Monday, November 30, 2015

Building Momentum for a Climate Agreement in Paris

President Obama is in Paris today for the opening of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. We've been here before - most notably in Kyoto in 1992 and Copenhagen in 2009. While both of those meetings were important milestones, they failed to produce the kind of global agreement that many are hoping will finally happen in Paris. So it is helpful to look at what has changed this time around.

The Kyoto Treaty was rejected in the U.S. Senate by Republicans, most notably because "developing countries" like China and India were not included. Negotiations in Copenhagen were mired in confusion and disarray, primarily over disagreements between industrialized nations and developing countries.

Perhaps the biggest difference this time around is that rather than attempting a "top-down" agreement on goals that everyone must meet, a "bottom-up" approach has been implemented, with each country being asked to submit their own Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC).

In order to prepare the way for a more productive outcome in Paris, the Obama administration has taken several major steps:

1. By allocating $80 billion of the initial stimulus package for clean energy projects, the United States joined other industrialized countries in the effort to make sustainable energy more affordable - something that will make investment more feasible for smaller developing countries.

2. Efforts to curb emissions in the United States included agreements with the auto industry to increase fuel efficiency and new regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Those efforts led to the President's Clean Power Plan (our INDC), with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

3. Ahead of the Paris conference, the U.S. announced agreements with China, India and Brazil on joint efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Those agreements are basically each country's INDC.

4. As Coral Davenport reported almost two years ago, Secretary of State John Kerry has made the achievement of a climate pact a priority in the State Department.
Shortly after Mr. Kerry was sworn in last February, he issued a directive that all meetings between senior American diplomats and top foreign officials include a discussion of climate change. He put top climate policy specialists on his State Department personal staff. And he is pursuing smaller climate deals in forums like the Group of 20, the countries that make up the world’s largest economies.
The results of these and other efforts all over the globe are that more than 150 countries representing 90% of global emissions have already announced climate targets in preparation for the Paris conference. As Tim McDonnell notes, these commitments combined with those of businesses and local governments mean that "it's safe to say that the Paris summit has already been somewhat successful, and now we have the opportunity to see how far that success can go."

As we watch the developments at this conference over the next two weeks, I am reminded of how President Obama defined what success will look like:
For us to be able to get the basic architecture in place with aggressive-enough targets from the major emitters that the smaller countries say, "This is serious" — that will be a success.

I'm less concerned about the precise number, because let's stipulate right now, whatever various country targets are, it's still going to fall short of what the science requires. So a percent here or a percent there coming from various countries is not going to be a deal-breaker...

...the key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, "We're going to do this." Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials. But there will be a momentum that is built, and I'm confident that we will then be in a position to listen more carefully to the science — partly because people, I think, will be not as fearful of the consequences or as cynical about what can be achieved. Hope builds on itself. Success breeds success.
As we can see, getting "everybody locked in" is something the Obama administration has been working on for years.


  1. Community organizer operating on the global scale.

    1. Exactly! He doesn't let perfection be the enemy of progress.
      Wish Kerry's predecessor had taken the same kinds of steps to move this forward.

  2. I'm almost finished reading the TPP. It occurs to me, after reading your assessment of the Paris Climate talks that the same process of inclusion was used to negotiate the TPP. Remember Respect, Empower and Include?

    1. Oooh, can you post your insights about the TPP somewhere? There's a huge amount of it that I can't even begin to process, there are parts I like a lot (the pro-union, anti-slavery parts), but I'm not finding a whole lot of analysis that isn't either biased towards a given ideology or overly focused on its impact on one segment of the economy (unions, left-handed Elvis impersonators, etc).