The Paris Climate Conference - Dead on Arrival?

The Paris Climate Conference - Dead on Arrival?


By Varoon Pazhyanur The international community is at it again. The days between 30 November and 11 December mark the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP21) to address the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The COP meets annually to implement the 1992 UNFCCC, which, among other goals, urges each signatory to enact national policies that “[limit] its anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the official collection of climate experts gathered by the UN, called the evidence of climate change "unequivocal." Citing the overwhelming evidence suggesting humans accelerate the process, the IPCC said a comprehensive climate accord may be necessary for human survival. Yet Paris is not likely to meet this daunting task.


There is no set definition of what constitutes a successful climate summit. Many possible solutions exist to combat climate change. These include reforestation, geoengineering, elimination of energy subsidies, and adaptation. While many organizations outside of the COP have focused on these alternative means of slowing climate change, the UNFCC clarifies that the main goal of annual COP meetings is to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, the world should judge COP21’s success at Paris on whether or not it can hammer out a deal that lowers the global influx of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

The most important number to understand when discussing the Earth’s climate is two—two degrees Celsius is the threshold temperature increase since pre-industrial levels before the effects of climate change become “irreversible and catastrophic”. The international community has used this as a benchmark to set goals in climate treaties. So far, 62 countries, whose emissions constitute 70 percent of the global total, have made carbon pledges ahead of the Paris Conference. Yet the lack of universal boldness in goals prompted the executive secretary of the UNFCCC to declare that the promises “do not add up to 2 degrees”. The current pledges on the table make a 3 degree temperature increase likely. The lack of meaningful pledges raises the temptation to “shift the goalposts” and make 3 degrees Celcius the new normal, thus accepting irreversible impacts of climate change. Short of a major transformation in the status quo, this unfortunate shift in climate politics is increasingly likely.

All climate conferences face a precarious balancing act. They must reach an agreement that is stringent enough to curb emissions, yet lenient enough to achieve ratification by major powers. Examples of climate treaties that garner political support, but fail to make a dent in emissions are abundant. For one example, the 2009 COP15 meeting in Copenhagen recognized the impacts of climate change but dropped all of the targets for reducing carbon emissions. It established a system by which nations that reduced levels of deforestation received cash, but it lacked substantive independent verification of emission reductions. Even if it garnered widespread support in terms of signatures, the Copenhagen Accord had little impact on the climate. Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, lamented that, “We all failed at Copenhagen”.

The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 represents the most stringent climate treaty ever signed on the international level. It established emissions reductions targets for each country based on wealth and created a global cap and trade system, whereby nations that want to emit more than their target can purchase carbon credits from other nations to increase carbon emissions. Kyoto was also the first legally binding climate treaty. This means that nations that exceed their allotted carbon levels lose carbon credits in the next time cycle.

The agreement faced two major problems. First, many developing countries with low incomes were exempted from mandated carbon reductions. Those included China and India, two of the top emitters on Earth. Even though Canada, the US, Japan, Russia, and others emit more per capita than India and China, their volume of global emissions makes those two nations central in any comprehensive climate regime.

This graph represents the total emissions in 2011 for the top 10 emitters.

The second roadblock in Kyoto’s effectiveness was the United States, which signed but did not ratify the treaty, thus opting out of its carbon-trading scheme. This caused other developed nations, namely Canada and Australia to opt out as well. When renouncing the Kyoto agreement in 2011, Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent called Kyoto “unworkable” because it lacked American and Chinese support. Even though the participating members of the Kyoto Protocol decreased their carbon emissions by a total of 16 percent, worldwide emissions have risen by 50 percent since 1990. In other words, the efficacy of Kyoto came at the cost of support from the US, China and India, thus negating benefits from the agreement.

Source: Saul Loeb, AFP / Getty Images

It is very possible that China will peak its climate emissions by 2030, as it declared in a November 2014 agreement with the US. Yet this bilateral deal limits the possibility that China will agree to emissions reductions at Paris. This agreement, coupled with pressures to maintain GDP growth, erases the likelihood that China will cut emissions in the short term. While the possibility of an uncooperative China dampens prospects of a comprehensive Paris agreement, it also limits the possibility that the US will participate in good faith. Congress has launched fierce opposition to measures to reduce emissions especially because such policies seemingly place the US at an economic disadvantage relative to nations that don’t follow suit. The Byrd-Hagel Resolution of 1997 typifies this sentiment. The resolution, which warns against American cooperation in international climate agreements that do not apply to developing countries, was used to justify inaction at the Copenhagen conference. Back when the US was deliberating the Kyoto Protocol, the resolution was specifically invoked because India and China would not participate in carbon emission reductions. With China all but guaranteed to neglect any accord at Paris, the prospects for the US to comply are slim to none. This creates a paradigm in which the world should expect an accord that garners much political support but lack binding, meaningful agreements. The world should hope for a major upheaval in climate politics, as it may be necessary to prompt coordinated international collaboration to address the issue before it is too late.

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