At COP 21, Climate Change Is the Biggest Challenge—and Opportunity—We Face

In spite of the recent attacks in Paris, the United Nations climate talks have resumed this week, sadly shadowed by a tone of grief and tragedy. The Paris negotiations are, by any calculation, a decisive moment for the over two-decade-old international climate change process. Barring unforeseeable circumstances, they promise to be the biggest opportunity yet for global progress on what is perhaps the biggest challenge the world faces.

Pessimism and cynicism have been no stranger to UN climate negotiations. The Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was delivered a fateful blow in 2009 when the Conference of the Parties (COP) gathered in Copenhagen for COP 15. These talks failed to match expectations for a legally binding climate agreement. Disparities in opinion over the appropriate intensity of mitigation initiatives for developing states and how these efforts would be financed by rich countries proved paralyzing. Would the world ever reach consensus?

Media outlets presented the Copenhagen shortcoming as yet another botched attempt to apply international diplomacy to a transboundary issue. However, COP 15 was not the end of this multilateral process, particularly as momentum is building behind the biggest negotiations yet. Growing consensus on the causality and dramatic impacts of climate change across all strata of society is fueling ambitious mitigation targets in many countries—often regardless of their level of socio-economic development. Climate change knows no national boundaries and amplifies risk; the solutions to combat it will involve all societies and sectors. The unprecedented attendance of 150 heads of state at the opening of COP 21 demonstrates that the world is ready to turn toward a low-carbon future without looking back.

The window of opportunity to set the world on a sustainable pathway is closing but remains in reach. However, the need for political willpower to settle on key—and often polarizing—issues of financing, such as “loss and damage” compensation and “capacity building,” means that there are plenty of hurdles to be jumped in Paris. Nevertheless, hope for a successful, ambitious, and meaningful binding outcome remains realistic. Supported by energetic momentum and a generally positive economic outlook, COP 21’s setting is equally important as its content, far from the financial crisis mindset and comparatively low climate change ambition that dominated the COP 15 negotiations.

In the Irresistible Low-Carbon World, All Emitters Will Lead

World leaders from China, India, Germany, Indonesia, the United States, and Brazil have all partnered for climate action going into COP 21. Thousands of cities, regions, businesses, and investors have called for an agreement in Paris, even submitting voluntary emissions reductions pledges of their own. Businesses now view action on climate as an opportunity to gain competitive advantage. Signaling the shift in the global economy, 81 global companies, including Apple, Starbucks, Nike, and Dell, have signed the White House’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge for a strong agreement at COP 21. The science of climate change is mature and largely settled. There is increased public awareness, and the price of renewable power generation has fallen lower than anyone predicted it would.

Unlike at COP 15, countries have pre-committed themselves to signing a legally binding agreement, establishing an ongoing process for voluntarily committing to reducing emissions. If this effort is successful, member Parties to the UNFCCC will have a legally based and supported avenue to continue collective decision making and review of progress beyond Paris. It remains unclear, however, how the “Paris Agreement” will interact with already established international law and norms.

Emissions reductions in the Paris Agreement will not be legally binding as outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, and negotiators intend to package the Paris outcome document as something other than an international treaty. Doing so allows President Obama to sign onto it with all other Parties, and negates the need for ratification from the U.S. Congress. Utilizing a different type of internationally binding legal instrument provides a guarantee to the other Parties that the world’s largest per capita emitter will be included in the Paris Agreement. This helps to avoid a debacle similar to the one President Clinton faced after signing the Kyoto Protocol, when the Senate subsequently failed to ratify the agreement and it never became legally binding in the United States.

Deciding how to allocate carbon budgets while staying sensitive to unique national contexts is as much of an environmental justice issue as it is an intergenerational equity issue. With a bottom-up approach, the Paris talks rely on “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) that place ownership over mitigation and adaptation directly with Parties. Utilizing a soft law technique where emission reductions become voluntary pledges rather than binding targets, Parties determine their nationally appropriate pathways forward, agreeing to a cycle of evaluation and upgrading of INDCs on a regular rhythm to help nudge ambitions toward a full decarbonization of the global economy. The approach encourages increased efforts as new technologies are developed and deployed, so it is a flexible, lasting, dynamic and balanced system of mitigating. This is radically different from the previous top-down approach that lumped countries into just two houses (Annex I and Non-Annex) and was deplored by Parties.

Moving Climate Investment from Billions to Trillions

Developing countries require climate finance to help them adapt to a new climate normal. This assistance is currently estimated to be in the range of US$70–100 million per year, and much more is needed to finance mitigation efforts. The scale of climate investments being brought to the table today is inadequate to address the scale of the global warming challenge. If the world is serious about limiting the rise in global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius, then, over the next 15 years alone, an estimated $89 trillion will be required for new low-carbon infrastructure, with $6.4 trillion going to clean energy markets in developing countries and $17 trillion to transforming resilient low-carbon cities.

Pledges by developed countries for securing $100 billion in climate financing by 2020 to support developing countries with the transition are a step forward, but they remain grossly insufficient. Public and private partnerships will need to play a pivotal role in redirecting development, as Mission Innovation has done to invigorate global research and development on clean energy technologies. To make collaboration happen requires strong and consistent policies—such as a price on carbon—and a stable, long-term regulatory regime, so that investment can flow in the right direction.

COP 21 Sets Forth Clear “Rules of the Road” for All Parties to Follow

The UNFCCC reports a gulf between current governments’ INDCs and what is scientifically required to curtail unmanageable climate change. It emphasizes that the aggregate of Parties’ pledges, as submitted, will require $13.5 trillion in climate financing by 2030 to be fully implemented. So there is plenty of work ahead. It will take broad stakeholder participation, transparency, and local empowerment for bold and urgent action.

Ultimately, all stakeholders, especially local citizens, will be implementing the agreements reached in Paris. People in developed countries are gaining awareness of the connections between the complex interplay of a country’s historical per capita emissions, a rapidly changing climate, the remaining carbon budget, and free riding. More than 600,000 citizens from around the planet recently marched in the streets of their cities to support their governments at COP 21.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christina Figures, who is charged with the seemingly impossible task of building bridges among all Parties in the Paris talks, points out that the recent acts of violence in Paris and around the world reflect precisely why it is so important that we come to a climate agreement in the first place. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerrey even issued remarks connecting climate change, food security, and escalating global calamities as reasons for a robust outcome at the Paris negotiations. More recently, Prince Charles did the same.

To have safety and peace in the future, the world’s most vulnerable peoples need assistance adapting to a new climate reality. Who will finance these efforts remains at the heart of the Paris COP 21 negotiations. Sending clear signals to markets will accelerate climate finance post-Paris, and a climate deal reached universally by all Parties—for the first time in history—will mean that the world has reached a turning point in solidarity, with ambition to put short-term interests behind the future we need. If all goes as hoped, the negotiations in Paris will establish a level playing field with one-way avenues forward.


David Schneider is a visiting research intern to the Climate and Energy team at the Worldwatch Institute. He is studying Sustainable Management at the University of Wisconsin and researching fair and transparent modalities of climate finance transfer by way of innovative public private partnership.

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