The 2014 Climate Summit and the Path to Paris: Managing Expectations and Setting Realistic Goals

Last week’s UN Summit on Climate Change produced one of those tantalizingly hopeful yet deeply ambiguous moments that have typified the world’s long struggle to address global warming. With nearly 400,000 demonstrators thronging New York streets, President Obama delivered a strong statement of US leadership and a powerful plea for international action. A diverse group of global companies agreed to support a price on carbon while others promised to reduce the loss of tropical rain forests. A number of developed nations (but not the U.S.) made pledges to the nascent Green Climate Fund to help poor nations cope with climate change.

But leaders of several major emitting nations were notably absent and those who attended, including President Obama, offered few specifics about the substance of a new international agreement. Despite the lofty rhetoric, the heavy lifting was left for another day – first the Lima conference of the parties (COP) later this year and then the Paris COP in late 2015, where the current round of negotiations will conclude.

Reasons for Optimism

In looking ahead, the good news is that the misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations that derailed the 2009 Copenhagen COP have largely disappeared. The flawed structure of the Kyoto Protocol, which only set emission reduction targets for developed nations, has been laid to rest. Now, there is broad acceptance that China and other surging economies need to adopt national emission targets, even though their higher rates of economic growth make it impossible to lower emissions on the same timeline as more developed nations. Despite misgivings in some quarters, there is also growing agreement that a comprehensive treaty imposing binding obligations, long the gold standard for climate activists, is not now achievable or necessary and that collaboration should be guided by reciprocal but unilateral national goals, backstopped by a common framework of reporting and accountability.

Reflecting confidence in this model, most nations have made diligent efforts to honor the goals they announced at Copenhagen and to transparently measure and report progress. And an earnest effort is underway to develop new goals for the next round of reductions. With luck, most major emitters will propose such goals in the first part of 2015, setting the stage for constructive negotiations to strengthen national commitments as the Paris COP approaches.

As President Obama emphasized at the UN, the U.S. is on track to meet its Copenhagen goal of a 17 emission reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. This remarkable turnabout by the world’s largest historic emitter has reduced mistrust of the U.S. and reversed a long history of U.S. equivocation and inaction. With U.S. credibility on the upswing, the self-defeating dynamic of prior negotiations – where U.S. backpedalling became an excuse for inaction by the major emerging economies and vice versa – should be gone for good.

Disturbing Trendlines

But climate negotiators face a challenge that has only become bigger notwithstanding these signs of progress. Since 1990, the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol, global emissions have grown by 61 percent. An increase of 2.5 percent is expected in 2014. At the current rate of growth, emissions are on track for a likely temperature increase of 3.2-5.4o C by the end of the century. While emissions are declining in the U.S. and EU, the trajectory in emerging economies – particularly China – is sharply upward, with improvements in emissions intensity outpaced by dramatic growth in energy consumption and economic output.

Only heroic measures, far more extreme than any under discussion, could achieve an immediate reversal in the inexorable rise in global emissions. But we should not measure success at the Paris COP by whether it results in immediate and substantial emission cuts that keep temperature rises below 2o C, a long-standing but increasingly challenging international goal reaffirmed in Copenhagen. The political and economic constraints on world leaders are profound and will inevitably temper their level of ambition in addressing climate change. A positive outcome in Paris requires careful management of expectations and a recognition of the limits on how far the major economies can go, notwithstanding the good will of their leaders.

The U.S. Dilemma

Climate advocates are pressing hard for the U.S. to propose ambitious reduction targets for 2025 or 2030 (possible milestones for a new agreement). U.S. leadership will help raise the level of ambition by other nations and it is critical for the U.S. to build on its success in meeting its 2020 target. In confirming its national commitment under the Copenhagen Accord, the U.S. noted that pending legislation (the ill-fated Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House in 2010) called for a 30 percent reduction by 2025 and a 42 percent reduction by 2030 from 2005 levels.  But the U.S. will be hard pressed to deliver on these targets without action by Congress.

Over the long term, the potential to decarbonize the power sector remains large but the EPA Clean Power Plan, which becomes fully effective in 2030, may place an upper limit on near-term emission reductions. A further decline in transportation emissions to capture the rapid progress in low/zero emitting vehicle technologies should be achievable by 2030 but transportation accounts for just 28 percent of total U.S. emissions. The agricultural and manufacturing sectors are large emission sources that can be controlled cost-effectively but existing law provides limited tools for this purpose. The president could nonetheless commit to ambitious emission reduction targets that assume enactment of legislation but, given the prevailing congressional gridlock on climate, this approach would be controversial politically and could be perceived by other nations as lacking credibility.

What China Can Do

As the world’s largest emitter, China is a lynchpin of any new global agreement. Chinese officials have recently sent encouraging signals about their willingness to limit emissions growth. China has also made impressive investments in clean energy (greater than those of the U.S.) and recognized the need to reduce reliance on coal. A few Chinese jurisdictions have even put in place cap-and-trade systems for greenhouse gases. But the imperative of high GDP growth, a political as well as economic necessity for China’s leaders, limits the pace at which China’s massive power and manufacturing sectors can shrink dependence on fossil-fuels while continuing to expand. China may well commit to capping and then reducing emissions by a finite date but this date is likely to be at least two decades off because China cannot immediately curtail its heavy use of coal. In the interim, China’s (and therefore the world’s) emissions will continue to rise, making the task of moderating global temperature increases that much more difficult.

To be sure, the costs of not addressing climate change are high, as Treasury Secretary Lew has persuasively argued, and these costs will only grow larger the longer the status quo persists. Leaders of emerging and mature economies are increasingly cognizant of their countries’ vulnerability to climate change and the social and economic dislocation it can cause. While cautious about moving too quickly, they recognize that inaction will ultimately exact a heavy price. This should contribute to the growing momentum toward a meaningful agreement at the Paris COP but will not translate into an immediate decline in global emissions.

Setting Modest Sights

We should expect any agreement reached in Paris to be only an incremental step, albeit a much bigger one than before, in tackling climate change. Its value will lie mainly in creating a credible mechanism, supported by an unprecedented level of cooperation, to stabilize global emissions in the next 2-3 decades and then mount a long-term effort to reduce them. Many will be disappointed with the slow pace of progress but we shouldn’t sell it short. It may be too late to prevent climate change from occurring but it’s not too late to avert its most serious impacts. An agreement in Paris with credible commitments by developed and developing nations may be the best hope to create a sustainable path toward that goal.