In Paris, a turning point for global climate talks

Long-time participants hope this year's UN climate summit can succeed where past efforts have fallen short. 

Workers install a solar panel in Jiuquan, Gansu province, China July 14, 2013.

We have been through this before: diplomats from across the globe, meeting in a major city, trying to save the planet from the worst of climate change.

There was the original Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where nations decided to limit dangerous human interference with the climate system. Then came Kyoto, Japan in 1997, The Hague in 2000, and Bonn, Buenos Aires, Bali, and others. Talks fell shy of a major treaty in Copenhagen in 2009 and picked up again in Durban, South Africa. They continued through Cancún, Doha, Lima, and Warsaw, just to name a few.

Across two decades, diplomats have grappled with the ultimate tragedy of the commons: how to dramatically reduce human-made emissions that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Nearly every nation agrees it should be done. The hard part is agreeing on how to do it.

Negotiators representing virtually the whole planet get another chance at consensus on climate action next week in Paris – a city still reeling from a violent terrorist attack. Some expect this year’s summit to be yet another in a long line of climate summits that have only incrementally nudged the world toward cleaner energy sources. In other words, nothing has changed.

And, yet, everything has changed.

The world is very different than what it was in 2009 – the last time diplomats sought to draft a major climate treaty. The approach to talks today reflects that changed world, too. Countries across the globe have already submitted specific climate pledges to the United Nations, spreading the deliberative burden across months rather than two short weeks. Perhaps most critically, expectations for what can and should happen in a climate summit have changed over past years.

These are some of the reasons long-time observers say they are optimistic about Paris succeeding where past efforts have failed: namely, in charting an inclusive, sustainable, equitable, and meaningful course toward a low-carbon global economy – while also preparing for life on a warmer planet.


“This is potentially a very important point both in the history of the climate negotiations and in what will turn out to be the history of addressing climate change,” says Robert Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “This is the culmination – and really the launch point – for a new approach that is a very significant departure from the previous approach.”

That optimism comes with plenty of caution. There is no shortage of issues that could derail the talks. Most of them are not new: Who will finance new energy systems and protections against rising seas? How will countries be held accountable for what they pledge? Some would rather not see any international agreement to begin with. The world has enough regulations and bureaucracy as is, critics say, and it is market-driven innovation – not government policies – that will transition civilization away from carbon-based fuels.

“Framing climate change as a collective-action problem presumes that the only obstacle to developing nations reducing emissions is coordination—the need to ensure compliance by all nations,” Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote last month in a report that is highly critical of international climate talks. “This assumption is mistaken: the inability of current low-carbon energy technologies to support the developing world’s need for economic growth makes a developing-world commitment to significant emissions reductions implausible, regardless of what commitments developed nations make.”

Even if it remains difficult for some developing nations to meet energy needs with renewables, a shift toward cleaner energy in the developed world is far less onerous than it once was. The transition to low-carbon technologies was previously seen largely as a burden – costly but necessary. Today, there is a sense among policymakers and observers that such a transition represents as much an opportunity as it does an obligation. A commitment to reduce carbon emissions is more of an economic launch point than it is an economic sacrifice. Countries as diverse as the US, Germany, and China see a new energy order emerging, and they are eager to lead rather than follow.  

“Frankly, I am up to here with the doom and gloom news about climate,” Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said at a Monitor-hosted event in Washington earlier this month. “This is the biggest opportunity and the best news that we have had. This is the mega-development project of the world. Let’s wake up and take advantage of it.”

A post-recession world

When world leaders met in Copenhagen in December 2009, they had the unenviable task of drumming up environmental enthusiasm against a backdrop of economic ruin. The Great Recession had officially ended, but the US unemployment rate was in the double-digits for the first time in 26 years. Just a few months earlier, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its low point of the recession, and US automaker General Motors had filed for bankruptcy. With the global economy verging on collapse, there was little appetite for solving a problem that still seemed decades off in the future. In the end, leaders scrapped together a deal that would lay the groundwork for this year’s talks, but Copenhagen earned the reputation for being a failure.

Six years later, the world is on steadier economic footing. Sluggish growth still worries some, but US employment is nearly half of what it was in 2010, and global GDP is expected to expand a respectable 3 percent in 2015, according to the World Bank. As economies grow stronger, the cost of alternatives to carbon-heavy fossil fuels continues to plummet. In 2009, an average US solar photovoltaic system cost $7.50 per watt, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington-based trade group. By 2014, that price had dropped to $2.65 per watt. Meanwhile, fossil fuels have become more difficult and more expensive to extract as the lowest-hanging fruits have already been picked. In many cases, switching to renewables isn’t an expensive luxury now; it’s just smart business. That might explain why the private sector has warmed to global climate efforts in recent years. Major multinationals from Unilever to Microsoft to Ikea to Royal Dutch Shell and beyond have implemented their own emissions-reductions programs and called on governments to outline clear, ambitious climate policies.

Nations have taken note, too. There’s a newfound sense of collaboration and urgency among some of the largest economies and biggest polluters. China and the US – at loggerheads over any number of geopolitical quagmires – have found common ground on climate. The world’s No. 1 and No. 2 emitters, respectively, committed to bold emissions reductions last November. The United States aims to reduce economy-wide emissions by at least 26 percent below its 2005 level in 2025. China aims to peak carbon-dioxide emissions by or before 2030, and it’s implementing a nationwide emissions-trading scheme to help do it. Much of China’s newfound ambition comes because smog from cars and coal power is making life miserable for everyone in Beijing and other major Chinese cities. Confronting climate change gives Chinese leadership a chance to address the conventional pollution problem while also reducing carbon emissions and engaging with the broader global community.

“On the positive side, [Chinese officials] see a potential to be real market leaders in clean energy,” says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There’s tremendous export opportunity there.”

A bottom-up approach

There’s no way to know if the US, China, and the rest of the world will actually follow through on the voluntary pledges they have submitted to the UN in advance of next week’s talks. These pledges are voluntary, after all – part of a new, bottom-up approach that contrasts with the binding, centralized agreements of traditional international diplomacy. Think of it as crowdsourcing climate targets, with all the pros and cons that come with delegating large tasks to a decentralized network of discrete parties.

The benefit is that it fosters a diverse portfolio of commitments that analysts say better reflect the world’s natural diversity. The Kyoto Protocol, the UN’s existing framework for climate efforts, sees the world more or less in black and white. The rich, developed world is expected to underwrite a global climate fix. Developing countries, meanwhile, are largely off the hook, despite the fact that they too are growing into major emitters.

Paris, on the other hand, tries to see shades of gray. Pre-Paris negotiations have sought to bridge the blurring lines between rich and poor, polluter and polluted, liable and exempt. Individual countries were given the autonomy to devise individualized climate pledges that best fit their specific economies, politics, and culture. The result is a more inclusive process: The current Kyoto Protocol period covers no more than 14 percent of global emissions, according to Dr. Stavins of Harvard. The pre-Paris pledges, meanwhile, represent 173 countries and 95 percent of global emissions, according to the World Resources Institute, a think tank based in Washington.

Flexibility is a double-edged sword, though. Even the official names of the pledges suggest they lack the conviction of a traditional top-down treaty. So-called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” are “intended,” but not necessarily assured. They are “contributions,” not “committments” – a subtle but important distinction in diplomatic bureaucratese. The very question of how – or if – these voluntary contributions will be enforced remains unanswered. It’s why some, especially those in developing countries, say the agreement as drafted is toothless and will do virtually nothing to slow climate change.

The UN’s own calculations show that current pledges will put the world on track to warm by about 2.7 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by the year 2100. That’s above the previously established 2-degrees target, but below the 3-degree, 4-degree, or even 5-degree rise that some estimates say the world will experience in a business-as-usual scenario. Others say the temperature target is overemphasized and was devised as a political benchmark, not a scientific one. Either way, many developing countries – especially those most vulnerable to a changing climate – say developed countries must do more to get closer or even below the 2-degrees target.

“If developed countries do not make significant and absolute reductions in their emissions there will be a progressively smaller carbon space available to accommodate the development needs of developing countries,” Shyam Saran, India's chief negotiator on climate change from 2007 to 2010, wrote in The Guardian this week. “There is a difference between the emissions of developing countries which are ‘survival’ emissions and those of developed countries which are in the nature of ‘lifestyle’ emissions. They do not belong to the same category and cannot be treated on a par.”

A beginning, not an end

A certain curbing of enthusiasm is in order ahead of next week’s talks, observers say. One key lesson from past summits is that hope helps, but hype hurts. Take the hotly anticipated 2009 Copenhagen talks for example. A new administration in the White House signaled a stronger US role in global emissions efforts as bipartisan lawmakers worked on a major climate bill in Congress. So when Copenhagen failed to deliver a silver-bullet climate treaty to save the planet, everyone went home deflated.

A similar air of expectation surrounds Paris. The coordinated terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13 add another dimension to the gravity of this year’s talks. Those with a stake in the negotiations make pains to manage expectations. One summit has never, and will never, solve climate change, they say.  

Instead, the goal is to ensure countries routinely pledge, review, and repeat – a system that brings countries back to the table frequently to reassess and redouble climate efforts. Exactly how frequently this will happen is one of many questions that will see tense debate in Paris. But most participants agree it needs to be in the final text in some way, shape, or form.

In other words, Paris is a beginning, not an end. That may sound like an empty talking point to some of the poorest, most vulnerable countries that see climate change as an immediate existential threat. Low-lying island nations, for example, would like to see temperatures kept to within a 1.5 degrees C rise, but no amount of voluntary pledging and reviewing will meet that target anytime soon.

Ultimately, one thing is certain about this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP): What happens after this year’s summit is just as critical as what happens during the summit – if not moreso.

“It’s not a leadup to Paris, do Paris, and then wait for the next COP,” says Robert Armstrong, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s roll up your sleeves and get-going time.”

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