Climate Ambitions and Realities for Paris 2015 – An Upcoming Conversation with Laurence Tubiana and Todd Stern

William J. Antholis

Rio.  Kyoto.  Paris.

These are more than simply three fantastic cities.

Just over a year from now, in Paris, the world’s nations will come together for a major meeting to discuss climate change.  Next year’s meeting will be as critical as those held in Rio and Kyoto.  In 1992, world leaders first assembled in Rio to address the challenge of climate change, and created the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.  In Kyoto in 1997, the world first tried to put that convention to work by adopting a set of binding obligations.  

Unfortunately, neither of those efforts have significantly stemmed the rising tide of emissions.  Yet, on the bright side, emissions have begun to come down in the European Union and the United States.  And a number of other governments, developed and developing, have begun to take steps.

Still, the Paris meeting will be a critical one for determining how ambitious countries will be in cutting emissions in the coming decades, and how much countries are going to hold one another accountable for living up to their promises.  With global emissions still rising sharply, it appears hard to imagine how the world will avoid driving global concentrations of greenhouse gases to the point where the planet reaches unsustainable warming.

With that in mind, tomorrow Brookings will host two of the most important people in that negotiation.  In our annual Aron Lecture, Laurence Tubiana, special representative of France for the Paris 2015 Climate Conference, will lay out an agenda for how the host nation hopes to prepare for the meeting, and how it will try to bring together the world’s nations with a common path forward.  She will be joined by Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change.  I’ll be honored to lead a discussion with them, sketching out the major issues that will be addressed at the talks.

What Lies Ahead

Anyone who has attended the Conference of the Parties (as the UN climate talks are called), understands that they are extraordinary undertakings, bringing together over 190 nations.  Richard Gephardt once described the global effort to forge an agreement as the most complex political transaction in the history of mankind.  As the host of that meeting in 2015, Ms. Tubiana will bear a special burden in helping steer the talks forward.  And as the world’s leading economy, the United States will play a central role in demonstrating what is (and what is not) politically possible in moving forward.

Each of the world’s nations faces the challenge of reorienting its production and consumption of energy. Energy-related activities account for roughly 16% of the U.S. economy, and a similar proportion in many nations.  It is difficult enough changing the energy infrastructure within any one nation. Forging an agreement among so many different countries is particularly challenging – especially determining who should bear the burdens and at what cost.  As a result of that complexity, a global climate compact has been an elusive transaction, at best.  The high water marks of cooperation have been two “voluntary” agreements at Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010), where nations made non-binding pledges to take action.

Much has changed, of course, in the 17 years since Kyoto.  During those negotiations, developed countries were largely negotiating with one another on the nature and extent to which they would cut emissions.  Developing countries did not have to take on any emissions-cutting obligations.  That core arrangement was called “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  In the intervening years, of course, China’s economy has grown dramatically, and it is now the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter – with nearly twice the annual emissions of the United States, and emissions per capita that are beginning to rival many industrial nations.  India’s total emissions now rank third, even though their per capita emissions lag far behind the industrial world. 

As Strobe Talbott and I argued in our book, Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming, decisive climate actions should be led by a “Big Four” – the US, EU, China and India, since they account for about half of the global population and about 60% of global emissions. As we count down the weeks to the 20th Conference of Parties in Lima this December and the months until the meeting in Paris 2015, it is important to appreciate their complex internal dynamics.

The entire world is looking to the United States and Europe, in particular, to lead on this issue, so tomorrow’s discussion should give us a glimpse of where they think they are going. 

Shifting Domestic Politics

Climate policy and politics in the United States is starting to shift.  Several U.S. states have adopted climate policies, such as California and a coalition of northeastern states.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established dramatic fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, and is now issuing regulations to cut emissions from power-plants.  And the natural gas revolution has meant that more and more companies and power utilities are using a fossil fuel source with roughly half the carbon footprint of coal.  All of this assures American officials that they are going to meet the voluntary reduction target that they adopted in Copenhagen and Cancun, and can look forward to future reductions.

A true sign of how much things have changed since Kyoto, however, happened just on Monday this week.  As Todd Stern’s deputy at Kyoto, I recall clearly Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) politely introducing himself to all the U.S. staff at the meeting, and sincerely thanking us for our service.  He then publicly denounced the effort as threatening to wreck the U.S. economy, and undermine American sovereignty.  Yet just this past Monday, as Secretary of Defense, he spoke at length about the threats that climate change poses to U.S. troops and to nations around the world, and listed getting a global treaty as critical to our national security.

Still, the outcome of American politics on this issue is far from clear.  Opposition to the EPA power-plant regulations remains – and will be even more noticeable if control of the Senate switches to the Republicans in a few short weeks.  Opposition to further action remains strong in some parts of the U.S., particularly in states that are more dependent on coal or heavy manufacturing.  And a number of politicians from both political parties remain skeptical of a binding treaty, which would impose top-down compliance costs on the American economy.

Likewise, Europe is starting to confront its own politics on the issue.   France has made great progress on its climate goals.  Like Germany and the United Kingdom, it has offered considerable tax incentives and affordable loans to support energy efficient buildings and renewable energy investments.  France has also pledged $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations cut emissions and improve their resilience to a changing climate. France’s new green energy law aims for 32% renewable energy by 2030. That said, for all of France’s ambitions, other EU member states are far less interested in cutting emissions.  The European Commission has proposed a 40% reduction cut, but many of the poorer and more coal dependent states are less likely to embrace such actions.  Moreover, the EU’s inability to stick to its internal fiscal and monetary goals in the last decade has led to a currency crisis that has shaken the confidence of many outside Europe about the willingness of member states to adequately address climate.

Moreover, the U.S. and EU will then need to provide leadership on the framework of the next agreement itself.  Will it swing back to the legally binding format that was the centerpiece of the Kyoto Protocol … but which also meant that Kyoto was dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate?  Or will it have the bottom-up, pledge and review format that characterized the Copenhagen and Cancun agreements?  Or will it have a hybrid dimension to it, providing incentives for compliance with ambitious targets and timetables?

We look forward to exploring these and other questions with Ms. Tubiana and Mr. Stern.

More information about this event can be found here, and you can follow the conversation using #COP21

The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.