I recently wrote a piece for China Dialogue about the US announcement of its intended contribution to a new international climate agreement due this December in Paris. Here is that article:
The US pushed strongly for getting climate targets on the table well ahead of this year’s Paris negotiation, arguing that exposing countries’ offerings to a bit of scrutiny would encourage them to “put their best foot forward.” With the formal submission of its intended target, the Obama administration arguably has done just that.
The US contribution is, for the moment, only a declaration of intent. But by coming out early with the strongest target it believes it can muster, the White House has charted an ambitious course at home. And it is upping the pressure on China and other major economies to do the most that they can too.
The end result, hopefully, is a new agreement in Paris that not only pulls all these numbers together, but also holds countries accountable for their promises, and commits them to keep returning to the table in the years ahead to assess and strengthen their efforts.
Leaders at the February 2015 UNFCCC conference in Geneva. Photo courtesy UNFCCC.
The final year of U.N. talks aimed at producing a new global climate agreement kicked off this week in Geneva. As negotiators wrestle with the working draft of the new agreement, it’s clear that all the core issues remain very much in play.
The talks, under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), were launched in 2011 in Durban, South Africa, and are to conclude this December in Paris. The aim is a post-2020 agreement “with legal force” and “applicable to all.”
The more immediate goal in Geneva is to produce a “draft negotiating text,” which technically must be in circulation at least six months before Paris. But the text emerging from Geneva will be very far from a finished product. The starting point this week was a 39-page collection of parties’ proposals forwarded from COP 20 in December in Lima. By mid-week, the working draft had grown to nearly 90 pages.
The unwieldy text reflects the wide disparities remaining on all the core issues in shaping the Paris agreement.
Countries will soon begin submitting their “intended nationally determined contributions” to the agreement. That these INDCs (focused primarily on constraining greenhouse gas emissions) will be “nationally determined” suggests that the agreement will have a strong “bottom-up” character. Much of what’s at issue is whether and how to blend in “top-down” elements to create a hybrid agreement that delivers both broad participation and stronger ambition.
It was clear heading into the U.N. climate change conference in Lima that countries would punt all the toughest issues until next year in Paris, when a grand new global deal is due. All they really needed in Lima were a few procedural decisions setting the stage.
So why did it take more than 30 hours beyond the conference deadline to deliver something so modest?
The answer is that even a seemingly trivial procedural issue can be freighted with substantive implications, so countries fret over every nuance, lest they let something slip that will come back to haunt them later. In Lima, like so many times before, their biggest worry was how responsibility will be distributed across developed and developing countries.
At the start of the global climate effort, developed countries were comfortable with a stark division assigning most of the responsibility to them. But 20 years later, China is now the world’s largest carbon emitter, and developed countries no longer accept the so-called firewall between the two groupings.
The 2011 Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which launched the current round of negotiations, said the Paris agreement would be “applicable to all.” But just what that means was left to be sorted out later, and will likely be the central challenge in Paris.
The handwriting is on the famous firewall – it’s coming down. China’s willingness to stand side by side with the United States last month to jointly announce their post-2020 emissions goals is a tacit acknowledgement of that. The question is what if anything takes its place.
Negotiators heading to Lima for the annual U.N. climate summit face a certain paradox. There are encouraging signs of growing momentum toward a new global climate deal late next year in Paris. Yet over the next two weeks in Lima, the negotiators may make only modest progress at best.
There are good reasons to be hopeful.
First, recent events and announcements have strengthened confidence in prospects for Paris. These include the U.N. leaders summit in New York, nearly $10 billion in pledges to the new Green Climate Fund, Europe’s decision on a 2030 emissions goal, and the joint announcement by the U.S. and China of their post-2020 targets.
Second, the negotiations throughout this year have been notably civil and substantive. Wide gulfs remain, but rather than succumbing to procedural fights, parties have been putting forward and constructively debating concrete ideas for the Paris agreement.
Third, behind the scenes, there is a fair degree of convergence among key countries on the broad outlines of a Paris deal. This is reflected in a recent report from the co-chairs of Toward 2015, an informal dialogue among officials from 20+ key countries organized by C2ES.
The last time so many world leaders gathered on the issue of climate change was nearly five years ago in Copenhagen. The hard lesson of that fractious summit: No one moment, and no one agreement, can deliver “the” answer. We need to advance step by step, on multiple fronts, from the local to the global. And it will take time.
More than 120 heads of state, including President Obama, are expected, and many will come prepared to announce concrete steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Many businesses and nonprofits, some partnering with governments, will also announce new initiatives.
These tangible outcomes will represent important progress in and of themselves. But the larger value of the summit is in focusing leaders on the profound challenges we face, raising consciousness across societies, and building momentum – in particular, toward the new global climate agreement due late next year in Paris.