The enduring power of US-China climate leadership

US-China FlagsIt would have been hard to imagine just a few short years ago that the United States and China would – together – be the ones driving a stronger global response to climate change.

For years, each claimed inaction by the other as an excuse for not doing more. But with their simultaneous acceptance today of the Paris Agreement, the world’s two largest economies and emitters committed themselves to a low-carbon future, and solidified a new global framework that will keep pressure on all countries to keep doing more.

The precise mix of motivations varies between the two. But fundamentally, the heads of both the United States and China have assessed the risks and opportunities presented by climate change, and they have decided it is in their nations’ interests – and is their responsibility as global leaders – to do more.

How faithfully the two countries now follow through on their commitments will depend in part on a host of shifting political and economic currents, and who assumes the reins in the years ahead.

But with their leadership up to and since last year’s Paris conference, the United States and China have helped establish new mechanisms and unleash new energies that ensure a staying power beyond the comings and goings of individual governments.

With the Paris Agreement, countries have applied the lessons of a quarter-century of fitful climate diplomacy to create a new framework that offers the best hope ever of an effective international response.

The agreement binds countries to a set of processes requiring them to: tell the world how they’re going to fight climate change; report regularly on how well they’re doing; undergo review by experts and by other countries; and, every five years, say what they’ll do next.

It is, in essence, institutionalized peer (and public) pressure. And if it works as designed, the agreement will over time strengthen confidence that countries are doing their fair share, making it easier for all to do more.

Beyond the agreement itself, and the role of national governments, Paris also will keep nurturing stronger action through its powerful “signaling” effect. For many mayors, governors, CEOs and other real-world decision makers, Paris was a catalytic moment, and its signals continue to resound.

From Warren Buffett, who cited Paris in his annual letter to shareholders as further impetus for Berkshire Hathaway’s multibillion-dollar investments in renewable power, to Moody’s, which is now taking countries’ Paris pledges into account in rating future investments, mainstream business is internalizing the Paris goals.

Mayors, too, are reading Paris as a cue for stronger action. In a new Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, more than 7,000 mayors in 119 countries pledged to set climate goals beyond those of their national governments. C2ES recently joined with The U.S. Conference of Mayors to form the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, bringing mayors and business leaders together to forge collaborative approaches to cutting emissions.

In the long run, this activation of mayors, CEOs and other “non-state actors” could prove as decisive as the actions of national governments in determining the success of Paris.

No one moment and no one agreement can ensure the long-term transformation needed to keep climate change in check. But today’s U.S.-China announcement is the latest in a series of breakthrough moments that could mean the difference between a successful low-carbon transition and a future of climate calamity.




Moving forward with the Paris Agreement

The Bonn Conference Center, site of May 2016 UNFCCC discussions.

Climate change negotiators gathering for the first time since hammering out the Paris Agreement faced an unexpected quandary – preparing for the agreement to formally take effect so quickly.

The agreement is intended to guide climate efforts starting in 2020, and originally it was expected it would take a few years for governments to complete their ratification processes and formally bring the treaty “into force.”

But when it was ceremonially “opened for signature” last month in New York, an astounding 175 countries signed. And with the United States and China declaring they will go the next step and formally join the agreement later this year, it’s looking very likely the threshold for entry into force will be cleared next year if not sooner (55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions must formally consent).

This is great news. It shows that the tremendous political momentum that produced the agreement in December is still going strong – even if it is complicating life a bit for the teams of negotiators who now must flesh out the broad Paris architecture with a set of more detailed implementing decisions.

The unanticipated issue is how to ensure that countries that aren’t able to formally join as quickly can still have a hand in shaping the implementing decisions once the agreement enters into force. The lawyers have identified potential fixes and the issue should be ironed out at COP 22 this November in Marrakech, Morocco.

Beyond that, the negotiators are just beginning to grapple with a host of technically and politically challenging design issues – for instance, the specifics of the transparency system that will keep countries accountable, and of the every-five-years cycles for assessing collective progress and updating countries’ national contributions.

The two-week meeting just wrapping up Bonn, Germany, where the United Nations climate secretariat is headquartered, was largely about getting the post-Paris process organized.

Following the frenzied rounds of talks leading up to and culminating in Paris, there were signs of negotiating fatigue. But the “Paris spirit” by and large prevailed, with parties working through their differences about the process going forward. 

The more substantive discussions during the second week foreshadowed some of the challenges ahead in fleshing out the Paris framework. One of the trickiest will be sorting out exactly how to apply Paris’ more nuanced approach to differentiating responsibilities among countries, which replaces the Kyoto Protocol’s stark divide between developed and developing countries.

However quickly the Paris Agreement formally enters into force, it will likely take until 2018 to complete the implementing decisions. Continued high-level political attention can help ensure that the negotiations stay on track – and, perhaps more importantly, that countries push forward with the domestic policies needed to deliver on their commitments.

How we helped on the road to Paris

A host of factors converged to produce a landmark climate agreement in Paris.

The most important was unprecedented political will, reflecting the deepening awareness worldwide of the real and rising risks posed by climate change, and of the economic rewards of a clean-energy transition.

Another was the impressive diplomatic force and finesse of the French, who masterfully managed a process prone to division and disorder, earning precious trust from parties that paid off in the end.

The Toward 2015 Dialogue was instrumental in helping nations build consensus in the runup to the Paris Agreement.

But in the run-up to Paris, one of the reasons I was confident of a good outcome was the growing convergence I’d seen in informal discussions among negotiators and ministers on the broad contours of a deal.

That emerging consensus was clearest to me in nearly 100 hours of intense closed-door discussions we held with senior negotiators from two dozen developed and developing countries.

With generous support from a number of governments, C2ES organized Toward 2015, a series of eight sessions in Germany, Switzerland and the United States that gave negotiators a chance to talk informally and to collectively envision the “landing zones” for Paris. The talks were off-the-record, but the thinking that emerged was captured in a report in July from the dialogue co-chairs, former South African environment minister Valli Moosa and former lead Norwegian negotiator Harald Dovland.

Looking back now at Valli and Harald’s report, I am surprised and gratified to see how closely it forecast the final outcome here in Paris. From broad structure to fine details, it was very much on the mark. 

The report, for instance, said the agreement should: 

Takeaways from the Paris climate talks

United Nations area at COP 21 in Paris. (Photo Courtesy of UNFCCC via Flickr).

The Paris climate summit is a tale of lessons learned – lessons both in how to manage an unruly negotiating process that can easily veer out of control, and in how to craft a multilateral approach that gets everyone to do more.

The tale ended thankfully tonight with an agreement that could prove the most significant turning point ever in two decades of climate diplomacy.

The Paris agreement is a pragmatic deal that delivers what’s needed – tools to hold countries accountable and build ambition over time. By giving countries greater confidence that all are doing their fair share, it will make it easier for each to do more.

I’ve engaged closely with the U.N. climate talks since their launch in 1992, and here are some of my takeaways on the ingredients for Paris’ success:

Expectations are a powerful force

Even before the summit started or a single word was agreed, more than 180 countries had offered concrete plans for how they intend to address climate change. This was not because they were obliged to, but simply because there was an expectation set two years ago in Warsaw that they would.

This unprecedented, and largely unanticipated, show of political will created powerful momentum heading into Paris.

The agreement that emerged sets some binding commitments (see below), but much of its force will hinge on the further expectations that it sets: that, going forward, countries will put forward their best efforts, and will strengthen them over time. It creates a succession of political moments, like the one we just experienced, when all can judge whether those expectations are met.

Paris 'landing zones' become clearer

Two days into the final week of climate talks here in Paris, the French hosts have artfully managed to avert any of the usual procedural showdowns, and the contours of a deal are finally beginning to emerge.

With the formal handoff of a draft text to the French presidency over the weekend, the most immediate challenge was structuring a process for this week’s Ministerial-level talks that is “transparent” and “inclusive” but also allows for the private give-and-take among key players that’s necessary to get to a deal.

Elliot Diringer explains possible areas of agreement in Paris

The process devised by the French has distributed the issues across a number of working groups that are “open-ended” (open to all parties, and thus inclusive), which report daily to a Comité de Paris, whose proceedings are open to all, including observers (and thus transparent).

Simultaneously, the Ministers appointed to facilitate the working groups are engaging in furious rounds of private bilateral discussions to triangulate among parties’ positions and move them toward consensus.

Although a handful of parties are pushing to move into a full-group, line-by-line negotiation (which would more likely slow than accelerate the process), this diplomatic balancing appears so far to have earned the trust of most parties and avoided the kind of procedural blowups that have stymied previous COPs.

And, judging from the initial reports from the working group facilitators on Monday night, progress is being made.

Between those reports, and conversations in the hallways, it appears that the “landing zones” we’ve seen emerging in recent months are now becoming clearer to the Ministers too.  

On the whole, Paris will produce a hybrid accord coupling countries’ "nationally determined” contributions (NDCs) with a set of rules and norms promoting accountability and ambition. All but 10 parties have submitted NDCs, demonstrating how the bottom-up flexibility of “nationally determined” achieves broad participation. Now we need the top-down pieces to hold countries accountable and push them to do more.

It’s never safe to predict a COP outcome, but here’s how we see key issues shaping up: