Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Conceptual Breakthrough Behind the Paris Climate Treaty - by David Roberts

Orange world map (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
If the last two years are any indication, peer pressure works pretty well.  After China and the US struck a bilateral deal, other countries had no political cover left for delay; virtually every one came to Paris with real commitments in hand.

By all accounts, Paris was a smoother and more congenial experience than previous climate talks, with fewer leaks, less sniping, and more flexibility.  India, previously a determined foot-dragger, has emerged as a constructive partner and potential solar pioneer.  Canada came out of nowhere supporting a 1.5 degree target.  Hell, even Venezuela submitted an INDC.  It was, for the first time in a long time, a unanimous and forward-looking agreement, an architecture that showed signs of being durable and effective over decades to come.

There's a real sense that the world has crested the hill; action is now rolling on, unstoppable.  And as Michael Levi notes, that optimism, the impression of inevitability, may be the most important outcome of Paris.

It all comes back to nations
Nonetheless, nations remain primary.  All the talk about whether the Paris treaty will "work" somewhat misses that point.

The UNFCCC has always been, and remains, subject to the vicissitudes of national politics.  The main reasons nations have finally started coming together on climate have less to do with international negotiations than with the changing economics of energy, the surge in public interest, and the rising tide of global activism.

CNBC debate - No treaty can deal with this. (Credit: David A. Grogan/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty)Click to Enlarge.
And the nascent unity could easily falter.  If internal tensions and austerity weaken the EU's commitment; if India's massive solar push goes bust; if demographics or politics change the incentives of Chinese leaders; above all, if the climate denialists in the Republican Party gain control of the White House — any of these national developments could delay or derail cooperative global action on climate.  And there's little a UN treaty can do to prevent them.

What the Paris architecture can do is rationalize a process that is already underway and, at the margins, accelerate it.  It can clarify shared aspirations, send clear market signals, and document ongoing progress, fostering a positive feedback cycle of ambition.  It can serve as a reminder that the family of nations owes its poorest members a helping hand, and that current commitments fall far short of just or wise.

But it cannot impose or engineer a global energy transition.  It is a reflection of national politics more than a driver.  The architecture will grow stronger when and if countries become comfortable and confident on the path toward decarbonization.  Whether that happens depends on forces far larger than the UN.

Read more at The Conceptual Breakthrough Behind the Paris Climate Treaty

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