It’s no secret that whatever climate deal comes out of Paris in the next two weeks won’t be sufficient to hit the U.N. target of limiting the increase in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. The U.N.’s climate chief Christiana Figueres even threatened to “chop the head off” any journalist who calls the summit a failure for that reason.
What would be a success for Figueres, the U.N. and many of the countries taking part is setting in motion a process starting in 2020 that ups greenhouse gas cuts over time. Figueres calls it “the start of a long journey.” But first the world’s countries need to get a deal, which will require some skillful balancing of competing national and political interests.
More than 40,000 negotiators from 196 governments are descending on the French capital. Once in place at Le Bourget conference center north of Paris, they’ll first hear from government leaders — everyone from Barack Obama to China’s Xi Jinping — who will give short statements on November 30 before
delegations begin two weeks of talks.
They’ll all be working from a 55-page draft that is the result of months of preparatory negotiations. (This is embedded in full below.)
There are two stumbling blocks. The first is the gap between the emissions cuts that a scientific consensus says are needed to avoid overshooting that 2 degree temperature rise mark and the greenhouse gas reductions already on offer in the pre-Paris pledges. The U.N. Environment Programme estimates the shortfall is 12 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, just over a fifth of total world emissions.
The second is the question of who counts as rich and who as poor, and who bears the brunt of the economic cost for implementing the policies that will be part of any Paris deal. That leads to the issue of how much financial and technical support the rich countries of the world — who built their prosperity on coal- and oil-fired energy — provide to poor countries to avoid those same fuels, blamed by climate scientists for rising global temperatures.
These COP summits happen every year. Why is Paris such a big deal?
First, a bit of terminology. COP21 stands for Conference of Parties. It’s the 21st time that the countries of the world are meeting to try to tackle climate change. The conferences are an annual affair, but the stakes are higher than usual at this year’s COP.
Paris is the last opportunity to follow through on a pledge that governments made at the Durban COP17, in 2011, to adopt a climate change agreement that is legally binding and applies to every country in the world by 2015 at the latest.
The last time countries tried to come up with an international agreement was in Copenhagen in 2009. It’s remembered as an epic disappointment, and for the EU, a particularly bruising summit. Europe’s early groundwork fizzled. The U.S. and China stepped in and formed a so-called G2 that hashed out an agreement. The Copenhagen deal came up with undemanding emissions reductions, leaving environmentalists and many countries stewing over a missed opportunity.
The political climate has changed in six years. Wild swings in temperatures — from record lows in the U.S. during the polar vortex to record-breaking highs in Australia last year — have reinforced the perception of a brewing climate catastrophe. Fossil fuel assets are seen as risky. Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s governor, said that a lot of the the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves are “literally unburnable,” meaning they will have to stay in the ground to avoid worsening the climate change problem. Axa, the insurance company, and Norway’s sovereign wealth fund both announced they would divest from coal.
Scientists and the United Nations say the world faces catastrophic changes — more droughts, wildfires and tropical storms — if global temperatures rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial levels. The U.K.’s Met Office warned this month that the world has already warmed by 1 degree since the start of the industrial revolution.
So what should we expect Paris to deliver?
A roadmap to gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Unlike in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, when only rich countries promised to cut emissions in a deal that the U.S. didn’t endorse and which Canada abandoned, the idea this time is to get countries to start by making promises of emissions cuts and other measures. As well, the burden of slashing greenhouse gases is now being shared by everyone, not just wealthy countries.
The pledges, sent to the U.N. in the months leading up to the COP21, mark a first step. If those pledges are implemented, the U.N. estimates that global warming would slow to roughly 3 degrees by 2100 — not enough to meet its targets, but better than the 4- to 5-degree increase if nothing were done.
The EU and France, which chairs the summit, want the COP21 to create a system in which countries can review their progress every five years. That way, if new technologies become available — or if countries find they are overshooting their targets — they would be able to adjust their goals.
The European proposal has received backing from China, Brazil and the U.S., as well as a host of developing countries, although with varying levels of enthusiasm.
Where do things stand now?
Nearly 180 countries, covering more than 95 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, have pledged steps they are willing to take up to 2030, and in some cases beyond.
That’s a first for a COP summit. Traditionally, these talks have focused on what the wealthy developed world should do to limit climate change and help poorer countries cope.
This time, nearly everyone — from the U.S. to Russia to Saudi Arabia to Sudan — has promised to do something, whether it’s shifting from fossil fuels to renewables or putting a price on carbon emissions.
Of course, some of these plans will be more effective than others. Russia’s pledge to curb emissions by 25 to 30 percent by 2030 sounds pretty good, but analysts say it would actually allow the country to raise its emissions because its benchmark is 1990, when the Soviet Union and its belching smokestack industries were still around.
What is also clear is that a legally binding COP21 agreement is riddled with problems. Those were already apparent in the Kyoto Protocol, which has an enormously complex system for assessing whether countries are complying with the treaty, but then doesn’t have a workable enforcement mechanism to get sovereign nations into line.
And so, this time around a legally binding COP21 agreement won’t be punitive from the start, negotiators say, threatening sanctions if a country doesn’t implement its plans.
“History shows that internationally legally binding compliance mechanisms are not necessarily a guarantee of compliance,” Figueres said last month.
Will Paris be a success?
Probably yes, although it depends on your definition of success. Country negotiators, U.N. officials, environmental advocates and other observers are quietly optimistic that the COP21 will end with some kind of legally binding deal.
Exactly which parts are binding is still up for debate, and that pits the EU against the U.S.
Brussels wants most of the COP21 deal to be legally binding. That includes a long-term climate goal, like the one the G7 countries agreed in June, to decarbonize the global economy by 2100. It also includes emissions reduction pledges and rules to ensure the reductions are calculated in the same way.
The U.S. and China, however, don’t want their voluntary commitments to be tied up in international law.
However, the idea to review progress and goals every five years is something on which the EU, U.S. and China, among others, could potentially find common ground.
“If there is one thing I am going to push and fight for, it is the Paris agreement to contain a revision clause,” said Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister and chair of the COP21 conference.
What are the sticking points?
But there are two other make-or-break issues that are unlikely to be resolved until the very end.
The first is known as differentiation, between those most and least responsible for pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Traditionally, the burden has been clearly divided between the wealthy countries on the U.N.’s Annex 1 list created in 1992. The EU and U.S. want more “nuanced” guidelines on how to divide and share the burden, to shift some responsibility onto economies that have emerged since 1992. Some poorer countries, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, oppose those changes.
The second is financial aid for developing countries, especially after 2020. These policies are expected to cost trillions in the coming decades. Developing countries want the COP21 to come up with a set amount of aid. Developed countries, such as the U.S., don’t want to make fixed pledges.