3 Things That Must Happen For The Paris Climate Conference To Succeed

PARIS—Many people are set to judge the Paris Climate Conference by the same criteria the Copenhagen talks failed to meet in 2009—whether the 196 nations meeting here in the coming two weeks sign a legally binding treaty to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.
But negotiators are not aiming for a legally binding agreement in Paris, because they believe they have found a better way .
Legally-binding agreements limit options for nations to craft responses to climate change that suit their unique circumstances. And treaties can be shot down or delayed interminably by dissolute legislatures back home.
So United Nations officials and some expert observers expect voluntary commitments—once considered a consolation prize of Copenhagen—to prove more effective, if three critical actions support them.
"Everybody already knows exactly what these countries are going to be willing to commit to in terms of their greenhouse gas reductions,” said Peter Ogden, a senior fellow with the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago and former chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy on climate change. "That’s been made public over the course of the last year. And those commitments are not going to be made legally binding in a new treaty or protocol or a new amendment in two weeks time."
For voluntary commitments to succeed, negotiators must agree on enforcement, planning and financing strategies, some aspects of which may themselves be legally binding:
1. Enforcement – Nations have to accept a legal review or monitoring system that will account for their progress in meeting voluntary targets. The Paris negotiators have to determine the nature of those reviews and how often they will take place, a process that must navigate each nation's openness to international scrutiny.
“What you have to lock, in Paris, is a system that will ensure compliance with these contributions," said Jairam Ramesh , India's chief negotiator in the Copenhagen talks.
Negotiators in Paris are working from a draft agreement that says voluntary commitments must reflect nations' highest ambitions in light of national circumstances. But the draft does not yet ensure the commitments will be quantifiable and unconditional—qualities some deem necessary to guarantee trust between nations.
If negotiators fail to agree to a formal compliance structure, an informal one may substitute:
"The alternative that is being talked about now is called naming and shaming," said Peter Singer, a Princeton philosopher who studies climate change as humankind's "greatest ethical challenge."
"Basically we get these countries to make commitments, and then if they fall short, we name them, we publicize the fact that they failed, and we hope there is some kind of public shame factor that is powerful enough to get them to not want that to happen.
"I just have no knowledge whether that’s ever worked."
Enforcement schemes can also be added at future meetings or through other international mechanisms:
"Possibly if naming and shaming doesn’t work, we’ll need to somehow develop some kind of trade sanctions to get included in the WTO agreements," Singer said, "perhaps some idea that if countries do use excessive amounts of fossil fuel, or emit excessive amounts of greenhouse gases, then they’re trying to take an unfair trade advantage by getting cheaper energy, and it’s legitimate to sanction them in some way for that."
Either way, the parties to a Paris agreement will have to meet again in the future:
2. Ambition – COP21, as the Paris Climate Conference is more formally known, is the 21st meeting of the 196 parties to the world's first climate change treaty, in 1992. It's also the 11th meeting of the 192 parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Each COP has been preceded and followed by support gatherings, and even if Paris goes unexpectedly well, the UN will still need the parties to gather regularly.
"Are [nations] willing periodically to commit now to coming back and setting new targets over time, so that these targets do not become the last word?" Ogden asked.
The voluntary commitments on the table for Paris cannot be the last word because the UN admits they won't be adequate to halt man-made climate change. But they can give the process more momentum than it has ever possessed.
The commitments submitted are more ambitious than policies currently in place. And instead of politicians making pledges for which they must win support at home, the voluntary commitments have been vetted in advance.
“We have a set of pledges on the table that accurately reflect domestic appetite to take action," said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute. "And so we can have strong confidence that those will be upheld.
"The only problem," Kartha added, "is that’s not a solution to the climate problem. That doesn’t take us there."
If fully realized, the voluntary commitments would limit global warming to less than 3º C, according to a recent UN review, but they would not keep warming below 2º C, the level at which many scientists believe warming will dangerously disrupt life on earth, much less 1.5º C, the level preferred by small island nations most at risk.
“We can hope that these commitments are strengthened," Singer said, "that if they prove feasible over the coming years that they will be strengthened in time to make a significant difference.”
So some parties will push for a legally-binding agreement to meet again.
The draft proposes additional meetings every five years, each bringing "progressively more ambitious” commitments to the table.
Nations also have to put money on the table:
3. Financing – The third action, according to Ogden, involves "what kind of assistance and financial package donor countries are willing to put on the table to help developing countries to make the economic transitions they need to make if we’re actually going to solve the problem."
The draft calls for finances to flow transparently from developed to developing nations and for spending to be balanced between mitigation and adaptation.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates its Clean Power Plan will cost a maximum of $8.4 billion in 2030, only 4 percent of the $200 billion economy of the U.S. energy sector. It also expects energy bills to rise only about 2.5 percent at first and then to fall up to 8 percent by 2030 because of improvements in energy efficiency.
Small and developing nations may find such numbers far more daunting, because their infrastructure is undeveloped, and their carbon emissions may derive from such unregulated sources as wood, trash or dung fires.
At least since the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N. has recognized that developing nations will need aid from the developed nations that are largely responsible for global warming. The U.S.—itself responsible for about a quarter of historical carbon emissions—has recognized this obligation.
“Least developed countries are going to need some facilitation and some support," U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said before the Copenhagen conference in 2009. "We in the United States are working aggressively both at home and internationally in these negotiations to make that happen.”
At Copenhagen, Hillary Clinton pledged $100 billion in aid for developing nations, but both she and Pershing tied that aid to a legally binding agreement with independent verification. Now that legally binding agreements are off the table, nations have to negotiate new terms for aid.
For these reasons, the voluntary commitments at the heart of the Paris conference have their critics. Among the critics, India's Copenhagen negotiator, Jairam Ramesh:
“The commitments that countries are making—unfortunately, even the word commitment has been diluted," Ramesh said in February. "It’s now contributions, as if countries are doing a favor to humanity. It’s now, in UN Speak, INDC: Intended, not even pledged, but Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.”
According to the draft, a Paris agreement will drop the term "intended" and refer to "nationally determined mitigation" commitments, contributions or actions.
Whatever the language, NDCs may prove more effective than legally binding agreements like the Kyoto Protocol ever were—in part because NDCs needn't be ratified.
"We just have to accept that it’s not going to be a legally binding treaty," said Peter Singer, the Princeton ethicist, "and if it were a legally binding treaty it would be very difficult for the Obama Administration to indicate it could get it through Congress, the way Congress is now, so perhaps you could even say it’s politically for the best at the moment that it’s not going to be a legally binding treaty."
Singer points out that the Copenhagen Accord, widely viewed as a failure by the public and press, launched the INDC process that now seems now to offer the greatest promise.
"A lot of people were very pessimistic about that [INDC] process," he said. "Well, that process did actually happen, and they have now come back and they have reported their commitments, and it is true the commitments are not enough, although some people are encouraged by the fact that there are commitments that the Obama Administration has made, commitments that were more significant than a lot of people thought an American administration could make, certainly a complete change from the attitude we had under President George W. Bush, which basically said that the United States wasn’t going to do anything significant about climate change.
"China has also gotten relatively serious about what it’s doing and said its emissions will peak around 2030 and is starting a cap and trade scheme."
In the wake of the Copenhagen conference, Ramesh revealed that India and its alliance of rapidly developing nations, including China, Brazil and South Africa, never intended to accept a legally binding agreement. They were able to "ensure that the Copenhagen Accord was not legally binding and there was no mention of a new legally binding instrument in the accord,” Ramesh testified before India's Parliament.
So the disappointment many felt after Copenhagen was doubly unjustified—not only was the Copenhagen Accord the best document obstinate states would allow in 2009, it also charted a path that nearly all states have embraced ahead of Paris.
“Copenhagen was widely felt by many people to have collapsed and failed," said Sivan Kartha, "and it led to a bit of demotivation and disillusionment among civil society, among general people, among philanthropic organizations to some degree, and we can’t really afford to let that happen.”
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