For delegations preparing for major multilateral conferences, managing expectations is a big part of the workload. Nothing can take the wind out of global initiatives like inflated hopes that come crashing down in acrimony at a summit.
So even before nearly 150 heads of state and over 40,000 delegates from 195 countries headed to Paris for two weeks of climate change negotiations, officials were keen to tamp down expectations, while working behind the scenes to lock down a historic accord that could at least put the world on the path to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Delegates at the U.N. climate change summit in December likely had the stifling experience of Copenhagen from six years ago in mind. The Danish capital was in 2009 the scene of a long impasse that eventually yielded a modest agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions that left many observers disappointed.
“There’s always a danger of setting expectations too high and under-delivering. And for a lot of people, that was … the lesson from the 2009 negotiating experience,” said Sarah Ladislaw, director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The lesson apparently sunk in. After marathon talks and wrangling over the word “should” versus “shall,” negotiators from 195 nations reached an unprecedented agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions that can serve as a blueprint for years to come.
The deal aims to limit the rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with the aspirational goal to keep the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Paris is the latest iteration of the Conference of Parties (COP), an annual United Nations summit for countries to mull action on the greenhouse emissions that scientists say are warming the planet, causing acute environmental damage.
The Copenhagen talks devolved into squabbling until a handful of larger countries hammered out a weak resolution, leaving other governments frustrated. This time around, however, hopes were high that the will was there to strike a landmark accord.
Heading into Paris, most countries released voluntary pledges for cutting greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020, promises dubbed Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The Paris summit, or COP21, also created a uniform, transparent mechanism to review and reassess those pledges periodically, a key demand of the United States. Developing nations, however, failed to solidify a legally binding agreement on financing to mitigate the effects of climate change on poorer nations (they have pushed wealthier nations to contribute $100 billion a year by 2020).
A major stumbling block in the past had been reluctance by developing countries, which are now among the world’s top greenhouse gas polluters, to rein in emissions, thereby sacrificing their economic growth, in order to address a problem brought about by developed powers during their industrial growth spurts. Notably, India, the world’s number-three greenhouse emitter, remains wary of agreeing to emissions cuts without significant financial compensation. But the fact that the world’s top two polluters, China and the United States, agreed to jointly limit their emissions boosted the Paris talks, as did Obama’s admission that wealthy countries played a role in triggering planetary warming.
“I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it,” he said.
Despite the historic outcome of the Paris summit, participants and observers say it is merely a beginning. The goal is to catalyze the more aggressive national policies that experts say are needed to avoid the full brunt of climate change, the impacts of which include rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns, floods, droughts, food shortages and resource scarcity that could exacerbate conflict, displacement and poverty. Experts note that 19 of the 20 warmest years in recorded history have occurred in the past two decades; 2015 is on pace to be the hottest year ever.
Some scientists reckon that the world has to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to head off the more devastating effects of climate change. But that number may be slipping out of reach. Experts say that at best, COP21 produced an accord that cuts emissions by about half the level needed to avert catastrophe. The 128 INDCs posted by countries to the U.N. website by the October deadline would still lead to increases of 3.5 degrees, 3.1 degrees or 2.7 degrees Celsius (depending on calculations) compared to pre-industrial levels, according to Brookings Institution scholar Timmons Roberts.
Still, leaders ranging from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Pope Francis to President Obama described COP21 as the world’s best, and last, chance to take meaningful action on climate change.
Declaring that “no nation — large or small, wealthy or poor — is immune” to climate change, Obama invoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to warn that “there is such a thing as being too late.”
Lessons from Past Summits
Obama administration officials were keen to relegate the multilateral bickering of Copenhagen to a historical footnote and cement the president’s environmental legacy in Paris.
“The stars are more aligned to reach agreement than I have ever seen before,” said Todd Stern, the State Department’s special envoy for climate change, according to the Guardian. “There is no comparison between Paris and Copenhagen in 2009. We have this opportunity, this moment. Countries are going to have to be willing to depart from some of their fixed positions to seek common good.”
COP21 represented an evolution of the multilateral approach to addressing climate change. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol included legally binding targets and focused on rich countries’ emissions, with an eye to reduce them 5 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. The United States, however, never ratified the agreement and dropped out altogether in 2001, while China and India were exempt from it.
Copenhagen, meanwhile, was more bottom-up with everything and anything on the table.
“Paris is in some ways trying to bring those two approaches together in a way that’s effective,” Jennifer Morgan, global director of the World Resources Institute’s Climate Program, told The Diplomat.
White House officials said they learned their lessons from Copenhagen and Kyoto.
“On the international stage, we knew a new approach would be needed to rally all nations to take action,” Paul Bodnar, the National Security Council’s senior director for energy and climate change, said on a recent conference call with reporters.
“We absorbed the hard lessons of Kyoto and heated bipartisan concerns,” Bodnar added. “We concluded that climate targets should be set by countries themselves, not imposed on them.”
Sino-American Cooperation Key
One of the main currents that buoyed the “Paris will be different than Copenhagen” argument was the greater cooperation on climate issues shown recently by China and the United States, the world’s two largest polluters.
In November 2014, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping turned heads by together announcing their countries’ respective goals for handling greenhouse gas emissions. Washington pledged to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 (the most the White House reckons it can achieve without congressional action), while Beijing said its emissions would peak by 2030 and it would boost its share of renewable energy by then. Last September in Washington, Xi also announced China would adopt a cap-and-trade scheme by 2017.
The White House’s Bodnar was decidedly upbeat on what he perceived as China’s more constructive role in efforts to combat climate change; he declared that Obama and Xi’s announcements “marked a new era in climate diplomacy.”
According to Ladislaw of CSIS, the Chinese government’s unusual public signaling of what an acceptable agreement would look like ahead of the Paris summit showed a proactive approach to striking a deal. That development, along with Xi’s announcement with Obama, amounted to a “sea change” in China’s approach to climate change, she said.
Beijing’s recent pledge to contribute $3.1 billion to help developing countries combat climate change was something that would have been unthinkable just a couple years ago, Ladislaw added.
Obama met with Xi the morning after the U.S. president’s arrival in Paris. Having that meeting early on in the talks “sends a strong message to the world about their shared commitment to combat climate change and to see an ambitious agreement achieved,” said Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Obama still faces significant opposition back home in delivering on his Paris promises. Republicans in Congress have vowed to oppose any formal climate change treaty and block funding for the president’s environmental initiatives. Even though China doesn’t face the same political hurdles given its authoritarian system, public support for action is tepid. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, just 18 percent of Chinese say climate change is a very serious problem (as opposed to 45 percent in the United States), even though half of those surveyed in China said climate change is harming them now.
Banking on Renewables
There are numerous paths to meaningfully limiting the global rise in temperatures, but most agree that doing so requires big economies to transform how they produce and consume energy.
Despite nuclear energy’s small carbon footprint, interest in nuclear has faded in some countries in the wake of the March 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. Germany has made plans to take all of its nuclear plants offline by the end of 2022. Japan, meanwhile, has tentatively brought at least one nuclear reactor back online under stricter regulations after the Fukushima disaster.
Interest in renewable energy has waxed with nuclear energy’s wane. The cost of producing power from renewable sources such as solar and wind has dropped considerably in the last five years, making the technologies more palatable to consumers. But solar and wind are also more fickle than fossil fuels in that their production is dependent on the weather. Renewables also tend to have larger up-front investment costs than fossil fuels, though those costs can be recovered and outweighed through savings in fuel and other benefits over time.
Germany has been among the most ambitious countries in its pursuit of renewable energy, setting a goal of producing 40 to 45 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025. Patrick Graichen, a former energy official in the German government, laid out the sizable challenge for countries looking to accelerate their use of renewable energy.
“You run into a system that has fluctuations and high capital cost, and that is what makes this energy transformation really a challenge, because it’s not just shifting from one fuel to another, it’s about shifting from a fuel-dependent technology to a weather- and capital-based technology,” said Graichen, who is now executive director of Agora Energiewende, a German think tank. He spoke Oct. 27 during an appearance at the Brookings Institution.
The German push to adopt renewable energy sources is not without tradeoffs and costs. Intermittent doses of solar and wind power have rankled Europe’s power market. More renewables have sometimes meant high electricity bills for Germans. From 2010 through 2014, the renewable energy surcharge on German households and business had nearly tripled, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Successful ramping of renewable energy sources will require meticulous policy planning paired with ambition. A 2012 study by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that renewable power generation from available technologies, combined with a more flexible power system, “is more than adequate” to supply 80 percent of total U.S. power generation in 2050. But such a scenario would depend on a rosy blend of substantial investments in infrastructure and steady growth in renewable sources across the country.
The U.N. framework that the Paris talks will build on allows each country to chart its own course in emissions reductions, but that course does not operate in a vacuum. Governments around the world took note of the renewables boom in Germany, along with that country’s growing pains in navigating an inchoate industry.
To that end, renewables were a key theme in Paris. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, announced an “international solar alliance” of over 120 countries to be headquartered in India. The United States also announced an initiative with 19 other nations to double spending on the research and development of clean energy technologies by 2020, in concert with a private-sector coalition led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to invest in “potentially transformative energy systems” with “near zero carbon emissions.”
The Paris climate talks were an opportunity for governments to differentiate lofty rhetoric from plausible plans for a lower carbon future. The accord clinched by nearly 200 countries underlined their ambitions for tackling the problem. But the devil will be in the details of national plans, and the climate’s well being will depend on them.
About the Author
Sean Lyngaas (@snlyngaas) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.