Seriousness and Levity at the Paris Climate Conference

Paris—This is easily one of the most important conferences to the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in the 21 years these conferences have been held.  The Convention is a treaty that now has 195 member countries.  The Convention does what its name suggests—it creates a framework for addressing climate change—but it imposes few requirements.  In the next several days, these 195 countries will make decisions under the Convention that will profoundly affect the planet’s future.

To understand why, a little history is helpful.  In 1992, the U.S. became the fourth country in the world to join this Convention, under the leadership of the first president Bush.  At the conference of the parties in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, developed countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by about five percent from 1990 levels by 2008-2012.  Because greenhouse gas emissions were rising annually during that period, and were anticipated to be significantly higher by 2008-2012, this was a significant commitment.

The U.S., under the second President Bush, repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, citing both economic reasons and the absence of commitments by developing countries, particularly China.  Meanwhile, most other developed countries, including those in the European Union, have been implementing the Kyoto Protocol and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

A big question left open by the Kyoto Protocol, however, is what to do after 2012.  The conference of the parties in Doha, Qatar, extended the date to 2020, but that still left open the question of what happens next.

Beginning nearly a decade ago, at the conference of the parties in Copenhagen, Denmark, the process has shifted slowly from “top down” commitments by developed countries to “bottom up” commitments by all countries.  Each country makes public pledges or commitments.  In the run-up to the Paris conference, 180 countries representing 94% of all greenhouse gas emissions ubmitted such commitments.  These commitments are, in the language of the conference, called their nationally determined contributions.

One big change is that both the U.S. and China are supporting significant (for them) emissions reductions.  Only several years ago, China was not a particularly constructive player in these talks.

The basic idea here is to formalize these in some way and create a process for revisiting and strengthening them over time.  Those who support the process emphasize the importance of nearly every country making a commitment to reduce its emissions to some extent.  Those who are critical point–accurately–to the fact that the emissions reductions pledged are not nearly as great as they need to be.  Still, for many, success would be the creation of a process with near total participation that leads to greater and greater reductions in greenhouse gas reductions, and transforms the global economy toward clean and sustainable energy.

While this is simple to say, there are many complications, not the least of which is finance.  Climate change is already occurring, and many developing countries are seeking money from developed countries to pay for the effects of drought, flooding, sea level rise, and loss of water supplies because of melting glaciers.  Developed countries, not surprisingly, resist.

At conferences of the parties, most of the real decisions are made at or near the very end.  As of this morning, there were something like 800 brackets in the negotiating text, which means an equivalent number of issues to be resolved.  Only several days remain, but the French hosts and others are determined to make this succeed.  A more detailed discussion of the remaining issues, by Professor Daniel Bodansky of Arizona State University, can be found here.

This afternoon, Nicholas Stern, a British economist at the London School of Economics, who has emerged as a powerful voice on climate change, made this statement at an event I attended: “The two defining challenges of this century are managing climate change and overcoming poverty.  If we fail on one, we will fail on the other.  If we fail to deal with climate change, we will undermine and reverse development.  If on the other hand we put obstacles in front of poverty reduction, we will not have the tools to address climate change.”

He continued: “These next 20 years are absolutely essential for determining what happens to the climate and for addressing poverty.  If we succeed, we will make this century the best of centuries.  If we fail, we will make this century the worst of centuries.”

Yesterday, the Climate Action Network gave its daily “Fossil of the Day” award to Saudi Arabia, which is represented  by its minister for petroleum.  He apparently said that the conference should not discriminate against different forms of energy.  The organization also gave a “Ray of Light” award to the Philippines, which has pledged to decarbonize its economy by later this century.  Such are the contradicting positions in Paris.  Stay tuned.