Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why Paris Worked:  A Different Approach to Climate Diplomacy by David Victor

A more flexible strategy, a willingness to accept nonbinding commitments, and smart leadership by the French all helped secure a climate deal in Paris.  The real work lies ahead, but Paris created a strong, if long overdue, foundation on which to begin building a carbon-free future.

U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at Paris talks. (Credit: Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Why did Paris work when almost everything before it failed?  The central answer lies in a new style of international cooperation, one that has enabled 195 countries to formally adopt an agreement that is likely to have a real impact on the emissions that cause climate change, as well as on how societies adapt to the big shifts in climate that are coming. 

The contrast of Paris with the past could not be starker. The 1992 Rio framework to get serious climate diplomacy going was the right approach, but diplomats and climate activists steered that framework off the rails, and for 23 years — until now — they achieved very little.  The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was so riddled with flaws that it had essentially no impact on emissions.  The 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen ended in acrimony and recriminations. 

Now, instead of setting commitments through centralized bargaining, the Paris approach sets countries free to make their own commitments.  These “nationally determined contributions” are a starting point for deeper cooperation that will unfold over time.  Once the Paris agreement enters into force and is fully in motion, around the year 2020, each nation will be expected to adopt a new pledge every five years in tandem with periodic overall efforts to take stock of how the group of nations is doing. 

This pledge-and-review system helped transform climate diplomacy from the gridlock and impotence of the past, and it did so because it created flexibility.  That made it easier for national governments to tailor their commitments to what they know they can deliver at home.  Frankly, most of the world’s emissions come from countries that aren’t centrally worried (yet) about global climate change.  Take China, the world’s biggest emitter.  Its leaders have learned more about the dangers of unchecked climate warming, and that has made the country a bit more willing to act. But the nation has other much more pressing priorities — like clearing the urban air of smog.  And India, another big emitter is also mainly focused onpriorities other than global warming, such as making the nation’s power grid more reliable.  This pledge-and-review system transformed climate diplomacy from past gridlock by creating flexibility. priorities other than global warming, such as making the nation’s power grid more reliable.

The pledging approach lets these countries offer packages of policies that align with their self-interests, while also doing something to slow the growth of global climate pollution.  When you look closely at the politics of the United States you see a similar story — outside the “blue” coastal states, most of the nation is not deeply concerned about climate change.  One of the reasons that past efforts to address this problem failed is that they were orchestrated around the idea that fixing global warming requires a treaty focused on greenhouse gases.  The new approach, by contrast, is organized around the idea that every country has its own national interests and needs the flexibility to align what it does globally with what is doable locally. 

Read more at Why Paris Worked:  A Different Approach to Climate Diplomacy

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