United leadership creates historic opportunity for global climate governance

Content from the Brookings-Tsinghua Public Policy Center is now archived. Since October 1, 2020, Brookings has maintained a limited partnership with Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management that is intended to facilitate jointly organized dialogues, meetings, and/or events.

Although the wounds and pain from the recent terrorist attack have yet to heal, and new threats hover over the proceedings, world leaders decided to gather in Paris today to show their unwavering support to Paris and to commit to unified leadership on climate change. This is a historical moment in the global effort to address climate change, with the potential to reshape global climate governance.

The Paris conference marks the 21st meeting of the Parties of the UNFCCC. More than two decades have passed since the signing of the UNFCCC in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2002. While the Kyoto Protocol marks the height of the climate negotiations, most of the past two decades of negotiations have been tainted by disputes, distrust, stagnation and pessimism. The Kyoto Protocol was a first attempt to shape global climate governance in a top-down manner, which set a global target of greenhouse gas mitigation and then disaggregated the effort among countries deemed to be responsible. Meanwhile, the need for climate finance and technology transfer was identified with the coordination of the United Nations.

In 2001, President Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, a major setback in efforts to coordinate an international solution since the US was then the world’s largest carbon emitter. A crisis of failure became imminent as several more developed countries followed suit. Although the Kyoto Protocol held together in the end, the climate regime proved unsuccessful in rallying a truly inclusive, global effort to address climate change.

Then, the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 was invested with overwhelming expectations, proclaimed by a broad selection of policymakers, scholars, and activists as the last chance to save the world. With Denmark playing host, the European Union worked hard to achieve a new agreement in the style of Kyoto that the media and environmental NGOs demanded be ambitious, fair and legally binding. However, these expectations were not met, with an eleventh hour deal struck without the EU on site. Disappointing to the EU and many other participants, the Copenhagen Conference was the last attempt at a top-down approach, a style of global coordination that was doomed to fail as most of the world was not prepared to follow.

Meanwhile, the meeting and its aftermath provoked a moment of reflection to determine an alternative approach. The Copenhagen Accord is essentially a collection of pledges from individual countries based on their own social and economic circumstances, with a political commitment to limit an increase in global temperatures to no more than 2oC. It was a bottom-up approach with loosely-structured commitments and little monitoring, reporting and verification.

Nevertheless, significant progress has been achieved under the agreement. China, for example, is on track to deliver its Copenhagen commitment according to a United Nations Environmental Program progress report. Indeed, it could be argued that the Copenhagen Accord achieved no less than the Kyoto Protocol. Moreover, it was the Copenhagen Accord that helped conceive the Durban Platform, which has now led the world to Paris, with its highly anticipated new agreement based on the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). This is a typical bottom-up approach, and one with significant potential.

The top-down approach central to the Kyoto Protocol and the (unfulfilled) dream of Copenhagen is gone, as well as the strict definition of a legally binding agreement. There is also now recognition of political realities in countries like the United States, and the need for flexibility in implementation. Interestingly, the apparent relaxation of standards has not affected the encouraging outcome– unexpected even a year ago – of the US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy.

In the lead-up to the Paris conference, all major greenhouse gas emitters and the vast majority of the UNFCCC Parties have submitted INDCs that are more ambitious than ever. An approach that is bottom-up and nationally-driven, instead of top-down and legally-binding, seems to be producing promising results, and has certainly been more embraced by world leaders. A new climate governance system is on the horizon with an anticipated new climate regime in the form of the Paris Agreement.

Many have complained about the slow progress of international climate negotiations. Recognizing the limitations of negotiations at the technical level, many have called for the greater involvement and stronger leadership from political leaders. Two decades of climate talks have taught us an important lesson: that for climate change, the principal challenge for humanity (in the words of Pope Francis in 2015), technical negotiations alone cannot succeed.

Therefore, the strongest commitment from world leaders is critical to the success of efforts to meet the challenge. The unprecedented number of heads of states attending the Paris Conference is a symbol of unprecedented commitment from a united leadership on climate change. We should not underestimate the many challenges ahead: How can the commitments under the INDCs be reviewed and verified? How can climate finance for developing countries be delivered adequately and fairly? How can nations work together to develop the technology needed for a decarbonized economy? United leadership has been the key, long-awaited element. Only when political commitments are made will breakthroughs result in technical negotiations. Let us seize the historical opportunity to make a global climate governance work.

This op-ed was originally posted in China Daily.