Paris Climate Talks / MINIRENA Rwanda

December 1, 2015; New Yorker

Delegates in Paris are midway through the Paris climate talks right now, and while progress is slow, things have been proceeding more or less according to plan. A 48-page agreement was submitted by negotiators from 195 countries on Sunday, which will continue to be amended and fine-tuned during the coming days. The devil is in the details, of course, and many variables remain, not the least of which is breaking down the responsibilities and expectations of developing and developed countries, as well as the level of commitment required of those countries—notably China and India, which fall somewhere in between. One of the largest points of contention continues to be how exactly developed countries will finance new technologies and climate change mitigation measures in developing countries and their failure so far to live up to the $100 billion a year commitment made in 2006.

India is showing its might and, according to some, has the power to break down the talks, while pushing its desire to grow its own economy. Sparing no words, Indian negotiator Susheel Kumar said there is an “obligation” on the part of developed nations to finance the climate action efforts of developing ones. “We don’t want dilution of that paradigm,” he said. Prime Minister Modi, writing in the Financial Times, had this to say:

Justice demands that, with what little carbon we can still safely burn, developing countries are allowed to grow. The lifestyles of a few must not crowd out opportunities for the many still on the first steps of the development ladder.

For the least developed countries, there is also the question of keeping warming below an average of 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Canada’s Environment Minister on Sunday endorsed a call from the Alliance of Small Island States to reset that figure to 1.5 degrees, representing a departure from the positions taken by the Harper government as well as the U.S. While the broad consensus is that even the 2° limit is going to be nearly impossible to enforce, the smaller, low-lying countries most vulnerable to a changing climate have support from around the world for their efforts to recalibrate the goal. According to one NGO’s senior climate advisor:

These countries have grown tired of empty words from world leaders and they cannot afford any more in Paris…We are in danger of making these communities the global “canaries in the coal mine” and letting them suffer by allowing global temperatures to rise even two degrees above pre-industrial levels. For these countries, a two-degree world is a miserable one and they are right to use their high moral authority to call for bolder and more ambitious action from this summit.

As in previous talks, much of the frustration stems from the fact that the talks are not aimed at producing an actual treaty, and despite specific goals that individual countries are committing to in order to reduce emissions, these are not accompanied by legally binding mechanisms for doing so. (Thanks to the website Carbon Brief, one can look at the entire roster of pledges made so far.) So while the U.S. pledges to reduce greenhouse gases by 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025, attempts to legally enforce the pledge would be struck down by a Congress that steadfastly refuses to acknowledge climate change as an issue.

As reported here last week, Bill Gates helped to kick off the Paris conference last week with the announcement of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Comprising a group of more than two dozen billionaires and investors, including Mark Zuckerberg, George Soros, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, the Coalition’s goals are to push for aggressive government funding of research in partnership with universities, research institutions and the private sector.

A related group, Mission Innovation, includes 20 countries committed to clean energy innovation efforts. Mission Innovation issued a joint launch statement at the summit, promising to accelerate public and private global clean energy innovation with the objective to make it widely affordable. Again falling short of any binding pledges, each participating country will “seek” to double its energy-related R&D over five years, focusing on projects designed to attract private investors willing to advance commercialization.

As the conference wraps up this week, questions remain as to how effective all of the bold pledges and behind the scenes negotiating will be in really moving the climate needle. Those behind the conference believe that once the common framework is set, the process of reducing emissions will “ratchet up,” as nations review progress, issue new targets, and strengthen their commitments. But as the New Yorker’s John Cassidy writes, to the skeptics, “the deal under consideration is too small, too vague, and too late to prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures.”

Gates himself says that while it’s nice to talk about limiting ourselves to two degrees of warming, “we don’t even have the commitments that are going to keep us below four degrees.” As Joel Budd writes in The Economist, “The bad news is that even if greenhouse-gas emissions are stabilizing, they are doing so at an exalted level, and there is little reason to suppose that the plateau will be followed by a downward slope. China might burn a little less coal in the next few years, but India will burn more—and the Chinese will drive more cars.” He quotes Bjørn Lomborg of a Copenhagen-based think-tank: “A lot of poor countries are going to get a lot richer by burning fossil fuels. Rich countries will continue to become cleaner, but not dramatically so, at least when the carbon content of the goods they import is added to the reckoning.”

Whatever the outcomes, the brunt of global warming will continue to fall on small countries most susceptible to its devastations as coastal areas and icepacks disappear. So let’s give them the last word. As the Alliance of Small Island States said in its opening statement to the climate delegates:

We have an unparalleled chance here in Paris to finally set the world on a sustainable path, but success is by no means guaranteed. It will require all of us to constantly be mindful of what is at stake: nothing short of the survival of the most vulnerable among us.

—Patricia Schaefer