In December, world leaders will gather once again to try to conclude a new global agreement on climate change that will hopefully set the world on a new course toward a low-carbon, resilient and prosperous future.
Copenhagen, or COP15 in 2009, is generally regarded as a failure because it did not live up to the over-hyped expectations that it would produce a global agreement to solve the climate challenge. It did however foreshadow a series of fundamental changes in the nature of international cooperation on climate change that should give us hope for the outcome in Paris — with the recognition that Paris won’t be the end of the saga either.
There are seven key differences leading into Paris that show how the climate regime, and underlying political and economic factors, have significantly shifted over time and are aligning to enable Paris to be a success.
- All countries have skin in the game. The world in 1992 was a very different place than it is today. China was a poor developing country, far from being the largest greenhouse gas emitter and second-largest economy that it is today. At the time, diplomats simplistically divided the world into “developed” and “developing” countries and agreed that developed countries would have to take the lead in mitigating climate change. Poor countries would focus on their development aspirations and take on emissions reductions measures to the extent aid was provided. But since then, globalization happened. Middle income countries have emerged. Today, China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico are among more than 150 countries that have announced targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions — some quite ambitious and far-reaching. We are now actually looking at the emergence of a comprehensive, global solution.
- Commitments are being developed from the bottom up. When the original climate convention was adopted in 1992, environmental diplomats had recently concluded the 1987 Montreal Protocol to solve the ozone problem, which to this day is one of the most effective environmental treaties ever adopted. The Montreal Protocol set the precedent for the classic top down, globally negotiated system of national emissions reduction “targets and timetables” that would form the core approach of the Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. That top-down approach has not borne much fruit in global climate governance. Interestingly, in 1992, US negotiators proposed a system of “pledge and review” whereby countries would come forward with their best pledge of mitigation efforts, and these would be subject to international review with a view to ratcheting them up over time. This approach was soundly rejected then as not serious or binding enough. Nevertheless, the bottom up approach re-emerged as the last-minute default at Copenhagen, capturing the unilateral announcements made there. For Paris, we have returned to a bottom up, country-driven approach, where commitments are based on national circumstances and politics.
- Commitments are already on the table. Over 150 countries have submitted their INDCs — “intended nationally-determined contributions,” most focused on measures to increase energy efficiency, scale renewable energy and halt deforestation. The EU, US and China all showed tremendous leadership, having these on the table by late 2014, a full year in advance. Collectively, if fully implemented, these measures should add up to a sizable percentage of the emissions reductions necessary to limit global warming to two degrees C. So, even if the Paris negotiations end without a formal agreement, these national policies will largely still be implemented, meaning Paris will still be a success.
- The private sector is increasingly on board. In the early days of the climate talks, business engagement was largely confined to those who saw climate regulation as a threat to their bottom lines. Today, the majority of companies engaging in the process recognize climate impacts as a material risk and solving it as a potential opportunity. The number of corporate announcements over the last few months — and the expected flow of new announcements over the next two months — has been unprecedented. Changing corporate practices can affect the climate, as well as affect political calculations.
- The technology revolution is already under way. Today, renewable energy is scaling up along the same kind of technology diffusion curve we’ve seen for microprocessors and cell phones. Drones and tablet computers are being used to track deforestation, GPS is helping drive farm equipment and renewable energy is now cost competitive with fossil energy in dozens of markets around the world. We have the technology — policies are playing catch-up.
- Cities, states and provinces are showing the way. Cities like San Francisco and Sao Paulo have adopted ambitious climate action plans calling for emissions reductions. These leading cities, joined by many sub-national states and provinces around the world, are way ahead of where their national governments are.
- Leaders are actually leading. The US is stepping up, with new domestic emissions reductions goals and a policy framework to back them up. Equally important, the US has made climate collaboration with China a diplomatic priority — including the joint emissions reductions pledges in November 2014 and again this September when President Xi announced that China would implement a national cap and trade system and provide $3.1 billion in climate aid to poor countries. These are the two biggest economies and the two biggest emitters, now making climate cooperation a centerpiece of their bilateral agenda.
The impacts of climate change are visible today and growing stronger. So are the commitments countries and others are taking. For these reasons, and many others, Paris can be the turning point, not the end point, toward a prosperous, low carbon future.