What to Expect From the 2015 Paris Climate Change Meeting: A Look to the U.S. and China

Countries have agreed to conclude a new international climate change treaty at the U.N. climate change meeting in Paris in 2015, with such an agreement to be implemented by 2020. While the U.N. climate change process has little to show so far in terms of concrete outcomes, there are some recent developments that suggest the Paris climate change meeting could produce an agreement. Such an outcome would not be the end of the negotiating process and in many ways would only represent the end of the beginning. For instance, the ambition of countries’ mitigation commitments will likely have to be built on once the Paris meeting is over. Furthermore, other key elements in the negotiations such as climate finance will only be finalized as commitments to targets for reducing CO2 emissions become clear. 

However, even a modest outcome from the Paris meeting, including a framework agreement that would allow the details of specific policies and targets to be filled in and ramped up would be significant. In fact, a mechanism that would allow a country, post-Paris, to commit to more ambitious targets to reducing CO2 emissions appears crucial. This is particularly true given the current state of affairs in the U.N. negotiations where the current countries under the Copenhagen accord have made political pledges to reduce CO2 emissions are not enough to achieve the goal of keeping global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Achieving even this “limited” outcome in Paris will require a lot of work between now and the convening of the conference. In a previous post we outlined how international meetings of leaders can be used to generate an ambitious agenda for action. At the domestic level there are also some positive developments. In particular, China and the U.S.—the world’s first and second largest greenhouse gas emitters—appear increasingly willing to get serious about climate change. Together, these countries are responsible for almost 40 percent of global emissions; the U.S. is responsible for 15 percent, and China for 23 percent. 

In the U.S., the Obama administration has demonstrated by recent administrative actions on coal emissions that it intends to make addressing climate change a key focus for his second term. See this previous Brookings blog for an overview of U.S. state and federal climate change policy. The key question for the U.S. in the lead up to the U.N. Paris meeting is going to be what post-2020 targets the U.S. can commit to given uncertainty about when Congress might act to price carbon—the most efficient and effective means of reducing emissions. In the absence of Congressional action President Obama is relying on existing executive authority to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But some of the more ambitious efforts, such as EPA regulation of existing coal fired power station, will be subject to litigation that will create uncertainty as to the extent of reductions in CO2 emissions that will be achieved.  At the same time, there is growing climate action at the state and local level in the US. This includes California’s cap and trade system, and over half of U.S. states have renewable or alternative energy targets.

China has increasingly developed a suite of domestic policies that will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Like many countries, these policies serve multiple goals, including developing local industry, increasing energy security and reducing air pollution.  This includes policies such as targets to reduce energy intensity and CO2 intensity by 16 percent and 17 percent, respec­tively, by 2015, renewable energy targets and incentives, energy efficiency measures, and seven regional carbon trading pilot projects under development with the goal of gradu­ally establishing a national trading system. Moreover, the deterioration of Chinese air quality and increasingly expressions of concern by the population has ratcheted up the political imperative for the country’s leadership to address these sources of air pollution, which should also further reduce China’s greenhouse gas emissions.  Similar to the U.S., there is also significant climate change activity at the local level, including carbon trading pilot programs in various cities.

China is also seeking to reorient its economy away from heavy industry towards consumption and services. Over time these economic reforms will reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of its GDP. This is not to suggest that China is currently prepared to accept any significant constraints on its economic growth, particularly where this might threaten social stability. But China’s willingness to revise down its GDP growth targets makes clear that economic growth is no longer the singular focus, and reflects an understanding that improving overall welfare in China will involve focusing on factors such as environmental health. It is in this context that climate change policies have a chance to flourish.

The U.N. climate change meeting in Paris in 2015 could underpin existing domestic climate change efforts in the U.S. and China. Should the U.S. and China use the U.N. Paris meeting to commit to ambitious climate change action this would create a new and positive international dynamic. It would make clear that large emerging economies—those now contributing the most to climate change—need to be prepared to be part of a comprehensive solution. As importantly, it would require matching ambition on the part of the developed world.