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.

Unfortunately, neither Kyoto nor this parallel bottom-up approach has delivered action on the scale needed. The current round of talks, which was launched two years ago in Durban, South Africa, and culminates in Paris in 2015, presents an opportunity to craft a practical hybrid drawing on the virtues of both top down and bottom up.

As I describe in a recent article in the journal Nature, negotiators are making headway on the broad contours of this new approach. There is emerging consensus that, as in the post-Copenhagen framework, countries’ individual emissions commitments would be self-defined. But this time, the commitments would be subject to close international scrutiny before they are finalized, and more rigorous accounting rules would make it easier to track what countries are actually delivering.

This emerging approach reflects a sober reassessment of what the U.N. climate process can and cannot produce. It avoids the kind of overreach that doomed the Copenhagen summit. It reflects the political reality that the real drivers for action are domestic, not international. And it gives countries the flexibility to tackle emissions in the ways best suited to their particular economic and political circumstances.

By combining bottom-up commitments with top-down rigor, the Paris agreement would effectively stitch together homegrown national efforts in a way that strengthens confidence and, in turn, encourages stronger action over time. It would not represent a grand solution to climate change, but it would be a major step forward.

It’s worth noting that among the chief proponents of this hybrid approach is the United States. Far from abandoning the U.N. climate effort, the U.S. is providing critical thought leadership, while simultaneously trying to advance climate efforts in the Montreal Protocol and other multilateral forums.

In many ways, the U.N. climate process is, and will likely remain, dysfunctional. (Of course, we in Washington need not look so far afield for examples of paralytic policymaking.) But multilateral processes are more a reflection than a determinant of the political will that parties bring to the table. If we want to see stronger results in Paris and beyond, the real imperative is to build stronger will and action at home.