Putting the UNFCCC to the test

There’s a theory I’ve been advancing for some time and the upcoming Paris climate talks will, for the first time, put it to a test.

The issue is whether the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is capable of delivering. Established nearly a quarter century ago as the global forum for countries to take on climate change, the UNFCCC enjoys universal participation – and is universally deemed a disappointment.

The harshest assessments came in the wake of the ill-fated Copenhagen conference in 2009, when many quietly, and some openly, began urging governments to abandon the UNFCCC as a place worth investing any effort or hope.

But governments chose to stick with it. The following year, in Cancún, they hammered out an agreement through 2020. And the year after that, in Durban, they launched a new round of negotiations culminating next month in Paris. The aim: a new global agreement beyond 2020.

Anyone who’s closely tracked the UNFCCC knows that the process is ungainly and byzantine at best – and, at worst, a highly politicized, dysfunctional mess.

I’ve maintained over the years, though, that the UNFCCC’s lack of progress is a reflection less of the process itself, than of the meager political will that governments bring to it. The UNFCCC, in other words, has never been fairly tested.

Paris will provide that opportunity.

The collective will among governments to address climate change, while still lacking, is stronger than ever. The United States and China – the world’s largest economies and emitters, and long-time climate adversaries – are jointly leading the call for a new agreement. More than 150 countries have formally offered their intended contributions (how they’ll limit or reduce their emissions). And, as I describe in a recent post, there’s growing convergence in high-level discussions on the core elements of a deal.

At the table, though, this collective will and convergence have yet to translate into agreed text. In the final pre-Paris negotiating session two weeks ago in Bonn, many parties seemed more intent on preserving favored options than on moving to common ground. The 51-page text that emerged is more coherent, with clearer options, but is still a far cry from a ratifiable agreement.

This is disappointing but not surprising. The UNFCCC operates by the unofficial rule that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So all issues, and there are many of them, must inch along it the same pace until an acceptable overall package begins to emerge.

Negotiators will no doubt have to work through the night(s) in Paris to get to a final deal. But the ultimate landing zones have been fairly clear for some time (see, for instance, the report from C2ES’s recent negotiators dialogue). So it’s not only possible, but probable, negotiators will get there.

The outcome, in all likelihood, will fully satisfy no one and leave many once again disappointed. But while destined, by some measures, to fall short, the agreement taking shape could prove a major turning point – even transformational.

Here’s what I think we can count on: a binding agreement that gets all of the major players on board, uses strong transparency to hold countries accountable, and works to build ambition over time. If successful, this would build confidence that everyone is doing their fair share, which will enable everyone to keep doing more.

If we leave Paris next month with that kind of agreement, I think we’ll be able to say that the UNFCCC, finally put in a position to deliver, has proven that it can.