A Climate Agreement for the Decades

With thirteen months to go until the climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015, there are signals for optimism of where global negotiations might lead. During her speech at Brookings on October 16th, French ambassador for climate negotiations Laurence Tubiana emphasized a multi-actor, multi-level approach to governing climate change. After her remarks, US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern gave remarks in response.

Tubiana saw this year’s climate summit in New York as a major step forward. Nation-states are focusing on the impacts of a changing climate, and the need to make our physical and human infrastructure more resilient. She also saw a new middle ground emerging between the North and South, where the finger-pointing is giving way to efforts to find a common solution. And she also pointed to the growing role of non-state actors – which has helped to drive change, but which also makes the global negotiations that much more complicated. Both Tubiana and Stern agreed that the tone of conversation has shifted in a positive way — from emphasizing the costs of inaction to proclaiming the benefits that come from cutting the use of fossil fuels and leap frogging to clean technologies.

Tubiana pointed out that climate governance has long suffered from the “prisoner’s dilemma” between states. In this classic game theory paradigm, two parties who might otherwise benefit from cooperating instead act in ways that appear to be in their own individual short term best interests, producing an outcome worse than if they had cooperated. (Of course, in the prisoner’s dilemma, the prisoner’s both “cooperate” if both do not do or say anything; in the case of climate change, cooperation requires coordinated action. And in this case, the challenge is how to move from the relatively modest action that nations have taken to cut greenhouse gases towards more ambitious actions. 

An Acceptable International Framework

In comparing Tubiana’s remarks and Todd Stern’s response and remarks from earlier in the week, it is fair to guess that “pledge and review” is becoming the new mode of action. Both Tubiana and Stern are urging nations to announce their pledges well before the 2015 Conference of Parties. In Durban, a roadmap was launched for a global agreement at Paris in 2015. Since negotiations in Warsaw, countries are now planning to put their proposals on the table in early 2015 prior to the negotiations in Paris for December 2015. That’s a big new innovation in the way the meetings are done. The benefit of “pledge and review” is that all countries are encouraged to make a pledge that they can accomplish – so at the least it involves a public pledge to action. The pledges would be self-enforcing, so nation-states might be more ambitious than they would be under a formal, legally-binding agreement. A legally-binding agreement might scare some nations from making pledges that they are less certain they can accomplish.

This points to a critical issue, which both Tubiana and Stern addressed: what do we mean by “legally binding?” Countries are still figuring out the nature of the legal obligation for the future. Does a legally binding agreement affect the ambition of an agreement? From the US perspective, a top-down, treaty-style version of “binding” would decrease ambition, while a more flexible “politically binding” global agreement would give countries incentive to be more ambitious with their targets.

Moreover, both speakers support an agreement at Paris 2015 that will be flexible enough so it will not need to be renegotiated. It would already include a timeline for commitments that countries determine for themselves. This is a proposal New Zealand has put forth, which the US supports. In such a framework, what is “legally binding” is not the emissions target itself, but the obligation to submit a schedule for emissions reduction and for accounting, reporting, and review. This, perhaps, is something that the US Congress could live with.

A Path Forward

Developing countries are still wrapping their minds around how to be more involved in the negotiations, while still not taking the pressure off industrialized countries to raise their levels of ambition. While neither Tubiana nor Stern addressed it directly, developing countries have been inclined to accept such a politically binding agreement when it comes to their own obligations, while still insisting that industrial country targets should be legally binding on them.

At the same time, these middle income countries, from Costa Rica to Mexico and China, are already moving on the issue, and implementing climate policies domestically.

From a US perspective, we are in a very different place than two decades ago. We have lower emissions thanks to the rise of natural gas, broad increases in energy efficiency, and a massive investment in renewables as part of the economic recovery act of 2009. More reductions are likely, thanks to new EPA standards for auto fuel efficiency and forthcoming regulations of power plants. This action to curb emissions has radically altered how the world now views the United States – providing evidence that the US is capable of acting in the absence of a global, binding obligation.

Around the world, we are also seeing increasingly positive signs. Societies and economies are focusing on the benefits of climate action, rather than the costs of inaction. Still, exactly what the responsibilities are for developing nations, in form and substance, is still left to be determined.

Countries are also still figuring out the blend of private and public funds that will be counted as part of the pledge to raise $100 billion per year of climate finance by 2020. Negotiators are also figuring out how to involve non-state actors in the summit, so that bottom up efforts can be shared and counted. The US certainly intends to be part of the capitalization of the Green Climate Fund. Ultimately, the global negotiations are not only about working out these technical details, but about generating a narrative. As Tubiana stated, the final judgment will come from the young people and the media, in determining what sort of success is reached in Paris.

The challenge for Stern and for Tubiana will be negotiating with over 190 countries and many additional subnational stakeholders. The level of urgency has only increased, as impacts from climate change are being felt around the world. Luckily, provinces, states, cities and civil society are playing a greater role. From California to Guangdong, local successes can point the way to future national action. The public sentiment, as expressed in the People’s Climate March, demonstrates grassroots support. Governments and institutions are building the capacity and technical skills required to create an accountability system that translates across borders. Businesses are getting onboard with the notion of a low-carbon economy. These are all the ingredients for an agreement that could last for decades, if the right framework is presented at the Paris climate summit in 2015.