In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. In global climate change politics, the world’s leaders risk a third strike in December in Paris.
After Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009, negotiators are facing a two-strike count. And the closer we get to Paris without substantial progress, the more likely we will experience a planetary strike-out with devastating consequences.
Here’s how we got to this point and why the heat is on.
The Kyoto Protocol should have been an easy single on a simple fastball across the middle of the plate.
The negotiations built on the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the world’s countries rushed to ratify, leading it to enter into force in 1994. The framework convention outlined several principles to guide the design of commitments under subsequent protocols. They included the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility – the notion that the most economically and technologically advanced countries that have contributed most to the problem have an obligation to act first.
Yet the Kyoto Protocol was fouled off. As a first attempt to move forward after the framework convention, it was a decent treaty given the way the world looked in the mid-1990s and what we knew about climate change through the fist two sets of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The initial Kyoto targets were not nearly enough to solve the climate problem, but that was not reasonable to expect at the time.
But the Kyoto Protocol’s potential to move the process forward was largely squandered in subsequent years.
The main problem post-Kyoto was a growing lack of political will to step up. The United States Senate and the George W Bush administration categorically rejected the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada withdrew its earlier ratification in 2011. Also, countries like Australia and Japan started to question the Kyoto approach, with industrialized countries taking the lead to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
If all industrialized countries had remained faithful to the guiding principles embedded in the framework convention and fulfilled their national obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, the mood going into Copenhagen would have been very different. It would have shown that the historically largest polluters accepted responsibility for their significant emissions and contributions to the problem.
In Bali in 2007, countries launched a process to negotiate a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, with the goal of adopting it in Copenhagen in 2009.
In Copenhagen, negotiators did not even take an honest swing, as if flummoxed by a crafty curveball. Instead of a forceful political response as the scientific case for urgent actions grew stronger, the voluntary Copenhagen Accord, signed amid escalating political tensions, was even weaker than the Kyoto Protocol.
Given the mounting rejection of collectively negotiated commitments, and with more industrialized countries refusing to lead, it was impossible to adopt a meaningful treaty. Negotiations were also deeply affected by the inability to agree on a constructive approach for dealing with the fact that China had become the world’s largest emitter of GHGs.
At the same time, many smaller and vulnerable developing countries were growing increasingly desperate due to a lack of responsibility and action by the major economies and polluters.
The plethora of highly different national commitments for 2020 that were submitted in the wake of the very weak Copenhagen Accord was, again, nowhere near what is needed to avoid exceeding the two degrees Celsius target for global average temperature increases – a threshold scientists say is necessary to prevent dangerous consequences from climate change.
In 2011, countries, still shell-shocked after the public breakdown in Copenhagen, agreed to restart negotiations with an eye toward an agreement in 2015 that would outline commitments for all participating countries for the period up to 2030. Related national pledges will be largely voluntary.
And that’s where we find ourselves: the world desperately needs a hit in Paris in December. Another strike or even a foul ball is likely to have catastrophic consequences.
This fear is supported by a string of recent bad news, from new temperature records to severe droughts made worse by climate change, continuing sea level rise and intensifying severe weather patterns. Indicators of climate change keep getting worse.
Global environmental treaty-making is a time-consuming process, in which too many agenda items cannot be left unresolved until the very last meeting when a new agreement is scheduled to be finalized. In that case, there is a very high risk that the meeting will crumble under the weight of its own expectations and entrenched political disagreements – as seen in Copenhagen in 2009.
To get even a single, negotiators will need as much information as possible beforehand about what kind of pitch they will see and where it will come, and be ready to swing. For that, they need to make more detailed progress over the next two-and-a-half months than they have been able to make since 2011 – a daunting task.
This is why the lack of negotiating progress on substantial issues over the past nine months since the last major yearly gathering in Lima in December 2014 is very worrying. Recent meetings intended to pave the way for a Paris agreement have not done nearly enough to produce a workable draft treaty text. Critical issues about the legal character of the agreement, how implementation of national pledges and other obligations will be monitored, and how financial and other forms of support for developing countries will be structured all remain unresolved.
Before national delegates organized in complex groups arrive in Paris, at least 90% of all negotiation issues should be settled, to be on the safe side. Final meetings are not about addressing lots of unresolved matters. They are about finding high-level political compromises on a small set of key issues. This typically involves intense and focused bargaining in the form of “if you give me A and B, I will give you C and D.”
Can we get to home plate?
Even if the Paris conference meets the stated goal of reaching some form of an agreement with all major countries promising actions on GHGs with targets focused on 2030, it will at best take us only to first base – not even into scoring position when the total impact of all national pledges is considered and compared to what is ultimately needed. And if we get to first base, it remains uncertain if countries post-Paris can eventually get across home plate to score.
Because the Paris agreement will rely heavily on countries taking on voluntary commitments to reduce GHGs and expand renewable energy, it is critical that there is a robust system for measuring and reviewing domestic progress and working to strengthen targets, informed by the latest science. But this is politically sensitive for many countries that are protective of their national sovereignty.
The energy and transportation systems that run the global economy need to be basically carbon-free by mid-century if we are to stay below the two degrees Celsius target. More and more observers argue we have already lost the chance to meet it and that we should look for other ways to set benchmarks and measure progress. But the more GHGs we emit into the atmosphere, the greater the risks to both current and future generations.
At the end of the baseball season, there is a single winner, and a bunch of teams and players hoping to do better next year. If the Paris negotiations fail after decades of continuing attempts, there is very little comfort in saying “We’ll always have next meeting.”
Henrik Selin is Associate Professor in the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.