What’s on the Table in Paris (Besides Croissants)?

The carbon-cutting pledges are already in. So what exactly are we still negotiating?

November 24, 2015

Photo: Claudio Brisighello/Flickr

The biggest issue at next week’s Paris climate change conference—how much carbon pollution the participants will try to cut—has already been decided. Most countries have by now submitted their commitments to manage greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 to 15 years. These pledges, known as “intended nationally determined contributions,” or INDCs, will form the heart of a global plan to mitigate climate change.

But a great deal remains up in the air (undecided issues as well as greenhouse gases, I mean). How world leaders handle the following sticking points will determine whether the momentum behind the international climate effort continues to build or starts sliding backward.

Reassessment

An agreement in Paris cannot be the end of this process, because the current round of carbon commitments isn’t good enough. According to United Nations estimates, the pledges will limit climate change to a global average temperature increase of approximately 2.7 degrees Celsius. That’s less disastrous than our current trajectory of 5 degrees Celsius, but “We made the world somewhat less disastrous” is pretty ho-hum, as epitaphs go. After that level of warming, sea levels could rise several meters, threatening coastal cities around the world. The number of people exposed to severe flooding would increase by a factor of six, and global productivity could decrease by 20 percent.

The toughest issue on the table in Paris, therefore, will be a mechanism for countries to improve their pledges after they go home. On November 2, China and France jointly announced support for updates every five years. The United States has set a greenhouse gas emissions target for 2025, rather than 2030 like many other countries, and would likely also favor reviews that begin in 2019 or 2020.

Like the current round of commitments, the review process would probably be a political rather than a legally enforceable one. Pressure from the international community would act as the primary incentive for each country to ratchet up its reduction pledge.

Frequent evaluations are also a good idea, because carbon reduction pledges are likely to get easier and easier. Renewables technology will get cheaper. For example, the price of solar energy in 2017, according to Deutsche Bank, will be comparable to that of fossil fuel–based energy in 80 percent of world markets. In addition, as countries make progress toward reducing carbon pollution without destroying their economies, the traditional naysayer arguments (e.g., carbon cuts will “kill jobs”) will lose credibility. The green economy will become a positive feedback loop.

Money

One of the few good things that emerged from the rubble of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference was the Green Climate Fund. The GCF aims to make $100 billion available to developing countries by 2020 to help pay for climate mitigation and adaptation projects. The fund got off to a stuttering start, but there is now more than $10 billion committed, and fund administrators are ready to start doling it out to nations in need.

In Paris, the negotiators will need to decide what happens after 2020. If the Green Climate Fund ends after it hits $100 billion, many developing countries will not be able to meet their carbon commitments. India—the world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter and home to more people in poverty than any other country—has said that it cannot achieve its climate goals unless the developed world fulfills its funding promise. In addition, many other countries will refuse to strengthen their pledges during the next round of reviews without additional mitigation money.

Some countries will ask for specific dollar pledges beyond 2020, while others will resist any mention of post-2020 money in the final agreement. Expect some sort of compromise—possibly additional rounds of financial commitments every few years, much like the periodic INDC reviews.

A couple of additional money issues also threaten the Paris conference. First, only 17 percent of climate finance goes to adaptation projects (making communities more resilient to the effects of climate change), while nearly 80 percent goes to mitigation (taking actions to reduce carbon emissions, like building wind farms). That distribution reflects the values of wealthy donor countries, most of which have yet to suffer any major climate consequences. Small island nations, and others on the front lines of global warming, want more money to build seawalls and protect vital infrastructure against major storms.

Speaking of small island nations, vulnerable countries have for decades been advocating for a compensation scheme known as “loss and damage.” Developed countries caused this problem, they argue, and therefore ought to pay for the resulting destruction. Some wealthy countries (which may view this as “unlimited liability for bad weather”) are very resistant to this idea.

Transparency

One of the peculiarities of the current climate treaty system is how differently it assesses developed and developing countries. The former are evaluated on their actual progress toward achieving their carbon reduction targets, while the latter, like India and China, are assessed only on the transparency and completeness of their reporting. Developing countries can completely miss a target and still be in compliance, as long as they’re honest about it. The United States and the European Union want to change this system, subjecting developing countries to the same compliance standards that they face themselves.

It seems like a minor issue, but India and China now account for more than one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we are going to take climate change seriously, honesty is no longer enough in Asia. There have to be verifiable actions.

* * *

COP21 will be the most choreographed climate change conference in history. That’s a great thing, but an agreement remains anything but a fait accompli. There could still be plenty of climate drama. Stay tuned.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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