How Climate Summit can build momentum for a global agreement

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.

This reality is an important backdrop for the United Nations Climate Summit being convened in New York next week by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

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.

Unlike Copenhagen, which culminated years of formal negotiations, the New York summit is largely a political way station on the road to Paris. In their few minutes at the podium, leaders will emphasize their resolve for stronger steps at home, and for a stronger global agreement. But there will be no negotiated outcome or joint communique. The only formal output will be the secretary general’s summary.

Most leaders are very unlikely to announce their countries’ “intended nationally determined contributions” to the Paris agreement. Under the formal negotiating schedule, these commitments to reduce emissions post-2020 aren’t due to be submitted until early next year. But an important signal in New York will be for leaders of the major economies to “commit to submit.”

Even without big numbers on the table, there are ways the summit can help move the ball forward by:

  • Getting leaders focused. The summit forces governments at the highest levels to closely consider what’s at stake, and what they’re prepared to say and do, with the whole world watching.
  • Mobilizing finance. The new Green Climate Fund, which will help developing countries curb emissions and cope with climate change, is now established and awaiting contributions. It’s a fair bet that at least some leaders will come to New York prepared to offer them. And some leading financial institutions will announce ways they’ll help mobilize private capital. Progress on finance is critical to achieving a good outcome in Paris.
  • Mobilizing civil society. Leaders speak for governments. But the summit is also a powerful platform for everyone else – from the crowds joining Sunday’s People’s Climate March to the major companies announcing initiatives – to press for or commit to action. In just one example, C2ES will join more than 300 companies and organizations signing on to a statement urging governments to use carbon pricing to drive down emissions.
  • Broadening the case for action. The scientific case is unequivocal and growing ever more urgent. The summit is an opportunity to make the economic case for stronger climate action. We need to highlight the very real costs of inaction – and the very real opportunities to be found in a low-carbon economy, the focus of a report this week from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

In the broadest sense, the aim in both New York and Paris is building confidence, which in turn builds political will. Knowing that others are doing their fair share makes it easier for everyone to do more. It’s an accumulative process – it strengthens over time.

What we need from the New York summit is a clear statement of intent from leaders. We need to know that they’re determined to come forward next year with strong national contributions. That’s how the summit can help set the stage for a Paris agreement that has all the major players on board, moves us closer to a 2-degree pathway, and works to strengthen ambition over time.

(Jennifer Huang contributed to this blog.)

The Warsaw outcome: A hint of what's to come

If one is looking for clues from Warsaw as to the future of the U.N. climate change effort, probably the most telling is the phrase “nationally determined.”

Governments have set themselves the goal of a new global climate agreement in 2015. At the annual U.N. climate talks that wrapped up this weekend in Warsaw, they agreed on some of the steps they’ll take to get there.

The decision adopted in Warsaw invites all parties to “initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions,” and to “communicate them well in advance” of the 2015 meeting, set for December in Paris.  It also establishes a loose timeline: by the first quarter of 2015 for those parties “ready to do so.”

This is primarily a procedural decision, a way to move the process forward. The reason it was so difficult to reach was that parties fought incredibly hard either to inject or to avoid substantive framing that would begin to define the shape of the Paris accord.

By the time they were done cramming clauses into the ungainly sentence at the heart of the decision, the parties had managed essentially to preserve the vague but delicate balance they’d struck in launching this latest round of talks two years ago in Durban. The 2015 agreement will be “applicable to all,” but its legal character, and how developed and developing country obligations will be differentiated, remain undefined.

U.N. climate talks could yield practical hybrid approach

In response to a National Journal question about the efficacy of U.N. global climate talks, I noted that while it is a mistake to put too much faith in the U.N. climate process, it would be a bigger mistake to write it off. Climate change is a global challenge that requires action on multiple fronts. For all its many flaws, no other forum brings together all nations across the full breadth of climate-related issues. And the current round of talks may well deliver genuine progress.

By its nature, the U.N. climate process is inherently neither “top down” nor “bottom up.” The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) contains elements of both. With the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, parties did begin pursuing a more top-down approach. But more recently, the UNFCCC has evolved in a very different direction.

Although few in Washington have paid close attention, agreements reached since the Copenhagen debacle have established a more bottom-up framework that for now exists in parallel with Kyoto.  Within this framework, more than 90 countries, including the United States, China and every other major economy, have pledged voluntary emissions goals for 2020. Parties also have created mechanisms to more closely monitor one another’s efforts.

Warsaw talks: A mid-point for 2015 agreement

Negotiations toward a new global climate agreement reach a mid-point next month in Warsaw.  And while countries have begun putting forward some concrete ideas about the kind of pact they want, the more immediate question is the process they’ll use to get to a final agreement in Paris in 2015. They’re planning an important game of show-and-tell between now and then, and need to agree on the terms.

The current round of talks was kicked off two years in Durban, South Africa, when parties set a 2015 deadline for a new agreement that will have “legal force” and be “applicable to all.”

Heading into November’s COP 19 – the 19th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – very sharp divides remain, particularly over perennial issues such as the differentiation of commitments between developed and developing countries.

But as I describe in a recent article in Nature, there is growing convergence among many parties on a new approach with both “top-down” and “bottom-up” elements. In this emerging model, countries would define their own individual commitments, and agree on a common set of rules to compare them and track their implementation.

Obama will need to act on his climate plan with a sense of urgency

In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised stronger action on climate change.  Today he followed up with a credible and comprehensive plan.  The real issue now is how vigorously he follows through.

From a policy perspective, the president’s plan lacks the sweep, cohesion and ambition that might be possible through new legislation.  With Congress unwilling to act, the president instead is offering an amalgam of actions across the federal government, relying on executive powers alone.

Taken together, the actions represent the broadest climate strategy put forward by any U.S. president, addressing the need to both cut carbon emissions and strengthen climate resilience.  While many of the specific items are relatively small-bore, and quite a few are actions already underway, the plan also includes new initiatives that can significantly advance the U.S. climate effort.