Paris 2015: When an Historic Climate Change Agreement Isn’t Enough

Global Temperatures in 1950, NASA

Global Temperatures in 1950, NASA

In a few weeks, representatives from 190 countries will gather for the 21st UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. As the world seems to be waking up to the colossal threat of climate change, religious and world leaders from all over are urging the international community to commit to real, measurable action.

With such high expectations, Paris 2015 aims to keep global warming below 2° Celsius compared to pre-industrial era levels. 2° is widely considered a ceiling past which major devastation ensues. In order to reach this ambitious goal, more than 146 countries submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), detailing their commitment to the cause. This sort of self-committing or pledging is new to the international climate change discussion and attempts to obfuscate the need for legally binding agreements, a non-starter for many top emitters. Cuts pledged are relatively steep, reining in emissions and slowing warming. All signs point to Paris 2015 being nothing short of extraordinary—an international agreement that brings developed and developing countries together, including China and the United States, the world’s perennial feet-draggers and largest emitters.

Global Temperatures in 2015, NASA

Global Temperatures in 2015, NASA

There’s a big problem, however. As it stands right now, the UN estimates that pledged reductions in emissions could still lead to the planet warming by 2.7°, a level that would have serious and unheard of ramifications on literally everyone. And that is assuming that every country keeps its promises and meets its goals. Does that mean that Paris 2015 is a bust before it even begins? Does it mean that all of the hype and anticipation is for a global agreement that merely drives our proverbial car off the bridge at, say, 65 miles per hour instead of 80?

Not necessarily. There may still be hope to salvage Paris 2015 and lay groundwork for further cuts. But to do this will require changes.

Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, contends that “these INDCs are not the final word in what countries are ready to do and achieve over time—the journey to a climate safe future is underway and the Paris agreement to be inked in Paris can confirm, and catalyze that transition.” Likely responding to the disappointment surrounding the 2.7° figure, Figueres casts Paris 2015 as just the beginning of the conversation—not the end.

But for this to work, Paris 2015 participants need to include in the agreement a framework for future talks in order to keep up (or increase) pressure and momentum towards deeper cuts. If Paris 2015 is a victory lap or parade of self-congratulations, it risks creating a narrative that we’ve done all that needs to be done. That would set a dangerous precedent from which it would be tough to recover.

One solution currently being debated is changing when, and how frequently, countries’ pledges will be reviewed. The draft UN climate agreement is currently considering whether to take stock of countries’ actions beginning in 2018, 2019, or after 2020. Advocates should push for initial review as early as possible. Advocates should also push for future reviews at least every five years instead of every ten, to better adjust for changing economic, technological, and climate conditions.

As a supplement to UN-led climate change talks, countries should engage in bilateral and multilateral talks to further reduce emissions. As a model, talks between the U.S. and China leading up to Paris 2015 helped to assuage skeptics in both countries and internationally about the sincerity of the world’s top emitters. Future agreements between major emitters would counter fears of economic comparative disadvantages and move the needle closer to 2°.

The Paris 2015 agreement would further be served by including penalties for failure to comply, but this is unlikely, as many countries, including the U.S. and China, have flat-out rejected any international oversight. Instead, Paris 2015 intends to rely on peer pressure and cooperation to achieve its lofty—though not too lofty—goals. That a binding agreement is politically impossible in 2015 should not stop advocates and countries from pushing for a legally enforceable agreement now and down the road.

For Paris 2015 to be truly a success, countries need to hold one another accountable and not rest on the laurels of an agreement that looks historic. We’re on a path to slow the effects of climate change, but we are not yet on a path that does enough. It is up to the international community to strike a balance between justifiable excitement at the world finally coming together to address climate change and real reckoning with the fact that the solutions so far proffered do not even come close to avoiding calamity. Here’s hoping Paris 2015 is even more historic than it seems.

Sachs 8_Small B symbol_end last sent