Paris Climate Confab Preview: Culmination or Crack-Up?

The endgame in the quest for a universal climate treaty



President Barack Obama will join more than 130 other heads of state in Paris on Monday to cut the ribbon (metaphorically) at the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. To avoid the sort of embarrassment they found at the bungled 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, the potentates will be long gone from Paris before this meeting concludes on December 11. In the wake of the city's November 13 terrorist atrocities, French authorities have banned the climate change protests that activists had planned.

During the two-week conference, negotiators from nearly 200 countries are supposed to hammer out the world's first-ever universal climate agreement. Climate change activists hope that the new agreement will accelerate the global transition to 100 percent renewable energy. The agreement, which is supposed to come into effect in 2020, is being built on each country's intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs.

Basically, INDCs are what each nation promises to do about climate change. For example, the Obama administration has pledged that the United States will adopt an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below its 2005 level in 2025, and will attempt to reduce its emissions by 28 percent. In its INDC, China undertakes "to achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early."

As the 54-page draft text of the Paris pact makes clear, climate negotiators are far from agreeing on the accord's ultimate goals, on what the responsibilities of various countries will be, on how compliance will be monitored, and on how it all will be financed. As far as those ultimate goals go, the current options range from holding the increase in the global average temperature to below 1.5 °C, to well below 2 °C, or to as far below 2°C as possible above pre-industrial levels. This is supposed to be achieved by having countries' emissions peak by 2030, or peak as soon as possible, or maybe with a 40 to 70 per cent net emission reduction below the 2010 level by 2050, or net zero emissions by 2050, or by 2100. Or maybe they'll hammer out a global carbon budget distribution based on climate justice – that is, allocating future emissions based on the recognition that because the world's richest countries have contributed most to the problem, they have a greater obligation to take action and to do so more quickly.

The current INDC pledges do not in themselves set the globe on a path toward any of the temperature goals being considered. Copenhagen Consensus Center founder Bjorn Lomborg recently calculated that "all climate policies by the US, China, the EU and the rest of the world, implemented from the early 2000s to 2030 and sustained through the century, will likely reduce global temperature rise about 0.17°C in 2100." The editors of Nature Climate Change try to put a positive spin on the Paris pledges in their November 25 issue, but they do note that the INDCs "are insufficient to meet the agreed goal of preventing global temperatures rising more than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels." They then cite the excessively inflated estimates made by Climate Action Tracker, which suggest that adhering to the newly pledged INDCs could limit future temperature increases to between 2.2 to 3.4 °C by 2100.

So how deep must cuts in greenhouse gas emissions be in order to keep temperatures below the 2 °C threshold? Elsewhere in that issue of Nature Climate Change, researchers associated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research find that "a 2030 target of 67 percent below 1990 for the [European Union], a 2025 target of 54 percent below 2005 for the USA or a 2030 target of 32 percent below 2010 for China could secure a likely chance of meeting the 2?°C target." It is worth noting that the EU has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by only 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, the U.S. has promised a reduction of only 28 percent below its 2005 levels by 2025, and China promises only to peak its emissions by 2030.

Negotiators are also haggling over a compliance mechanism. It could be a permanent standing compliance committee or even an International Tribunal of Climate Justice. Reading through the various proposals, it's pretty clear that whatever the mechanism turns out to be, it will chiefly be focused on trying to make sure that rich countries cut their emissions while simultaneously shelling out tens of billions annually to finance climate-related activities in poor countries.

The agreement has not yet nailed down the language that would oblige rich countries to "mobilize" the provision of $100 billion annually after 2020 in "climate finance" for poor countries. The idea is that poor countries would use this aid to deploy low-carbon energy sources and adapt to higher temperatures, rising sea levels, and worse storms. Just how to report and monitor the fulfillment of the myriad promises made by nearly 200 countries with regard to emissions and finance goals are still wide-open questions.

Some countries want to make each country's INDC pledges "legally binding" under the agreement. This is a huge sticking point for the Obama administration. The president prefers to construe the Paris agreement as simply an elaboration of our already existing obligations to stabilize greenhouse gases under the previously ratified United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If the Paris agreement makes INDCs and climate finance obligations legally binding, that would require Senate ratification. The Senate is very unlikely to ratify the agreement, and so the United States would probably not be a party to the new universal climate treaty.

The Paris climate change conference is being very carefully orchestrated, but every previous conference has fallen apart over two issues: demands by poor countries for guaranteed climate finance from rich countries, and demands from rich countries that poor countries agree to substantial cuts in future greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the Paris conference will finally resolve these issues. But probably not.

Note: I will be publishing daily dispatches from the Paris climate conference beginning December 7.