Remarks by Elliot Diringer on Why Paris Matters at American University on October 5, 2015







OCTOBER 5, 2015

It’s a pleasure to be back here at American University. I very much appreciate the invitation to share with you some thoughts on where we stand in the international effort against climate change.

We’ve been at this for some time. Many if not most of you weren’t even born when the international climate effort was launched, back in 1992. It was at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro – at the time, the largest gathering of heads of state ever.

One of the agreements that the first President Bush and other world leaders adopted in Rio was the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC, as it’s known, was ratified without controversy by the U.S. Senate – and, ultimately, by virtually every country on earth.

I was among the many thousands who converged on Rio in ’92. I was a reporter at the time – I covered the environment for the San Francisco Chronicle. For an environmental reporter, there really had never been a bigger story. It had the feel of a truly seminal moment – the whole world coming together, at the highest levels, and saying, “Yes, these issues are critical, and we need to address them.”

A few years ago, I looked back at the stories I’d filed from Rio. I was a bit surprised by the tone – the stories seemed to exude a certain hopeful glow. I’d always thought of myself as a pretty straight reporter, not one to color my stories. Maybe I’d succumbed to the natural tendency of journalists to dramatize the moment. Or maybe I’d accurately captured the genuine spirit of Rio.

Skip five years ahead. Another UN gathering, this one in New York, called Rio+5. I’m still a reporter. And ahead of the conference, I’m putting together a story taking stock of the progress made since Rio – progress on climate change, on biodiversity, on forests, on a whole range of global environmental challenges. I, of course, wanted the official U.S. view. But as a reporter in San Francisco, it wasn’t always easy to get senior officials in Washington to return my calls, let alone say something quotable. So I was pleasantly surprised to get a call back from Eileen Claussen, who was then the Assistant Secretary of State handling global environmental issues – and who later, I should note, hired me at the organization where I now work. And I was happy to discover, as I was to ever after appreciate, that Eileen is, in a word, pithy. She has a knack for summing things up. In fact, Eileen was so quotable she wound up as the lead quote in my story.

Her message, though was a sobering one. These issues, she said, hadn’t “slipped off the agenda. But Rio was very ambitious. I honestly think it’s a whole lot harder than people thought even then.”

Eileen was right. It is hard – a lot harder than we thought – to achieve the global transformation needed to really tackle global warming.

That was 1997. Since then, governments have tried different ways to strengthen the international climate effort. And in just a couple of months, they’re going to try again. So how far have we managed to come? What lessons have we learned? What can we expect in December at COP 21? And – the question I really want to address – what will constitute success in Paris?

To begin answering these questions, let me continue to trace the evolution of the international climate effort.

A few months after the stocktaking of Rio+5, governments gathered again, this time in Kyoto, Japan. One thing I very definitely had not foreseen was that I would be attending the Kyoto conference not as a reporter, but as a member of the U.S. delegation. Suddenly, I had an insider’s perspective. And once again, there was this sense that we were at a genuine turning point. We were taking the international effort to the next level.

In describing international agreements, we sometimes talk about a spectrum, ranging from top-down to bottom-up. The distinction is how much is decided internationally, from the top down, vs. how much is left to each country to decide on its own, from the bottom up. With Kyoto, governments were taking a decidedly more top-down approach. While developing countries got a pass, developed countries all agreed to take binding emissions targets. They didn’t get to set their own targets. The numbers were negotiated. Everyone had to be okay with everyone else’s number before there was a deal.

So how did that work out?  As many of you will recall, the U.S. didn’t join the Kyoto Protocol. Most of the other developed countries met their initial targets, which ran through 2012. But in developing countries, which had no targets, emissions were soaring. And when it came time to set a second round of targets, extending through 2020, other developed countries dropped out, too. The Kyoto Protocol is actually still in force, but its targets now cover just a little over 10 percent of global emissions.

Recognizing that Kyoto was not the success we’d all hoped for, governments started working toward a new agreement, one that would include the United States and the developing countries. It was supposed to come together in 2009 in Copenhagen.

And that was where things nearly fell apart altogether. The official negotiating mandate for Copenhagen was pretty vague. It didn’t call for a legally binding agreement. But the Danish government, which was hosting the conference, had high hopes. And others joined in. There emerged this expectation, among NGOs, in the media, that Copenhagen was going to produce a new legally binding climate agreement. By this point, I was no longer with the government. I’d joined the NGO sector. And I was worried that these expectations were completely unrealistic. It turned out they were.

President Obama and dozens of other world leaders flew to Copenhagen expecting to endorse a new agreement, but found instead that the negotiations were on the verge of collapse. It fell to the leaders themselves to negotiate an agreement – an extraordinary, unscripted undertaking. While they did manage to cobble together what became known as the Copenhagen Accord, it was a political agreement, not a legally binding treaty, and given the expectations that had been set, it was widely viewed as a failure.

Just as the expectations were unrealistic, that verdict was unfair. Copenhagen actually did advance the international effort. Here’s what it did: It created a new framework, in parallel with the Kyoto Protocol, in which all countries were to put forward targets or actions running through 2020. Unlike Kyoto, this was a bottom-up approach. Countries decided their own targets or actions; they weren’t negotiated. They were strictly voluntary, not legally binding.

The result was much broader participation than under Kyoto. For the first time, all of the world’s major economies – both developed and developing – had some sort of concrete commitment. In all, nearly 90 countries have put forward pledges. Unfortunately, when you add them all up, they’re not nearly enough to keep warming below the agreed goal of 2 degrees Celsius.

So here we are.  It’s now 23 years after the Rio summit. And through this twisted evolution of the international effort – with euphoric moments that faded to disappointment, and declared failures that have actually produced modest success – we’ve now experimented with two competing models of climate governance. A top-down approach, with the Kyoto Protocol, that provides strong legal and technical rigor, but suffers from shrinking participation. And a bottom-up approach, the Copenhagen framework, that’s achieved much broader participation, but inadequate goals. Both models have their virtues, but neither is getting the job done.

So what’s the alternative? 

The broad outlines of the agreement emerging for Paris are pretty clear. What they suggest is a hybrid approach – one that combines both bottom-up and top-down elements. One, in other words, that balances national flexibility with some degree of international discipline, in order to achieve not just broad participation, but also accountability, and ambition.

Starting early last year, C2ES organized an informal dialogue among senior climate negotiators from the United States, China and 20 other European, Asian, African and Latin American countries. We brought the group together eight times over 15 months, for nearly 100 hours of intense, focused discussion of the options for Paris. The discussions were off the record. But the co-chairs of our dialogue – Valli Moosa, the former environment minister of South Africa, and Harald Dovland of Norway, one of the elder statesmen of the UN climate talks – put out a report in July that draws on those discussions, and, I think, is the best summation available of the likely elements of the Paris agreement.

There is growing convergence on these elements in the political discussions taking place among ministers from key countries. You can see it in the official readouts from recent meetings of the Major Economies Forum convened by the United States, and from ministerial consultations hosted by the French.

Here’s what’s emerging:

  • An agreement that allows countries considerable flexibility in defining their own nationally determined contributions, but sets rules and norms to ensure transparency and accountability, and to encourage rising ambition.
  • An agreement that takes a much more nuanced approach to differentiating responsibilities among developed and developed countries – one that isn’t based on defined categories like the Kyoto Protocol, but instead respects the varied starting points among countries, and commits all of them to put forward their best efforts, and to progress those efforts over time.
  • An agreement in which some elements are legally binding.
  • An agreement that rests heavily on strong transparency to hold countries accountable for implementing their national contributions – one that moves beyond the bifurcated system we have now to a unified transparency system in which all countries are working toward the same standards of accountability.
  • And an agreement that builds ambition over time by committing all countries to keep coming back to the table every few years to take stock of collective progress and to declare, each of them, what they’re going to do next.

There’s a lot more the Paris agreement will have to do. It will have to address adaptation, for instance. And it will have to address the financial needs of poor and vulnerable developing countries – one of the toughest issues ahead.

But one of the reasons to be hopeful about Paris is that there is far, far greater clarity and convergence on the elements of an agreement that there ever was leading up to Copenhagen.

A lot more has changed since Copenhagen. More people understand that climate change is real and is already taking a toll. More companies understand both the risks posed by climate change, and the economic opportunities presented by a low-carbon transition. More nations understand that without action now, their long-term aspirations, their prosperity, and even their security, are at risk. And, thanks to Pope Francis, the moral obligation to act is clearer than ever before.

All of this is helping to generate political momentum. Perhaps the clearest indication of that are the joint statements by the United States and China – the world’s two largest economies and emitters committing strong domestic efforts, and offering a shared vision for key elements of Paris.

But the United States and China are hardly alone. As of today, 148 countries accounting for nearly 90 percent of global emissions have formally submitted their intended contributions to the Paris agreement.

I have to note that in the formal negotiations, the tough slog of producing the actual text of an agreement is still proceeding at a crawl. With just one week of negotiation left before Paris, there is all too much work still to be done. But the fact that so many governments have come forward with contributions tells me that countries really want a deal.

So now, finally, I get to the question I said I really wanted to address:  Is it a deal we can consider a success?

By two conventional criteria, the answer, I’m afraid, is no.

The first is the 2-degree target. We know already that the intended contributions on the table are, again, not enough to put us on a 2-degree pathway. That’s why it is so essential that the agreement bring countries back to the table every few years to strengthen their contributions.

The second criterion is whether countries’ targets are legally binding, and here, too, the answer will likely be no. I said earlier the agreement would have binding elements. These will be largely procedural. For instance, the agreement will commit countries to make and maintain national contributions, and to report regularly on their progress in implementing their contributions. But making the contributions themselves legally binding is a difficult proposition for a number of countries, including the United States.

So if that’s the case – if the agreement won’t put us firmly on a path to 2 degrees, and countries’ targets won’t be legally binding – what is the added value of a Paris agreement? Why does Paris matter?

Here’s why: if Paris produces the kind of agreement I’ve just described, we will, for the first time, have a durable international framework that gets all of the major players on board, holds them accountable for their promises, and requires them to periodically tell the world how they’ll go the next step. Think of this as a system of institutionalized peer pressure.

Without even a word of the Paris agreement having been agreed, this approach is already having a catalytic effect. Yes, the numbers on the table fall short of 2 degrees. But the fact is: At least 148 countries have done the hard work at home to set new national climate goals, many for the first time. And if the goals are met, we will be closer to a 2-degree pathway than without them.

Getting all the major players on board is an important start. But the real strength of the agreement will be in the accountability it provides. We will know if countries are falling short – and if they are, they will have to explain why. And then the cycle will begin again: Tell us what you’re going to do next, and then show us that you’re doing it.

The result – or the hope, anyway – is that all of this leads to greater confidence. With each step, we’ll be more confident in our ability to tackle this challenge. But more importantly, with greater confidence that everyone is doing their fair share, we will remove a major disincentive to action, and everyone will be better able to do more. That’s the additive value. That’s the kind of virtuous circle Paris can produce.

This may be a more limited vision than we once had, but it’s also a more realistic one. Six years after the near-collapse in Copenhagen, countries are coming to Paris with a much more pragmatic sense of what the multilateral process can achieve – of its role in the overall climate effort.

Coming to grips with climate change is a monumental task. We’re talking about steering the world away from the embedded fuels and technologies that power the global economy, and doing it in a way that preserves the aspirations of billions for a better quality of life. This is a multi-generational challenge. It has to be tackled on every front, from the local to the global. No one forum, no one agreement, can deliver the solution.

But the Paris agreement, if we get it right, can make a tremendous difference. It can capture the rising political will of the moment in a way that helps to continually strengthen our political will going forward. It can be a real turning point in the global climate effort.

By the time the Paris agreement takes effect, in 2020, it will be nearly a generation from the time of the Rio Earth Summit.  We won’t have come nearly as far as anyone reading my stories back in 1992 might have been led to expect. But we will have made progress. And I’m pretty sure that we will have positioned ourselves to keep doing better in the years beyond.