmortem around Paris as opponents of climate action in the US and abroad self-servingly judge the COP21 talks by a false all-or-nothing standard.

Heather Zichal, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center, is former Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, and one of the architects of President Obama’s National Climate Action Plan.   

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